Remembering an unusual visit from orcas some 20 years ago

It was 20 years ago that people living on Dyes Inlet and in the surrounding community enjoyed a rare visit from 19 killer whales. The 19 orcas, all members of L-pod, stayed an entire month in one place, something never seen before or since. The whales arrived on Oct. 20 and left on Nov. 19.


Orca Audio Slideshow (Needs Flash)

For me, it was a time of awakening to the amazing social structure of Southern Resident killer whales. I had been writing about orcas for years, but I never got to know the individual whales like I did in the fall of 1997.

It was inspiring to learn how their close-knit families generally stay together for life, how orca relatives often help out with caring for the young, how they work together to find and capture food.

I owe much to Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, two young researchers who observed the whales for most of the month the orcas were in Dyes Inlet. Kelley describes his observations in the slideshow on this page. He made the recording on the 10th anniversary of the Dyes Inlet visit. Just click on the whale image above.

I wrote a brief summary of the event in a Kitsap Sun story on Oct. 20, 2007.

The year 1997 was close to the high point for the Southern Resident population, which grew to 98 animals. It took about 25 years to reach that number after a large segment of the population was captured and taken away for aquariums. As the Southern Resident population declined after 1997, the Southern Residents were proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In 2005, they were declared an endangered species. Today, their numbers have declined to 76, the lowest number in 30 years.

Killer whale experts talk about how orcas in the wild can live as long as humans given the right conditions. Yet things have not been going well for the Southern Residents. Of the 19 whales that visited Dyes Inlet 20 years ago, seven orcas are still alive:

  • L-47, a 43-year-old female named Marina, who has three offspring and two grand-offspring. The two oldest were with her in Dyes Inlet, and a younger calf, L-115 named Mystic, was born in 2010.
  • L-83, a 27-year-old female named Moonlight. She is the oldest daughter of L-47 (Marina) and had her first offspring, L-110 named Midnight, in 2007.
  • L-91, a 22-year-old female named Muncher. She is the second daughter of L-47 (Marina). In 2015, Muncher had an offspring of her own, L-122, a male named Magic.
  • L-90, a 24-year-old female named Ballena who was 4 years old in Dyes Inlet with her mother Baba (L-26), sister Rascal (L-60) and brother Hugo (L-71). Her mother died in 2013, her sister in 2002 and brother in 2006.
  • L-92, a 22-year-old male named Crewser who was 2 years old when he was in Dyes Inlet with his mom, L-60 named Rascal, who died in 2002. Now Crewser is often seen with his aunt, Ballena (L-90).
  • L-55, a 40-year-old female named Nugget. Her oldest offspring, L-82 named Kasatka, was with her in Dyes Inlet along with her 1-year-old calf, L-96, who died a short time after leaving Dyes Inlet. Her next calf, Lapis (L-103), was born in 2003, followed by Takoda (L-109) in 2007 and Jade (L-118) in 2011. All are females except Takoda and the baby who died at a year old. Lapis had her first calf, L-123 named Lazuli, in 2015.
  • L-82, a 27-year-old female named Kasatka who was 7 years old when she was with her mom and baby brother in Dyes Inlet. Kasatka had her first offspring, Finn (L-116), a male, in 2010, making Nugget a grandmother.

The Dyes Inlet experience is something I will never forget, and I know many other people in the Puget Sound region feel the same way. I would be happy to publish stories from those who would like to share their experiences. Feel free to write something in the comments field below.

One of my favorite memories from that time was going out at night in a boat on Dyes Inlet with researcher Jodi Smith. All the other boats had gone home. The air was cold and quiet. Jody dropped a hydrophone down into the water, and the speaker on the boat burst forth with all kinds of pops and screeches coming from the whales. You can read the story I wrote in the Kitsap Sun archives and listen to the recording we made that night (below).

      1. Whales in Dyes Inlet

During that time in 1997, I personally got to know some of the leading marine mammal experts in our region. I even developed some ever-lasting friendships. While I wish that things would go better for our beloved orcas, I am thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day, for that time 20 years ago.

13 thoughts on “Remembering an unusual visit from orcas some 20 years ago

  1. While living on Blake Island I was able to watch the resident deer and observed the same family dynamics. I also had the privilege of being surrounded by Orca families during my grocery runs. When humans all realize the swimming and furred and flyers all only wish to take care of theiir families, and also respect that fact, it will make us much better parents as well.

  2. My dad always talked about the ‘Black Fish’ in the bay. I remember Fred Wing told the Bremerton Sun newspaper about how they used to see them all the time back in the 40s and 50s.

