WASHINGTON — It’s a sight that will draw a crowd and silence onlookers. Their distinct black and white patterns are part of the culture and history of the Pacific Northwest. But in recent years, encounters between boaters and whales are concerning those who know the species best.
From a dock in Edmonds, Puget Sound Express Captain Brian McGinn is on a mission and has limited time to complete it.
“We love [whales] so much. Most of us on board now are so excited about it all the time,” McGinn said. “It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, it’s still amazing.”
That’s what happens when you have 100 tourists on board for a half-day whale watching trip. The key to their success is speed, and the excitement is palpable.
“Free Willy was my favorite movie growing up," said Margaret Bryne, who was on the excursion while visiting from Florida. "Like, Shamu, every report I did as a child was on killer whales.”
Like many whale watching companies in the Pacific Northwest, Puget Sound Express relies on reports from a network of spotters. From there, it’s a race to potential sightings, and the hunt for a glimpse of the massive mammals is on.
“If [the whales] go down for five minutes, you better be looking at the right place at the right time when they come back up again,” explained McGinn.
It was a good day for McGinn and his crew the day KING 5 joined Puget Sound Express on a whale watching trip. An hour in, we spotted the distinctive tail of a humpback whale.
"The way that we tell humpback whales apart is usually by the markings on the underside of their tails,” explained Erin Gless, with the Pacific Whale Watching Association. “We got some really good looks at Kata’s fluke today.”
Yes, Kata is the whale’s name. And yes, there is a record of each whale in the Pacific Northwest. Kata has been seen in Puget Sound before and is known to many whale enthusiasts.
The humpback whale has made the news in the past, but most recently, it was not for positive reasons. Back in May, KING received a video from a viewer that showed someone driving a jet ski headed straight for the whale in the waters near Tacoma. Kata survived the encounter – and today serves as a reminder of a reality we’re facing.
Humpback whales and Bigg's killer whales, also known as transient orcas, were once hunted and both victims of pollution and climate change. But according to the Pacific Whale Watching Association, the tide is turning.
"Both of the populations we saw today, both the humpback whales and the Bigg’s killer whales, are growing really quickly,” explained Gless. “In the last several years, we have been seeing more whales and more people going to watch whales as well.”
Humpback whales are benefiting from a record baby boom in recent years.
But despite new calves born in the past few years, the Southern Resident orca whale population in the state has been considered endangered since 2005. Southern Resident orcas spend much of their time in the waters between Washington state and British Columbia. And unlike transient orcas, which eat marine mammals, Southern Resident orcas feed exclusively on salmon.
Regardless, recent whale sightings are still up.
“It’s indescribable,” Byrne said. “You dream about this moment your entire life, and then it finally comes through, and you just stand there in awe. It’s just so cool.”
Soon after seeing Kata, the excursion spotted a pod of killer whales hunting as a team in the waters just off Tacoma.
“This is how you want to see them,” Bryne said. “You don’t want to see them in a fish tank.”
With the whales in sight, the boat’s motor was killed. State and federal regulations require recreational boats to stay at least 300 yards to the sides of killer whales and 400 yards away in front and behind the animals. The Marine Mammal Protection Act calls for boaters to stay at least a football field away from humpback whales.
The open water in the Sound can quickly become crowded.
“We’re seeing a lot more transients coming in here, and it’s just because they have a lot of food to eat,” McGinn said. “We’re seeing more seals and porpoises.”
But whale watching excursions bring a glimpse from above water into a world that most will never see, and a bucket list item checked off for Byrne.
“I am dead serious. My whole life is made. I can die,” Byrne said. “I am good. I have met my spirit animal. I am like, life is complete.”
Animals in the wild, alive and free, in a quickly changing world.