Category: whale watching


AS41 and another member of AS30 pod goofing around.


Killer cuddles.

Like many species of dolphin, killer whales are very tactile creatures. They often rub up against each other during periods of socialization. There are times when they are so physically close to one another it can be hard to tell where one whale ends and another begins!


I love the feeling of excitement when you make important matches!

As many of you know, I have been trying for the last year to identify and study a mysterious pod of killer whales that has shown up in Kachemak Bay. While I’ve been able to consistently identify one large male across all encounters with these whales, I have not been able to cross match other members of the pod until now.

Because they have always been seen in the company of identified but poorly known pods, it has made identifying individual members of this mystery pod a nightmare. They associate with whales whose ID photos are often not updated, so it was hard to know if the unidentifiable whales I was seeing in my photos were truly members of this new pod or just poor quality photos of whales from other pods that have already been documented.

However, I recently made a successful match between encounters of one member of the mystery pod! This female was seen on two occasions with the large male from the mystery pod and does not match any other known Alaskan resident killer whale, so I can be confident that this female belongs to this mystery pod. It will take many more encounters with these whales to fully understand pod composition and structure.


The large dorsal fin of AD27 Angiak. At 22 years old, he has reached physical and sexual maturity. Though he will not grow any larger, his dorsal fin may become more wavy and ruffled as he ages.


Check out that difference in dorsal fin size—an adult male killer whale’s dorsal fin can be up to 6 feet in height, while a female’s dorsal fin be half as tall at around 3 feet.

Surprisingly, we still do not know why this difference in fin size exists. Sexual selection is probably involved—females prefer to mate with large males over smaller ones. But is the tall dorsal fin a byproduct of increasing selection for larger overall body size? Or are females specifically choosing taller dorsal fins? If so, are there beneficial genes associated with a larger dorsal fin that a female might want for her offspring?

On the other hand, perhaps sexual selection isn’t involved at all—sexual dimorphism can be caused by differences in behavior or ecology among the sexes in species. Dorsal fins are used for balance, and in marine mammals, they are also used for thermoregulation. Any differences in behaviors or ecology relating to these factors in males and females could potentially drive changes in fin morphology.

Even seemingly simple questions like “Why is a male killer whale’s dorsal fin larger than a female’s?” can be surprisingly challenging to answer!


For reference:


I am roughly 5 feet and 6 inches in height (~167 cm). If I stood on this male killer whale’s back, his dorsal fin would be taller than I am. Their size is often hard to grasp; even when you see them in person, it’s still difficult to gauge how large they are until they make close approaches. Even after dozens of hours spent in their presence, I am still humbled by their size.

A Plea for Whale Watching

There is much contention these days over whale watching in the Salish Sea. The Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force, charged with creating a list of recovery actions to save the southern resident killer whales, decided to make an 11th hour, back-room decision to include a 3-5 year ban on commercial whale watching in the Salish Sea in their recommendation package to Governor Inslee. This was done without public input, without consultation with biologists, and without talking to the Pacific Whale Watch Association. 

Imagine for a movement, all other factors remaining the same, that there was never a whale watching industry in southern resident killer whale territory.

Imagine how this would have impacted how we view these animals and their population status today.

Without whale watching, we would not know the unique personalities of each individual southern resident killer whale. The naturalists that spend years watching the animals know them all by sight and can tell you about their quirks and temperaments. The Whale Museum would have a difficult time offering unique, personalized whale adoption packages that provide adoptees with intricate details about an individual whales’ personality and life history. These adoption packages are extremely popular and are purchased by people all over the world and contribute to conservation. 

Without whale watching, we would not know the spunk and character of J50, the little whale who was photographed by many whale watchers displaying her exuberant and boisterous aerial behaviors: 

One of the most popular photos of J50, taken by Clint Rivers of Eagle Wing Whale Watching Tours. 

Without whale watching, millions of people would not have been exposed to the charismatic southern killer whale population. The majority of companies in the Salish Sea belong to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a coalition of whale watching companies that adhere to strict federal and voluntary guidelines. The naturalists on these vessels are often scientists and educators and impart a valuable wealth of knowledge on their passengers; even when whales are not seen, they make an effort teach passengers about the natural history and conservation issues of the southern resident killer whales (I can attest to this personally after my whale-less trip in Victoria, BC).  Not only do they expose their paying guests to the world of southern resident killer whales, many of these companies and their employees also actively participate on social media and bring the whales to people who have never laid eyes on them through video and professional photographs (See Tasli Shaw, Gary Sutton, Grace Guiney, and Sara Shimazu for examples)

Without whale watching, biologists would have much less access to the valuable data that daily observations bring. Full-time biologists cannot afford to spend every day surveying the whales due to financial and time constraints. Whale watchers in the Salish Sea are often the first to document a new calf, interesting behaviors, and inform biologists of the whales’ whereabouts. 