    1. Jo,
      Nobody knows for sure why those whales came into Dyes Inlet in the beginning. There was speculation that they followed J pod, which visited the small inlets of Puget Sound more frequently and may have been familiar with the Warren Avenue Bridge. There were some reports of another group of orcas in Central Puget Sound at that time. If J pod led the L pod whales into the inlet and then left first, the L pod whales may have had trouble with the big concrete bridge. One could see the whales on the surface looking up at the bridge as they approached it. Maybe the bridge looked or sounded like a steep cliff. The Manette Bridge did not seem to give them much trouble.

  3. We were a Navy family in Bremerton when the whales came to stay for awhile. I remember the smaller, windy roads along the inlet being clogged with vehicles outfitted with binoculars so as not to miss the orcas. My 3 little girls and I would stop before and after school to watch their family swim and spy hop and dive for salmon. Gosh! Those whales could hold their breath for half an hour! We learned so much during that month and it made our family closer while experiencing that singular event. My youngest is named Faith, and I believe one of the older males was named Faith. I was saddened to hear a few years back that researchers confirmed that he is deceased. That was a special time!

    1. Bridget,

      Faith (L-57) was the most prominent male in Dyes Inlet with a large dorsal fin. He was 20 years old at the time. He went missing in 2008 at 31 years old. I know a lot of people were shocked and saddened by the news, which I reported in the Kitsap Sun.

      By the way, we normally see orcas make several dives of less than a minute each, then a deeper dive of up to 5 minutes, all depending on their rate of travel. I’ve heard that they have the ability to stay under water for up to 20 minutes, but I don’t remember seeing any long dives like that.

    2. I managed to get a beautiful close-up view of Faith down Kint St. I was standing in the vacant lot with camera around my neck when Faith breached completely out of the water in front of me. I never got the picture, but I have a clear vivid memory that will never fade from me as long as I live, he was less than 75 feet from me!

  4. I was very fortunate to have a buddy take 4 of us along with him the last Saturday the group was here, it was a gray, chilly morning too. We would watch the scrum of boats milling about through binoculars and when they headed towards us we would shut of our motor and drift. Usually within 2 to 3 minutes the orcas would pass us by and we got to see some amazing sights, never to be repeated in my life again I am pretty sure. One surfaced so close to us we had to grab one of us to keep them from falling in! They had just being looking through the glasses and had asked where they were and boom! We had such a wonderful experience in spite of the boat trouble – all of us were blessed that morning in a cool way.

  5. I worked a short distance from Dyes Inlet during the Orcas visit and would go at lunch to watch them! What a spectacular sight they were, frolicking and foraging in that tiny inlet. We don’t live in the area now but I follow the local area and know there have been other visits over the years of much shorter duration. I too remember Faith and his large dorsal fin. I also remember when they finally left, Kelley Balcomb-Bartock was in a small boat as they tried to lead them out and one of the Orcas looked back at him as if to say “thank you”. It was a truly an incredible event!

  6. My experience with this orca visit started the day before they arrived in Dyes Inlet. I was returning from a San Juan Islands cruise on my 30-ft sailboat. I was motoring home on a windless day when the pod overtook me near Kingston. They encircled me and kept pace with my boat. I remember one large male with a tall dorsal fin passed me very close. I think I have photos somewhere. I left them when I turned to head home through Agate Pass. The next day I heard they were in Dyes Inlet. Towards the end of their stay, I took my boat to Dyes Inlet. I shut the motor off and drifted. Several Orcas came up to me and rolled on their sides and eye balled me. My mom always believed that the Orcas recognized my boat. Often while on my boat I have dall porpoises play with the boat and ride the wake.

  7. Thank you for these personal stories. I love to hear how the whales touched so many folks, young and old, during that time. These and hopefully more stories will remain on this blog for future reference.

  8. My wife and I towed our boat and launched to see the whales. Our then 4 year old daughter, our barely 1 year old son and a friend were with us. There were maybe 150-200 boats that day. We saw where the whales were, motored at least a 1/4 mile in front of them and waited. We were not disappointed by the whales, because here they came, surfacing all around, swimming underneath our boat and spending almost 2 hours while we sat there, amazed. The best breach was 20 yards off our stern! The only sad part of our day was those few boat drivers who motored in at speed over the whales. We left when the whales swam back down the bay. Sure it was a cold day, but no matter what those memories will stay with me for a life time.

  9. I lived in Kingston at the time and went down to see the whales a few times, mainly from the shore along Chico Way but once on one of the tour boats that set up in the inlet that month. The Orcas breached all around us and it was magical. I need to find those photos. Of course that was before cellphones and probably a good thing- I imagine a few phones would have been dropped overboard during the excitement of photographing those amazing Orcas! I am so sad that the Orca numbers are in decline and fear the worst for them (and mankind for that matter!)

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