The Season of Orcas

As a deckhand with Major Marine Tours for four seasons, Kirsten McNeil has experienced countless memorable wildlife encounters. For the 2017 season, her last year as a deckhand, Kirsten reflects on an incredible year of sightings of one of the most sought-after wildlife encounters: the orca whale. 

When you board a Major Marine Tours cruise out of Seward, the captain or National Park Ranger onboard will ask you, “What do you want to see today?’. For some, the answer takes time to think about, and for others they are eager to respond with their favorite animal. Most of the time the answer is “whales,” but we also get passionate birders or a child who really wants to see an otter. If you ask a deckhand this same question, 9 time out of 10 they will say orcas. Orca sightings fluctuate from common to rare throughout the year. Even during the early season, when orcas are more abundant, the captain and crew are thrilled to get that sought-after killer whale encounter.

Every season on the water is different, and no day is like the one before. This year, with the addition of the Orca Quest Cruise, we had our best orca-viewing season yet! The early season started off with a pod of resident orcas that frequented the waters in front of Bear Glacier, surrounded by the still snow-capped mountains of Kenai Fjords. In May we saw a super pod of offshore orcas, an experience that only happens every few years. On this memorable day we saw at least 50 offshore orcas in Resurrection Bay. Later in the season, we witnessed breeding activities between different pods of resident orcas. Finally, during the last week of the season, when the humpback whales had migrated and the snow began to fall again, we were elated to see transient orca whales on 4 different days.

We had our last killer whale sighting of the season on October 12th. As we were headed back to port we came upon a pod of transient orcas right outside of the Seward Small Boat Harbor. Captain Josh said that this was the closest to the harbor that he had ever seen orcas in his 15+ years working with Major Marine Tours. Just as we were about to leave this transient pod, the orcas quickly changed direction and started behaving unusually by splashing around at the surface of the water. Suddenly, a large female orca surfaced just off of the port stern of the Orca Song and swam towards the bow. As she did, we noticed a large chunk of meat hanging out of the side of her mouth. We quickly realized that these orcas had just made a kill right by our vessel.

Of the four summers I have worked as a deckhand for Major Marine Tours, this was by far the most spectacular season for killer whales. The encounters, behaviors, and predations we were privileged to witness this year were indescribable. Most people will not have the chance to experience all of these behaviors in their lifetime, but perhaps you will have the chance to experience one of these amazing encounters on your next cruise with Major Marine Tours.

 

The Orca Quest Cruise offers the best chances of seeing orca whales in Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. This cruise is the only orca-focused cruise from Seward, operating the during the prime time for orca whale watching, from mid-May to mid-June. In 2018, the Orca Quest will be running May 14th – June 10th. Rather than following a set route, this cruise travels to places where orcas have recently been seen based on the captain’s communications with other vessels. We hope to see you in 2018 on the Orca Quest Cruise!

Orca whale and Bear Glacier
Orca Whale in Resurrection Bay
Four orca whales