Orca Survey

orca breach

On 4th July 1997, I flew to Seattle, then took a ferry to Friday Harbour Friday Harbour , on San Juan island in Puget Sound. A beautiful setting for a fantastic experience. I was to join the Centre For Whale Research on the island for 10 days of volunteer work on a photo-identification project on Orcas.

On arrival at the Centre The house I met with the staff The Staff , and the other volunteers Volunteers We were briefed on the house rules, and shown the accommodation, which consisted of a few rooms in the main house, a trailer, and some tents. Most of the tents were being used by staff, I shared the trailer with Eric, one of the volunteers, and the other rooms were filled by the rest of the volunteers.

We spent the remainder of the first day gazing at the fabulous views View from House View from House and doing the obligatory introductions.

Our chief investigator was Astrid van Ginneken, from Rotterdam, whose amazing knowledge of the local Orca community, and wonderful stories kept us fascinated for the entire 10 days. Other members of staff were Candice Emmons, Adam U, Charlene Rice (a great cook!), Kathy Babiak, Carrie Newell, and Kim Marlor. All great people, good fun and very professional.

My fellow volunteers were Barbara Stamiris (teacher), Judy Belluardo (teacher and fan of dead things!), Gerri Faivre (teacher), Angelica Hemker (German travel tour guide with a passion for garlic!), Betty Ourt, Richard Barmore, Lois Wren (teacher), Jill Burkholder (senior student and sleeper!), Eric Finkelstein (senior student). All a great bunch. Also joining us later in the project was Roberto Bubas, who is a park ranger on Peninsula Valdes in Argentina.

We were split into two teams, with the plan to alternate days on the boat and days at the centre. We were then briefed on how the project would work, giving us a brief outline of behaviour logging, photo identification, data entry, and general whale spotting tips.

On the first boat day, both teams went out, one team on the trimaran High Spirit High Spirit, and the other team on the smaller boat Other boat. We had a great day, and saw lots of Orca. Puget sound has 3 resident pods of Orca Whales, known as J, K, and L pods, and all three pods were seen on our first day!

The main aim of the project is to photograph the dorsal fins and saddle patches of Orca whales. These photographs are then developed and examined back at the centre to identify which whales had been seen (although Astrid was normally able to tell us straight away on the boat! An example of a photo used for identification, although not perfect, is this one of K1:


K1 is a very distinctive male orca, he has two triangular shaped notches in his dorsal fin which were deliberately cut around 20 years ago to find out if dorsal notches could be used for identification. Obviously they could, and along with the shape of the saddle patch (the white area behind the dorsal fin) this is the main way of identifying orca.

We soon settled into a routine of one day on High Spirit, then one day in the Centre, entering data, developing film, and identifying whales. I also helped Carrie design some web pages for the Centre. During our days on the boat, we had some fantastic encounters, including 3 superpod (all 3 pods together) encounters. Here are some orca photos:

kelping Kelping is when an orca drags kelp seaweed over the fluke, they seem to find it enjoyable!

orca orca orca Orcas often perform 'breaches' and backflips.

spyhop spyhop This behaviour is known as Spy hopping.

orca orca 'Tail lobs' and 'Fluke waves' are very common behaviours.

orca orca We had some very special encounters, the second photo is a calf being pushed towards us by adult females within a few feet of the boat.

orca orca orca orca orca orca orca orca orca More stunning encounter photos

boat Our fearless boat driver, Candice (right), with Adam (left), and Roberto (middle).

Volleyball Volleyball was an early evening favourite after a hard day watching whales!

singalong A get together in the main living area of the Centre. In the background you can see an orca skull.

Unfortunately, I badly sprained my ankle one night, so had to stay on the sidelines during most of the volleyball games, but it didn't spoil an otherwise excellent 10 days. During social times at the centre we had good conversation, some music, great food, and even the odd margheurita! The centre was also equipped with hydrophones, so we were able to hear the whales pass by. Carrie also took some of us out to look at intertidal organisms, and the local flora and fauna.

Overall it was a fantastic experience, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone, as a first project, or for experienced Earthwatch volunteers. I'm already planning for next year, although I'll probably choose a different project, just for variety.