Gerlache Strait


While many people will continue, for various reasons, to call the above animals “orcas,” I prefer to use the term “killer whale.”

First, it sounds rad. These whales ARE killer, man!

Second, it’s pretty out of the norm for a species* to be referred to by the second part of its two-part name (Orcinus orca, in this case- the first half is genus and the second half is the species designator). You’d never talk about “sapiens” and expect people to understand you meant “humans;” if you referred to “musculus” and expected me to know what animal you were talking about, I’d have to guess if you meant a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), or a house mouse (Mus musculus).

Third, and most importantly, I follow the opinion of scientists that I respect greatly in thinking that there’s no way that all of the different types of killer whales across the globe (oh yeah, they’re everywhere, in every ocean, doing their killer thing) are still one species. Just in the Antarctic, there are at least five types of distinguishable killer whales, each of which has a population separate from the others, probably with their own social structure, language, and feeding habits (further study needed). In the Pacific Northwest, where I did a week or two of research with Holly Fearnbach and John Durban (NOAA scientists and generally awesome human beings), three types of killer whales co-habitate but never interact, studiously avoiding contact while passing each other in a narrow strait, consuming different food sources, speaking different languages… Maybe it hasn’t been long enough in evolutionary time (hundreds of thousands of years) for them to have genetically diverged enough to make reproduction between groups impossible, but unless they’re forced (in captivity, for example…), different types of killer whales will never interbreed. In some cases, they’d have to cross continents to do so.

Anyways, these are the “small Type Bs,” also known as “Gerlache Strait killer whales.” They feed (probably) on deep-dwelling toothfish and other large predatory fish in the Antarctic, and are significantly smaller than the “large Type Bs,” which feed on seals. You can see in the photo their yellowish tinge- type Bs and Cs both have diatom (algae) coatings on their skin, which they travel north to shed- and the “cape” of grey around their backs. They can be distinguished from the large Bs by size, and from the Cs by the orientation and shape of their eye patches, and overall can be identified by their presence in their namesake, the Gerlache Strait. Aren’t they beautiful?

Getting There: Journey to Friday Harbor

Traveling is hard. From my arrival at SFO until finally reaching my home for the next week and a half, well over twelve hours of travel time had elapsed, including a plane ride, a shuttle bus, a ferry, and a lot of waiting around.



Luckily, SFO has a “yoga room” and I had a backpack full of books, papers, and sewing materials, and no lack of interesting travel companions. Most notably, my self-appointed guides to the ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor were two guys named Maverick and Friday (presumably a fighter pilot or Senator, who in reality was a massage therapist with a deep interest in acupuncture, and his buddy, the namesake of the harbor… or maybe just coincidentally named). Hi guys!

Having braved the vagaries of fate and fortune (Alaska delayed my flight by four hours, disarranging all of the careful travel plans we had laid) and having been picked up at the ferry terminal by Holly and John, the two indescribably cool scientists who are essentially letting me tag along on their project, I finally made it to San Juan Island’s Center for Whale Research. The property, owned by a man named Ken, a legend in killer whale conservation and research, is dotted with old campers and cars, trees, blackberry bushes, an ex-teepee structure, a workshop/guest house of sorts, and the center itself. Headquarters is actually Ken’s house, which has a gorgeous view and a generously shared downstairs area full of radios and computers for tracking and recording whale activity. There’s a constant hum- it might be excitement, or it might be the output from the hydrophone off of the Lime Kiln area, which records not only squeaks and clicks of traveling whales but also extremely loud propeller noises from the watercraft above. Out the windows that front the whole structure, whales and the sunset can be seen with nearly the same regularity. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration… but I’ve only been here about a day and I’ve seen 70-some whales and only one sunset, okay?)


I’m inhabiting one of the old campers for the duration of my stay- it’s an adorable silver bullet-shaped structure with two beds and a multitude of interesting cabinets and hooks and drawers. I was promised spiders, but unfortunately they haven’t turned up yet.

While I’ve got access to actual bathrooms, the adventurous spirit in me demands that at least part of the time I make use of the composting outhouse. Decorated with banana slug trails that glisten with morning dew (and also slime), it’s located just far enough down a mowed path to be out of sight of the main driveway, but not far enough to lose its sense of excitement. But if the roll of toilet paper (conveniently stashed in a Ziploc bag) is missing from the top of the path, we know better than to continue on, and thus have avoided all mishaps.

As for the whales, I’ll post more on them as soon as possible. I need to reformat some photos and I’d like to give a bit more background about the research we’re doing and the whales themselves and it won’t all fit in this post! I’m having a marvelous time.