Inside Passage Whale Sightings

From on the point comes the lookout's cry, "Whales! Take to the boats."

A scene from the heyday of New England whaling, or a scene from our kayaking trip? Our Northern Lights guides monitored VHF marine radios during the week, keeping track of activity of the local whale watching boats. Whenever a pod was sighted coming in our direction we would keep an eye out for blows or dorsal fins. These pictures are from our various whale sightings during the week, some while traveling by boat, and some from our camp site. Our two most impressive sightings were a 45 minute show of hunting and play that took place right off of our camp site that we watched from shore, and a 30 minute show put on that we watched from the water in our kayaks. The closest that the whales came to my kayak was about 50 feet. Another member of our party was lucky enough to have an even closer encounter, probably around 30 feet.

About Orcas

Killer whales, or Orcinus Orca are found in all oceans of the world. While the common impression of Orcas is that of fearsome hunters of other mammals, this doesn't tell the whole story. Off of Washington and British Columbia, there are 3 distinct population types of Orcas, which differ in behavior, appearance, and diet.

Orcas are individually recognizable by the shape and markings of their dosal fins and the white or grey saddle patch at the base of their fin. Because the resident whales are commonly sighted, and have a stable pod associations, there is a fairly complete catalog of family trees for the resident whales. Resident orcas will stay with their mothers for life, forming stable family groups that containing 3 and 4 generations of whales at a time. This allows the pods to pass on skills, behaviors and language from one generation to the next. Besides being able to identify whales by their markings, whale experts can identify different pods of orcas by sound due to the differences in their "dialects".

Resident whales have distinct DNA differences from transient whales, showing that the two groups do not interbreed. While residents do not move from one pod to another, they do interbreed with each other rather than breeding within their own pod.


As mentioned earlier, resident orcas live with their mothers for life, forming pods called matrilines. Upon the death of their mother, a pod that contains multiple females may split over time. This will form new new pods based on the matriline of the mother of the group. These pods however will often continue to associate with each other more closely than with other pods. A pod that consists only of males will continue to breed with other pods, but will eventually die off since no new young whales will join the pod over time.

Whale spotting

Because the individual whales are recognizable, and because there is a comprehensive catalog of the resident whales, whale watching boats are able to identify which pod they are watching. By listening to the VHF radio, or by identifying the whales themselves, our guides were able to tell us which pod we were watching. Where possible, I will identify the pod that the pictured whales belong to below. Whales are named by a sequential letter and number naming system, with pods being named after the matriarch of the pod.

During the week, we repeatedly spotted the A1 pod, which since the death of the A1 matriarch has begun to split into three new pods, the A12 matriline pod, the A30 matriline pod, and the A36 matriline pod. Together the A1 pod consists of around 13 whales. We also spotted the I11 pod, who's current surviving matriarch is I15. The I11 pod / I15 matriline consists of around 14 whales.

We also spotted two humpback whales, and a pod of 3 or 4 transient whales that were hunting a minke whale at the time.

One of two humpback whales spotted by Tom our water taxi captain on the way to our first camp site. While these whales are larger than Orcas, they are less impressive on the surface due to their much smaller dorsal fin. A1 pod, A30 matriline. Much of the A30 group was traveling in a tight group, resting. Resting whales are in a semi sleep state, swimming slowly, surfacing in unison.
    The A1 pod, A36 matriline. The A36 matriline pod consists of three lone males since their mother, A36 died. When this photo was taken, they were traveling with the A30 matriline.
A30 matriline   A36 Matriline. The whale on the left is likely A32, and the one on the right is likely A46.
    A30 pod, as seen from shore.
A30 pod A30 pod  
Waiting for the I11 pod off of our camp.    

Back to trip report Unless Otherwise Noted, All Photos and Text Copyright 2003, Andy Welter Last Updated: September 2003