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Whale Watching Around The World Part 8

Updated on February 25, 2010

5. British Columbia and Northern Washington

 The whales that patrol the Pacific Northwest coast have learned to tolerate the thousands of curious people who come each year for some of the best whale watching on the continent. Orcas follow migrating salmon in from the open Pacific through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the wide and windy channel between Washington's Olympic Peninsula and the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. As they move toward the inner coast, they often congregate in Haro Strait, an international passage that divides the United States' San Juan Islands from Canada's Gulf Islands.

Killer whales tend to burst from the sea like locomotives from a tunnel. Plumes of mist erupt from their blowholes, but it's the harshness of their breathing, those explosive chuffs, that startles people the most. Even in a 20-foot inflatable vessel with a dozen whale watchers and in the company of 30 other boats, there's often a sense of vulnerability. Kayaks have been bumped by surfacing orcas; researchers have been sprayed by whale spouts. Yet no one has ever been attacked.

Orca Ahoy!

With more than 50 nature-cruise companies running the waters of Puget Sound, northwest Washington, and southern British Columbia, whale sightings rarely remain secret longer than half an hour. At peak times, more than 100 boats, Zodiacs, cabin cruisers, a variety of private craft, even inter-island ferries, may mingle with the whales. By simply flipping through local yellow pages, tourists can easily choose the kind of boat that suits them. Some operators provide pagers to alert customers when whales are found. But even in the halcyon days of summer, there are times when the whereabouts of whales is known but blustery weather forces the whale-watch fleet ashore. Rain may be heavy at any time of year, reducing visibility and comfort.

Controversy over disturbance by boats has prompted commercial operators to follow self-imposed whale-watching guidelines. A hundred yards is close enough, they agree, but occasionally a whale decides to surface alongside a boat to everyone's good fortune.

Keep in mind that one of the world's great cities, Vancouver, B.C. is right on this coastline, yet if you venture just twenty miles along the coast north from this metropolis you will find many hundreds of miles of virtually uninterrupted and totally virgin coastline. Amazing that in many ways, Vancouver, B.C. marks the northernmost incursion of civilization until you reach the Juneau and Prince Rupert areas.

Hello, Old Friend

Since the advent of photo-identification in the 1970s, about 1,000 individual killer whales have been catalogued in the Pacific Northwest. Through thousands of photographs, researchers have found that one orca can be distinguished from another by color variations on their saddle patches and by nicks and scratches on their backs and dorsal fins. Each is assigned an individual number and a letter denoting its pod. By matching animals in one picture with those in another, researchers along the coast have learned which orcas are always seen together and where they travel. Through long-term observation, they have deciphered the complexities of pod society and documented the development or demise of newborn calves and old-timers. Seasoned whale watchers can glance at almost any orca and tell you its alphanumeric name.

Continued In Whale Watching Around The World Part 9

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