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K-Pod Returns to the San Juans

K-Pod orcas seen from the shore; photo by Libby Baldwin
K-Pod orcas seen from the shore; photo by Libby Baldwin

Over the weekend, orca enthusiasts on the island were thrilled when several members of K-Pod were reported as inbound from an area to the north called Race Rocks. Sure enough, a couple of hours later they were seen making their way down the southern end of San Juan Island. Several whale-watching operators trailed them as they headed past South Beach and down the Cattle Point area, and land-based watchers (yours truly included!) were lucky enough to spot them from the shore.

We experienced one of the warmest days of 2014 this weekend, with temperatures in the mid-60s and the sun blazing in a cloudless sky. I drove (a bit too fast) down to South Beach, stayed there long enough to realize the orcas were moving south at a good clip, and got back in the car to head to the Cattle Point lookout, where I ran as fast as my flimsy Ugg-alike boots could carry me to get as close to the shore as possible, a good 15 pounds of Nikon slamming into my side as I did so. I was rewarded with a good half hour of classic southern resident play behavior, including breaches that could be seen from hundreds of yards away and lots of tail-lobbing. Seeing the orcas from the shore is a rare treat, and it never ceases to stop my heart with excitement. I felt tears prickling at the corners of my eyes; this was the first time I had seen them since last summer, and to me there truly are no more magnificent animals to behold in their natural environment.

Completely content after watching them for a bit, I took a seat in the soft grass, curling my legs underneath me and,

South Beach stretches into the glorious spring sunshine; photo by Libby Baldwin
South Beach stretches into the glorious spring sunshine; photo by Libby Baldwin

daringly, shedding my ever-present hoodie to enjoy a bit of the sunshine. (Being Floridian, going outside here for even a few moments without outerwear seems like a dare to the universe.) I glanced over across the water to an area called Whale Rocks that is famous for hosting a bevy of bachelor steller sea lions; sure enough, there they were, sprawled gloriously in fat brown heaps on the rocks, warming themselves and bellowing periodically, loudly enough for me to hear them even hundreds of yards away. As I gazed at the stunning beauty of my surroundings, I had one of those moments where I was struck by my good fortune to live in such an amazing place.

We are all happy to see the southern residents returning, especially given that K-Pod is usually the last to show up for the season. It is said that Chinook salmon, the SRKWs’ primary diet staple, are on a four-year cycle, meaning that every fourth year is traditionally an excellent one, numbers-wise. 2010 was a banner year with almost daily orca sightings in the peak months of June, July and August. Researchers are hopeful that 2014 will bring similar results. We won’t know for sure until it happens or doesn’t happen, but fingers are crossed for an improvement over last year’s dismal sightings data.

Shore-based whale watching is just one of the unique things you can do here, and I encourage you to book a trip soon. In our wired, driven, relentlessly screen-filled modern world, the opportunity to sit on a grassy hillside and gaze out over cold, blue water while birds sing and orcas breach is truly priceless. Here’s to many more days this summer!


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