Making a big splash on Whidbey

Leave it to a pod of orcas to crash the gray whales’ annual party. While Whidbey Island celebrates the annual return of gray whales, a large pod of Southern Resident orcas have been splashing around Saratoga Passage in recent days, upstaging the larger marine mammals. It’s a rare sight to see resident orcas in the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands in April and even more unusual to see them travel so deeply into Holmes Harbor near Freeland.

Southern Resident orcas made repeated appearances in Holmes Harbor and Saratoga Passage this weekend

Leave it to a pod of orcas to crash the gray whales’ annual party.

While Whidbey Island celebrates the annual return of gray whales, a large pod of Southern Resident orcas have been splashing around Saratoga Passage in recent days, upstaging the larger marine mammals.

It’s a rare sight to see resident orcas in the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands in April and even more unusual to see them travel so deeply into Holmes Harbor near Freeland.

For a three-day stretch beginning Saturday, a group of as many as 12 resident orcas from J pod, including two new calves, have been seen in the northern part of Saratoga Passage and traveling in and out of Holmes Harbor.

The unexpected appearance has created a stir among whale watchers, and diverted whale-watching tour boats that have been in Saratoga Passage and Possession Sound since March to spot gray whales that migrate to those waters every spring.

“It’s been really crazy,” said Rachel Haight, a volunteer with the Orca Network. “Everybody’s been really excited about it.

“The resident (orca), especially this time of year, is pretty much unheard of.”

Resident orcas generally show up in waters around Whidbey in October to feed on migrating salmon.

Data suggests that a large forage fish spawn has led blackmouth salmon into Holmes Harbor recently, where there are reports of the salmon being caught, according to an Orca Network whale sighting report released Tuesday.

That theory would account for the resident orcas’ venturing into a harbor that some longtime whale watchers have never witnessed.

“It’s a real rarity. I’ve never heard of it in all the years I’ve been studying it,” said Bart Rulon, a wildlife photographer from Greenbank who’s spent the past 16 years closely observing and photographing the whales that surface around Whidbey.

“They went deep, deep into Holmes Harbor. You could see them from Freeland Park even.”


It’s not unusual to see the marine mammal-eating transient orcas in Saratoga Passage around this time of year, Haight said.

And of course, gray whales are supposed to be the talk of the island at this time. There’s even a Welcome the Whales Festival in Langley scheduled for Saturday and Sunday to celebrate the grays’ annual arrival. A parade will take place at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

Haight said Tuesday she was exhausted from driving up and down the island, chasing orcas.

Jill Hein, also an Orca Network volunteer, watched it all unfold from her home on a bluff south of Coupeville.

She lives on the east side of Whidbey between Harrington and Race lagoons where the whales have been frequenting. She said she counted 11 orcas, adding they were a few hundred yards from shore.

“I was literally watching from my yard,” Hein said Monday night. “It was magic. These whales came by my house seven times in the last three days.”

 

More in News

Icy roads lead to six crashes on Thursday

It was an unlucky day for South Whidbey drivers on Thursday morning… Continue reading

Critics reignite issues with The Machine Shop in Langley

Patience is wearing thin among some of The Machine Shop’s critics. Three… Continue reading

New Island County contract brings more WSU programs

As of March 1, Washington State University Extension, Island County will serve… Continue reading

Man who burned down two homes pleads guilty to lesser charge

A man who started a fire that burned down two homes on… Continue reading

Laura Guido/Whidbey News Group
                                Deputy Marshal Leif Haugen reads to second grader Colby Terry in the library of Coupeville Elementary School. Haugen is part of the recently launched “Bigs with Badges” program at Big Brother Big Sisters that pairs children in the community with law enforcement officers.
Bigs with Badges: Connecting with kids

On a typical Tuesday afternoon, students and staff at Coupeville Elementary School… Continue reading

Historical society to lead presentation about Gabelein family history

Pick up a local phone book. Thumb to the page with the… Continue reading

Van driver accused of ramming pickup truck

The driver of a van is accused of chasing down a car… Continue reading

South End getting first drug treatment center

Freeland will soon be home to the first medicaid-funded substance use disorder… Continue reading

Langley man airlifted after rollover crash

A Langley resident was airlifted for treatment after rolling his 1995 Ford… Continue reading

Most Read