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ORCAS! Watching the Wolves of the Sea


By Hannah Hindley, expedition guide, Wilderness Explorer

“Orcas!” The shout relays back from stern to bow, and the ship explodes in commotion: bare feet pattering; swimsuit-clad guests leaping from the hot tub to grapple for binoculars; throngs of adventurers clustering tightly around the box of life jackets, straining to be the very first passengers aboard the skiffs that were still being lowered to the water for impromptu whale watching tours.

Orca near boat

Orca whales spotted near the Wilderness Explorer

They’re not the largest whales in Southeast Alaska—their migrations aren’t the most impressive, nor their songs the most mysterious—yet an encounter with killer whales delivers a thrill unlike any other. Maybe it’s the sight of those huge, black dorsal fins cutting through the water—some taller than any of our crew. Maybe it’s the sense that these are true hunters, as we watch them heave themselves out of the water in pursuit of muscular jumping salmon.

Orca whale

Orcas are sometimes called the wolves of the sea because of their hunting prowess

Perhaps the thrill comes from knowing that these are complex beings, that the same spindle neurons which we associate with intelligent thought and behavior among humans run through their brains, as well. Or maybe we respond with such awe because, innately, we recognize some kinship. Like the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast, maybe we see somehow that these long-lived cetaceans—with their coordinated hunting practices and close-knit family pods, with their dialects and food preferences and learned behaviors—come to us as peers or counterparts, visitors from their own “undersea village,” as myths from this area suggest.

Orca spy hop

An Orca whale spyhops, poking its head out of the water for a look around

Whatever it is that draws us to orcas, the excitement was tangible this past week as we lowered small boats into the waters west of the Etolin Wilderness and motored out to watch them hunt. And what a show it was! They breached and slapped their tails, rocketing past our little skiffs in hot pursuit of pink salmon.

Orcas near skiff

Watching Orcas from a skiff

To encounter this fish-eating pod fills us, as crew, with a special boost of exhilaration: this means that we have begun to enter “resident” waters –where those big, celebrated pods of salmon-loving Orcas make their home along the coasts of British Columbia and Washington.

As the Wilderness Explorer continues her journey south this week toward Puget Sound, our season in Southeast Alaska comes to a close, but we won’t be looking back with too much gloom: we’ll be too busy scanning ahead for those big dark dorsal fins.

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