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Battle of the killer whales at the San Juan Islands

The area around the San Juan Islands in Washington state in the USA is one of the best in the world if you want to meet whales in their right element. The sea is relatively calm all year round and there is plenty of wildlife both above and below the surface of the water. Gray whales, seals, minke whales, bald eagles and queens of the sea thrive here in the cold water - killer whale. Killer whales are not actually whales, but the world's largest dolphin. Known for their intelligence, curiosity, playfulness and ability to communicate with each other with sounds and movements. Orcas live in a matriarchal society in family groups, where the females pass on their knowledge from generation to generation. The oldest known family head "Granny" lived to be over 100 years old, although in the wild they usually live between 50 and 80 years old. 

During the summer months, there is a great chance of seeing killer whales here among the San Juan Islands. Three families Southern Resident Killer Whales are resident here in the area and they appear every year between June and September. The resident killer whales are the friendly fish-eating killer whales, who come here to feast on the area's fatty salmon during the summer months. It might sound like a killer whale paradise, but 50 years ago something happened that upset the balance for the resident killer whales. During the 60's and 70's, most of the big famous aquariums caught over 40 orca calves for their shows here in the bay. How many of the adult animals died trying to protect their babies is unknown, but since then the resident killer whales around San Juan Island have had a very hard time recovering. Both because all the calves were captured over several years, but also because the salmon population is decreasing every year and the level of pollution (DDT and PCB) is increasing in the whales' bodies. In 2005, the Southern Resident Killer Whales were listed as endangered and today they are working hard with research to increase the salmon population and reduce emissions to give the whales a chance to survive. But it's hard going. Since 2015, no calf has been born in the three families and the salmon population is lower than ever after the virus hit the salmon. 

However, Southern Resident Killer Whales are not the only killer whales in the area. Throughout the year, visiting killer whales also come in here viken - so-called Bigg's killer whale. The visiting killer whales are not fish eaters, but they are real hunters that hunt seals, sea lions and dolphins in groups of up to five individuals. It has even happened that the visiting killer whales have taken larger whales, although this is rare. To catch seals and sea lions, an element of surprise is required, and the killer whales sneak silently up to their prey underwater. And there are plenty of changes. Unlike the resident killer whales, the population of Bigg's killer whales is increasing. However, there is a cloud in the sky even for these killer whales. Those who eat prey that is high up in the food chain ingest more pollutants and toxins - which in the long run affect reproduction.

When you see these fantastic creatures swimming slowly together in the deep water, it is hard to understand why killer whales got the terrifying name "killer whales" in English. In fact, no human has ever been killed by an orca in the wild. The only deaths that have occurred have occurred from captive killer whales in aquariums, most recently at SeaWorld in Florida with the killer whale Tilikum. Although after the movie Blackfish (2013 documentary) keeping killer whales in captivity has become controversial, there are still several parks in the world that continue to hold shows with killer whales in small pools.

So what can we do to keep these fascinating animals swimming in our oceans?

  • Support animal organizations - for example by adopting a (virtual) orca at WWF
  • Buy ASC or KRAV certified salmon. Farms can spread parasites and viruses to wild salmon. 
  • Don't pay to see killer whales in captivity. Watch them from a safe distance in nature instead on their own terms – on boats that follow laws and guidelines. We went along Island Adventures from Anacortes who kept a safe distance and donates a portion of the ticket price to research.
Killer whales playing with minke whales.
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About the blogger

Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.

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