Without whale watching, there would be less monitoring of private whale watching in the Salish Sea. Private boaters are the biggest violators of whale watching regulations, and commercial whale watching vessels are often the first to hail a private vessel and inform them of the whales’ presence and the proper vessel conduct. 

Finally, without whale watching, the world would have never known about J35 Tahlequah’s mournful, 17-day long journey carrying her dead calf. Her actions have caused the world to zero in on the southern resident killer whale population and demand action. Whale watching has been critically examined as a result of this newfound attention. Ironically, it was whale watchers who first saw her with her calf, still very much alive at first, and reported it to biologists. Without them, the world may have never known about Tahlequah and her calf. 

Make no mistake, whale watching can have negative impacts on whales. However, whale watching in the Salish Sea is among the most regulated whale watching activities in the world. When done correctly, whale watching has minimal impact on the animals, and any negative effects are usually offset by the huge conservation benefits whale watching brings. That being said, I see no issue with further regulations, such as a permit system for commercial operators. 

But keep this in mind: whale watching is not the cause of the southern residents’ decline, and a ban is not a solution. What these whales need most desperately above all else is SALMON. The actions that need to be done to save them are not easy, they are politically charged, and will take hard work to implement. Banning whale watching is a low hanging fruit that the Task Force has claimed as “bold action,” despite the fact it does not address the main issue of prey availability. 

The whales are starving. Banning boats will not bring them fish. You cannot eat what is not there. 

Please call Washington State Governor Inslee and urge him to reject a whale watching ban and instead favor solutions for salmon habitat restoration and dam removal. 360-902-4111. 

Home | Whale Watching Handbook

Home | Whale Watching Handbook:

Whale watching is a hot topic these days. Observing cetaceans in their natural habitat can have many benefits, including the collection of important scientific data, education and conservation, and protection of populations for ecotourism rather than lethal takes. However, it can sometimes have negative consequences for the animals. Whale watching can disrupt behavior, cause stress, and sometimes even injuries to the animals. 

So how do you choose a responsible whale watching trip? How can you watch cetaceans in the wild while minimizing your impact as much as possible?

The International Whaling Commission and Convention For Migratory Species have created a comprehensive guide to whale watching around the world.

From their about page: 

“This Handbook is designed to support managers, regulators, operators and anyone interested in whale watching. It is a flexible and evolving tool incorporating international best practice, educational resources and a summary of the latest, relevant scientific information.  Content has been drafted and sourced in consultation with IWC and CMS affiliated scientists and managers from around the world, and is reviewed each year at the meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission.“

This guidebook includes detailed information about: management of cetacean populations, information on species targeted in certain regions, interactive maps, whale watching regulations throughout different countries, and much, much more. It also includes information directed at operators so they can make their tours safe for the animals and guests while also remaining successful. Most importantly, it guides potential whale watchers through the process of choosing a responsible operator and ensuring they make the least impact on the animals and contribute to conservation measures. 

I am a passionate and enthusiastic supporter of responsible whale watching. When done properly, it has minimal impact on the animals and provides many, many benefits for education and lifelong conservation. I am so thrilled that scientists have collaborated and created a robust guide to whale watching backed by peer-reviewed research. It will be so beneficial to have this valuable information easily accessible to the general public! It can be very hard for an average member of the public to sort through operators and determine which one is best and most responsible choice when there are so many companies out there. This handbook will make this process so much easier and I am so grateful!


AP4 (back) and AP8 (front).

Are they sisters? Mother and daughter? Aunt and niece? It’s hard to know. Both are adult females and AP4 has a calf of her own (who is hiding behind her mother in this photo). I have suspicions that AP8 may be the matriarch of AP pod; she does not have any young calves but does usually travel with adult males—AP11 is particularly close to her and is probably her son. Her movements also appear to dictate the movements of the other whales. If she makes a sudden turn, the others usually follow.