The peak season for orcas is almost here! From mid-May to mid-June several pods of resident orcas, and sometimes transient orcas, visit the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park. The resident orcas arrive at this time every year to feed on salmon, socialize with other pods, and mate. Transient orcas are in the area to feed on marine mammals such as Steller sea lions and Dall’s porpoises. For the best chances of seeing orcas we recommend our Orca Quest Cruise, which is the only orca-focused cruise from Seward. Rather than following a set route, our captains take you to the area’s orca hot spots and communicate with other vessels about recent orca sightings to maximize your chances of seeing orcas.
Early summer is also king salmon season in Seward, which directly correlates to the influx of orcas. At this time every year, the largest species of salmon follows the current into an area of the Gulf of Alaska to feed. According to research done by the North Gulf Oceanic Society, these salmon are making their way back to their native streams around the Copper River and all the way down in Washington. On their return home to spawn, the currents and abundance of food take the salmon towards Kenai Fjords National Park, into Agnes Cove, Pony Cove, and Cape Aialik.
The abundance of fish is the main reason why this is the best time for orca whale watching from Seward. However, from several accounts over the last few seasons, we also know that resident orcas are in the area to socialize and breed. Resident orcas are typically very social within their own pod but don’t often socialize with other pods. However, during this time of year we witness pods in extremely close proximity, engaging in lots of playful behaviors. Male orcas may branch off and mate with orcas from other pods. Last season, we dropped a hydrophone in the water to listen to the orcas and could hear the distinct sounds of three different pods in the same area–truly a once in a lifetime experience.
With the arrival of the salmon comes the arrival other marine mammals who feed on salmon, like Steller sea lions and Dall’s porpoises. These species attract transient orcas, who feed on marine mammals rather than fish. Last week, at the beginning of the Orca Quest season, we came across four transient orcas. Thanks to our friends at the North Gulf Oceanic Society on their vessel the Natoa, we were able to identify this pod as the AT1 group. The encounter with this group had a special meaning to those who are familiar with orcas in Alaska. This pod is one of the two pods that swam right through the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. The AT1 pod lost 9 of their 22 members following the spill and suffered greatly in the following decades. Today, the AT1 pod has 7 remaining whales and has not been able to produce a calf since the oil spill. Seeing 4 of these magnificent creatures hunting for their favorite food, harbor seals, was a rare encounter that we were extremely grateful to witness.
Many people ask how we tell the difference between transients and residents, and how we identify one pod from another. Residents are much more social and playful than transients. They can often be seen at the surface of the water, breaching and tail slapping more frequently. They travel in larger pods and have shorter down times underwater. Resident pods also communicate more than transients, so if you place a hydrophone into the water you can tell you are listening to a resident or transient pod based on the chattiness of the group.
Transient orcas are much more elusive. Since they feed on other marine mammals, their prey is much harder to catch and they have to spend more time hunting. Each transient pod has inherited their own methods of hunting, passed down from the older generations in their pod. They have to be stealthy to survive, travelling in smaller pods without much socializing between pods. Typically, transients spend more time underwater and can disappear entirely after you see them once. However, if you are lucky enough to catch transient orcas at the end of their hunt, you are in for a show. Transient orcas are known to play with their food and celebrate their kills. Just last week in Prince William Sound we saw a group of transients tossing a Dall’s porpoise in the air and leaping out of the water.
Identifying one pod from another is a bit more challenging. It takes an expert photographer or a frequent observer to be able to tell the difference. The primary way to identify a pod is to find a single whale that has significant characteristics. Does the whale have any notches in its dorsal fin or scars? Is the dorsal fin folded over? How many bull males are in the group? If you can identify any of those characteristics you can compare the pod to a photo book of pods in Alaska. We carry these photo books onboard our vessels to help with identification. If the dorsal fin is folded over, this shows that the animal has gone through a great stress in their life such as losing their mother or enduring a period of starvation. This characteristic is seen frequently in captivity but is rare in the wild. Lastly, the white saddle patch behind the dorsal fin varies in size and shape on each whale and can be used to help identify individual orcas and pods.
Orca whales are an incredible apex predator that we have only just begun to understand. They are an important part of the ecosystems that we explore in Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound. Observing these unique and intelligent animals is one of the favorite wildlife encounters on our cruises, and the Orca Quest Cruise offers you the best chances of having this experience for yourself. In addition to observing the orcas, you may have a chance to listen to the sounds of the orcas through our onboard hydrophone. Though orcas can be seen throughout the year in Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound, now is the best time to witness these incredible mammals on our Orca Quest Cruise. This cruise runs daily from 1:00 – 5:00 from May 13th until June 9th.