Killer Whales and a Killer Canine off San Juan Island

Orcas Breaching off San Juan Island

We got lucky.

Driving up the western coast of San Juan Island, fresh off the morning ferry, we saw a cluster of people on a rocky expanse looking out to sea. Figuring the “rubber-necking” likely meant creatures were in sight, we parked our car and hurried over to watch the show. Off in the distance, a pod of orcas was steadily making its way towards us.

Orca Watching off San Juan Island

Hey, what are they looking at?

We scrambled down a hillside to the water’s edge, a closer vantage point to the killer whales even than the one had by sightseers in tour boats. Dozens of orcas, pod after pod, swam by, flashing black and white as they sliced through the waves in graceful unison.

Sharing the secluded viewing space with us was a whale researcher, Deborah Giles, who lives on the island. Although it was her day off, she was spending it like we were, witnessing the orcas in action. The whales had just returned to the area the previous day after a month-long absence.

Orca Pod off San Juan Island

Lots and lots of orcas.

Giles pointed out to us a speedboat off in the distance. On board were some of her colleagues, including Tucker, a black lab sporting a bright yellow life jacket and sitting in the bow, nose raised into the wind. The team, from the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, is researching the causes of decline among the killer whale population found between Washington State and Alaska. One way they’re doing this is by testing whale scat for toxins and to monitor nutrition and hormone levels.

Tucker the Orca Seeking Sniffer Dog

Tucker, the orca-seeking sniffer dog

Not wanting to stress the orcas, researchers need to keep their distance, which is why Tucker’s role is critical. He sniffs out whale scat floating on the water and can do so from as far away as a nautical mile. Tucker is part of a team of Conservation Canines, dogs adopted from shelters and trained for scientific work. Through scat detection, the hounds help monitor an array of threatened species around the world, from tigers and spotted owls to armadillos and anteaters. Tucker’s unusual vocation even earned him a feature in the New York Times.

Orcas and Cargo Ship off San Juan Island

Whether commercial and recreational vessels are harming the orcas is something Giles, Tucker, and team are aiming to prove.

Along with the fascinating tutorial, Giles gave us another important piece of information. She pointed us to the out-of-the-way Tia’s Tacos for dinner that night.

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10 Comments on “Killer Whales and a Killer Canine off San Juan Island”

  1. Liz February 17, 2014 at 9:38 am #

    These unexpected and unique moments are why we love traveling! Very interesting! Off the beaten path can provide some once in a life time experiences.


  2. brissioni February 17, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    You lucky ducks! Thanks for the whale facts too. We need an environmental intervention from the cosmos (one that points us in a new and positive direction). It could happen, right?


  3. The Sicilian Housewife February 17, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    Wow! Amazing photos.
    How often do killer whales come up to the surface, I wonder? I guess that was a pretty rare sight??


    • Brian February 17, 2014 at 11:16 am #

      They’re air-breathing mammals like us, so they come up pretty frequently to breath. What’s rare, I think, is to see as many as we did migrating up the coast. We were especially lucky because locals told us that they had been gone from the area completely for quite a while before we showed up.


  4. tchistorygal February 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    Interesting and humorous at the same time. Winning blog combo! 🙂


  5. Grass Oil by Molly Field February 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm #



  6. Jojo February 19, 2014 at 1:50 am #

    You guys are so awesome! And so lucky 😀


  7. Bronwyn Joy @ Journeys Of The Fabulist February 23, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    That is a pretty cool dog!


  8. Kristina February 23, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    wow, amazing! I’ve been crossing the pacific in Hawaii lately and saw a few humpback whales, but they were very shy comparing to the killer whales in your photos 🙂 beautiful!



  1. How to Make (and Keep) a Traveler’s Hippocratic Oath | Everywhere Once - November 28, 2014

    […] seeing animals in the wild is far more rewarding than seeing them in captivity. Once you watch orcas swimming in the ocean, the idea of visiting a place like Sea World just makes you feel […]


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