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Whale Watching Around The World Part 9

Updated on February 25, 2010

Resident Communities

By the late 1970s, photographs had helped determine that at least two distinct races of orcas were cruising this coast: residents and transients. They have subtle differences in dorsal fins and major differences in lifestyles. Residents form pods, extended families that stay together for generations. Mothers and offspring, grandmothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins exist within a matriarchal society. Who the fathers are is still unknown, but it's possible the mothers breed with whales from other pods.

Residents are the mainstay of the whale-watching industry: As fish eaters, they are predictably seen from spring until autumn, when they follow migrating salmon through near-shore waters. Resident orcas are territorial. Pods are grouped into southern and northern communities that seem to respect an invisible boundary near the north end of Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada. Numbering about 100 whales, they forage Georgia and Juan de Fuca Straits, Puget Sound, and the outer coasts of Washington and southwest Vancouver Island. The northern community of about 200 whales in 16 pods fish the waters off northern Vancouver Island and up the coast to southeastern Alaska.

Southern residents en route to Washington are known to swim through northern territory, but they don't linger or mingle with the northern residents. Superpods, seen only by the luckiest whale watchers, invariably are meetings of pods from the same community. The occasion could be mating bouts, where bulls from one pod impregnate cows from another and thereby avoid inbreeding. Although residents are the most familiar of all orcas, no one knows where they go in winter. Occasionally they appear near shore, but it's likely they feed over the continental shelf. It's possible that northern and southern communities mix there in winter storms that force human observers ashore.

6. Southeast Alaska

Commercial whale watching is a relatively new and growing industry in Alaska. With twice the shoreline of the contiguous 48 states and 17 types of cetaceans plying its waters, this is one of the most spectacular places in the United States to see whales. Because most whales roam stormy and remote seas, areas too dangerous for whale-watching boats, fewer than a half-dozen species are easy to view. But three areas, Southeast Alaska's panhandle, Prince William Sound, and the waters adjacent to Kenai Fjords National Park, offer prime whale-watching opportunities and a variety of different tours.

Inside Passage Waterways

Harbors in Petersburg, Juneau, Valdez, Seward, Sitka, and other small towns are host to ever-increasing numbers of whale watchers who board boats for anything from half-day to week-long excursions. Whale watching in Alaska takes place in summer for good reason. Spring and fall bring frequent, often harsh storms, and though summer along the coast is typically cool and rainy, inclement weather often gives way to clearing skies that reveal spectacular surroundings in sharp contrast to the usual moody but beautiful mists.

Yes, Alaska is not necessarily a place you might want to go in the winter unless you truly love snow sports. But in summer there is a wild beauty to Alaska which is matched by no other place on Earth.

Continued In Whale Watching Around The World Part 10

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