Making a big splash on Whidbey

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.”