One summer, off Washington’s San Juan Islands, Hans Bruning watched three extended families of orcas—dozens of whales—meet near his kayak. “It was like Fourth of July,” he says. “They were breaching, slapping their tails, the works!” It was a special sight even for Bruning, a naturalist guide and boat captain who helps researchers study the mighty mammals up and down the Pacific Coast. But it didn’t make going to work the next day any less exciting. From the desert shores of Mexico’s Baja California north to the glacier-fringed bays of southeast Alaska, every encounter stirs the same emotion, he says: “Three letters—A, W, E.”
Whalers of the 19th century considered gray whales ferocious “devilfish,” and hunted them nearly to extinction along the North American coast. Now gray whales are known for their inquisitiveness toward humans, and their populations rebounded under federal protection; today they number close to 18,000. Visitors to San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja see their gentle side in one of the most intimate whale-watching experiences on the planet: Gazing, from just inches away, into the eyes of a mother gray and her newborn calf. These friendlies, as they’ve come to be called, have been known to nuzzle boats and venture close enough for a kind pat, which is legal in Mexico. No one knows why these whales, which can grow up to 50 feet long and weigh 40 tons, seek human contact. Carrie Newell, a marine biologist who studies this population’s behaviors, suggests the animals may be using the boatloads of people as babysitters, trusting them to benignly distract or entertain a calf while the mother rests or feeds nearby.
Locals say only about 10 to 15 percent of the several hundred whales that winter and give birth here actively seek human touch. Many more of the giants, which feed by straining bay mud for krill and plankton, perform acrobatic breaches and push their heads straight up out of the water for a look around, an activity dubbed spy hopping.
Three pods of orcas make the Salish Sea between Washington’s San Juan Islands and Victoria, British Columbia, their home. Summertime offers the best weather for taking to the water to watch the sleek and sharp-toothed creatures. Each population contains multiple tightly knit pods, organized by maternal kinship, that share in calf rearing. The pods use slightly different dialects of whistles and squeaks that can be heard underwater for miles. When pods meet, they line up facing one another, then mix together in a greeting ceremony, a flurry of full-body leaps, friendly tail slaps, and spy hops.
Other small groups of orcas who migrate through the region—known as transients—use a very different vernacular, stick to themselves, and tend to feast on seals and other mammals, whereas the residents feed mainly on salmon. The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island displays full orca skeletons and details on migration, language, and behaviors as well as offering gossip about clan relationships.
Deeper than the Grand Canyon, the undersea Monterey Canyon near Moss Landing, California, channels an upwelling of cold water rich in anchovies and krill that feeds whales year-round. Humpbacks, grays, orcas, and minkes are just a few of the species found here, along with gregarious pods of Risso’s dolphins—blunt-nosed, fearless squid eaters who regularly cut through the offshore swells in leaping groups of several dozen or more.
But perhaps the best reason to whale-watch in Monterey Bay is the chance to see blue whales, the largest animals ever to live on earth. These behemoths top out at 400,000 pounds, and for the summer they come here to eat. Each one gulps as much as six tons of krill a day, using a pleated throat that expands like an apron to scoop up the tiny shrimp and then filtering them from the water through sievelike baleen. Visitors locate them from afar by looking for the telltale spouts, which gush like geysers as high as 30 feet. Up close, the slope of a diving blue’s back seems to go on and on before ending in a 25-foot-wide tail known as a fluke.