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Wild orcas put on show that awes even jaded Seattle residents

November 1, 2011 |  1:01 pm

They were killers on a mission, and in this case, they inspired shrieks of delight: A pod of orcas in hot pursuit of salmon raced through the water just a few yards from shore near Seattle over the weekend.

Onlookers gathered on a rocky Vashon Island beach gasped and shouted as the black-and-white behemoths porpoised through the water just offshore,  a rare and epic encounter during one of the orcas' periodic forays into southern Puget Sound.

This video and a similar one, both posted on YouTube, have enchanted even jaded Seattle souls accustomed to seeing the orcas; local TV station KING-5 even offered up a slideshow.

The animals normally reside farther north near the San Juan Islands, but several times a year they venture south, where they can be spotted from crowded ferries and off the heavily populated islands that dot the sound near Seattle.

"They were basically traveling, but at that particular time for just a few minutes they went into full race, in tight, synchronized swimming within 20 or 30 feet of the beach. It's quite rare, but wow, what a sight," said Howard Garrett, director of Orca Network, a Greenbank, Wash., nonprofit group that tracks the orcas and advocates for release of those held in captivity.

A total of 88 orcas in three pods make up the "resident" population of orcas in Puget Sound, which are distinct from the transient orcas that travel up and down the West Coast. The transients eat marine mammals, especially harbor seals, but the resident orcas live primarily on chinook and chum salmon -- a problem, because salmon populations have plummeted over the years.

"All up and down the coast, from the Sacramento River system, the Klamath and the Columbia, dams and irrigation and pesticides have just decimated the chinook [salmon] populations, literally down to less than 10% of their former numbers overall. And that has left the whales with not enough to eat for sometimes weeks or months," Garrett said in an interview.

Spectators said the orcas spotted Oct. 28 off Vashon Island, a rural bedroom community a short ferry ride from Seattle, appeared to be in fast pursuit of a school of fish. At such times, Garrett said, it's not unusual for the orcas to be oblivious to the shouts of people nearby.

In part, he said, that may be because of the tight social structure of orca pods -- a cohesive family network in which the young remain for a lifetime with their mothers. There is no cross-breeding, dispersal or recruitment outside the group.

"I've never seen them avoid people, or be very attracted to people. They're completely enveloped in their own social world," Garrett said. "I'm sure they're aware of the people there, but they just seem to go into different states. It may be foraging, it may be resting, it may be just traveling, or sometimes it may be this enthusiastic, full sprint that they just get into, and it doesn't really matter if nobody's within miles, or they're going right past a crowd," he said.

"That's their mood of the moment, and they just go."

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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle


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