Why are the Orcas Visiting Olympia?

orca whale olympia
Orcas occasionally visit Budd Inlet during the winter months. Photo credit: Chris Hamilton


By Douglas Scott

sunset airThurston County is a diverse ecosystem, a region of land and water with numerous species of animals in and out of Puget Sound. Whether you go birding at Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, see deer and elk in the forests, find an illusive bear deep in the woods, or watch the returning salmon swim up our rivers and streams, we can all agree that this area is fantastic for wildlife. Yet, with all of the natural beauty in the region, one animal is slowly becoming more visible with the possibility to make Thurston County a destination for whale watchers from around the world.

In the waters of Budd Inlet and the Nisqually Reach, Orca sightings are becoming more common in Thurston County, with 15 sightings in the waters around Thurston County occurring in January of 2015.

orca whale olympia
Orcas occasionally visit Budd Inlet during the winter months. Photo credit: Chris Hamilton

Orcas are common in the Puget Sound, usually located in the Salish Sea near Friday Harbor and the San Juan Islands. As the salmon, composing 97% of the resident Orca pod’s diet, return to their home rivers, the whales follow them, feasting on them and other species of fish in the region. Traveling an estimated 100 miles a day on average, Orcas maneuver through the islands and channels of the Puget Sound and Salish Sea. Occasionally, they head north and sometimes head through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Recently, transient Orcas have been heading south past Tacoma, DuPont and Olympia.

Olympia-area Orca sightings have increased in recent years with the majority of sightings occurring near the Nisqually Reach and around Anderson Island. It appears, however, as if the Orcas are moving further down Puget Sound, reaching the waters off of Boston Harbor, Burfoot Park and Priest Point Park. The Orcas have also been known to visit Totten, Henderson and Eld Inlets, as well as traveling as far south as Frye Cove and Shelton.  More popular in the winter months of the year, Orcas appear to be making the trip south more regularly. Area residents are excited, while these localized visits are giving Orca researchers new factors to study.

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Orcas that visit Boston Harbor are likely transient whales. Photo credit: Chris Hamilton

Orcas in Budd Inlet are typically transient whales, different from the Southern Resident Orcas (J, K, and L pods) that call the Salish Sea home. The resident Orcas of the Puget Sound area rarely travel further south than Seattle and chase salmon.  These pods are seeing their numbers plummet to the lowest level in three decades, with an estimated 78 whales making up the local pods.

Heading to the Puget Sound in unprecedented numbers, the increase in transient Orcas are baffling those dedicated to study these creatures also known as Black Fish. Ranging in theories from healthier waters, increased seal populations, and even lack of nourishment in other areas, scientists are unsure why we have seen such an increase in “tourist” Orcas.

Local whale watching guides say that the transient Orcas are “fatter and more sassier than the resident orca pods,” making them easily recognizable compared to their resident counterparts.

Not much is known about the habits of these transient Orcas, especially their choice of destinations or routes. What is known is that these whales tend to be curious of boaters, approaching them and giving local mariners unique and amazing pictures and video opportunities. Many assume that Orcas will avoid more crowded and developed areas, yet leading researchers tell us otherwise.

“They don’t avoid congested areas,” said Howard Garrett, director of the Orca Network, who told the Seattle Times, “If seals are there, that’s all they need … they’ll go right into busy places sometimes.”

orcas olympia
Researchers call the transit Orcas that have been visiting Olympia “sassier” than resident pods. Photo credit: Chris Hamilton

Since whales can travel upwards of 100 miles each day, predicting when or where to see whales can be quite difficult. For those looking to get the latest whale sighting information, the Orca Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to studying, educating and saving whales in the region has a few great resources. Their Twitter and Facebook pages provide up-to-the-minute updates on reported Orca sightings, and their website also has an archive and a daily updated list and map to show where the whales have been spotted.

However, for those curious to spot them without using technology, the most common areas this winter to see Orcas has been in the Nisqually Reach and the areas around Anderson Island.  Please remember to abide by the Marine Mammal Protection Act when viewing Orcas.  Some great tips and guidelines can be found on the Whale Wise website.

Whether the whales continue to make the waters around Thurston County a tourist destination on a continual basis remains to be seen. If the Orcas continue to be seen in the region, Olympia and Thurston County might become a popular whale watching destination, with visitors from around the world flocking to the region to catch a glimpse of the beautiful Orca whales. Until then, we can sit back and enjoy the multitude of natural wonders in the region, taking solace in knowing that even transient Orcas are falling in love with the scenery and waters of Thurston County.

For more photos of the Orcas visits to Olympia, click here.

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