Killer Whales in Lynn Canal

By , February 3, 2010

Sunday afternoon we watched a flock of Barrows goldeneyes, a type of sea duck, fish off our rocks. The current tide cycle’s highs are around 20 feet, so they congregated right at the rocky edge where we could see them well. As they moved south, the windbreak obscured them slightly. We heard a rushing sound that confused us for a moment. It sounded like a humpback whale blow, but it was truncated. We then decided what we’d heard was the rushing of the ducks’ wings—something had spooked them. Then, a black sickle cut the water out in the canal.

Killer whales!

We grabbed coats and binoculars, and scrambled out the door down to the beach. A pod of killer whales swept past, dispersed widely across the canal, some near the far shore, some two miles or more away, some mid-fjord. Suddenly, a group of three, two juveniles and a massive male, with a dorsal fin rising some six feet above the water, surfaced and blew within 100 yards of where we stood.

Neighbors had told us once that we should keep an eye out for killer whales toward the end of January and beginning of February. They said a certain pod seemed to have a habit of coming up Lynn Canal about then. Every year since then we’ve seen them come by. They come at other times too, and it’s always a special treat, a spectacle.

We figure we saw somewhere around ten individuals, of all ages and both sexes (killer whale females have shorter, sickle-shaped dorsal fins, mature males have the impossibly tall dorsals). They moved fast, apparently traveling, rather than feeding. We’re never sure whether we’re seeing the fish-eating “residents” or mammal-eating “transients” unless we actually see them hunting prey. Both types of killer whales frequent the area, although we’ve only confirmed residents from our homestead, as they feed on herring runs.

Seeing killer whales is always exhilarating. I never get tired of watching them, especially the mature bulls. That tall dorsal pops out of the water for long seconds before the head appears, then lingers long on the dive. We’ve never seen the droopy dorsals of captive or sick orcas here.

That evening, they passed back by in the dark. With no wind, the sound of their exhalations filled the air—we couldn’t see them, or tell from the sound how close or how far away they were. We heard the noise from inside the cabin. Outside, it sounded like they were about to jump into our laps. We’d hoped they might stay up north a bit, then pass us during the day, so we could see them again. We’ll just have to be patient, and wait for next time.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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