Summer offers the best chance to see our Southern Resident orca pods in Puget Sound, and it’s also the time of year when Aquarium visitors have lots of questions about orcas—especially about how and where they can see them. Thanks to NOAA Fisheries for helping us to provide the information below!
Orcas, also known as killer whales, belong to the Delphinidae family. Does that word look familiar? If you think it has something to do with dolphins, you’re correct—and orcas are the largest dolphin in that family. But, due to their size (over 30 feet!), orcas are also considered whales.
Orcas can be found in all oceans and adapt to almost any conditions. They are toothed whales, related to sperm and pilot whales, and apex predators—vulnerable only to large sharks. They travel and hunt in groups called pods. Three types of orcas are found on the West Coast of North America: resident orcas; transient (or Bigg’s) orcas; and offshore orcas. Each type has differing habits and eats different kinds of prey.
Southern Resident orcas are the only resident population found in U.S. waters—they’re icons of the Pacific Northwest and inspire widespread public interest, curiosity, and awe around the world. They depend on salmon to survive. They’re also endangered and among the most contaminated marine mammals in the ocean.
About Southern Resident killer whales
The Southern Resident orca population is composed of three pods: J, K, and L. Individual animals are identified by a number based on pod membership and birth order (J2, for example, is the oldest-known member of J pod—she’s estimated to be 103 years old and is also known as Granny).
Composed of 29 orcas, J is the pod most likely to appear year-round in the waters of the San Juan Islands and Southern Gulf Islands, lower Puget Sound (near Seattle), and Georgia Strait. K pod is the smallest of the three pods in the Southern Resident community, with only 19 members. L is by far the largest of the three Southern Resident pods: its members currently total 36.
Where are they seen?
Each year, the Southern Resident orcas spend several months of the summer and fall in Puget Sound. But it’s good to exercise care when deciding how to try to view them. Research has found that orcas spend more time traveling and less time foraging when vessels—including small craft such as kayaks—are present, according to NOAA Fisheries’ 10-year report on the Southern Residents. Orcas also change their behavior by increasing their activity at the surface, including swimming in more erratic patterns, when vessels are close. Regulations and guidelines for viewing orcas from vessels can be found at bewhalewise.org.
What’s the best choice to view orcas without disturbing them? From shore. Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island is a prime spot. Other land-based viewing sites—including the Seattle Aquarium—are listed at thewhaletrail.org. We don’t often see orcas from our pier, but it’s been known to happen and you never know, you may get lucky on your next visit!
Are you one of the millions of people playing Pokémon Go? If so, expand your search to the Seattle Aquarium! We’re home to three PokéStops, and many happy players have discovered various Pokémon while enjoying our exhibits. As the Pokémon Go craze began to gather steam, we at the Aquarium noticed some distinct similarities between different kinds of Pokémon and our marine animals. See below for a roundup, then come see these animals in person on your next Aquarium visit—and catch a few Pokémon while you’re at it! Don’t forget to share your captures with us by tagging @SeattleAquarium or #SeattleAquarium. Good luck catching them all!
Tentacool vs. moon jellies
Tentacool is an aquatic Pokémon based on the box jellyfish. Tentacool may end up stuck on beaches when the tide goes out—and, since its body is largely composed of water, it will shrivel up, risking death from dehydration if it stays out of the sea for too long.
Moon jellies are made up of 98% water. If they get washed up on the beach on a warm and sunny day, they can literally evaporate to almost nothing!
Krabby vs. hermit crabs
Krabby is an omnivore and a scavenger; it rarely hunts for itself. It can filter feed by harmonizing bacteria in the sand, but this is rare. It is territorial, and in beaches where there is little food, fights between Krabby are common.
Hermit crabs are pretty easygoing about what they eat. In fact, they’ll dine on just about anything they can find in the water that surrounds them, including small fish, invertebrates (such as worms), plankton and any food particles that happen to be floating by.
Psyduck vs. tufted puffin
Psyduck is a medium-sized yellow duck Pokémon. Only the feet and the bill are tan. The other body parts are all yellow. Psyduck has three black hairs on top of its head, and its hands are on its head due to its constant headache.
During the summer breeding season, tufted puffins display an ornamental bill plate, as well as brilliant orange legs, a white “face mask” and distinctive golden tufts above the eyes.
Poliwag vs. skates
Poliwag is so soft its organs are actually visible. It also has trouble walking on its feet due to its lack of arms, which causes it to be unbalanced.
Skates have very pale skin that reveals internal organs. The underbelly of a skate looks like a face, but it is just the fish’s nose and mouth—the eyes are on the top of its body.
Magikarp vs. salmon
Magikarp have the Swift Swim ability, which increases Magikarp’s speed when it’s raining. Despite being strong in the past, its descendants are considerably weaker. It struggles to swim against even the weakest of currents.
Adult salmon face a lot of challenges as they make their way from the ocean back to freshwater. They may get caught in a fisherman’s net, or by a hungry bear, eagle or otter. They may have to swim through polluted waters near populated areas. They may have to overcome high obstacles—some manmade, like dams; others natural, like waterfalls.
Seel vs. harbor seals
Seel is a sea lion Pokémon. It is covered with dense white fur to keep it warm underwater.
Unlike sea otters and river otters, harbor seals don’t rely on fur to stay warm. Instead, their thick layer of blubber provides insulation while storing energy, adding buoyancy in the water and contributing to their streamlined shape.
#5 in a series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.
If you see me on the beach, there’s a good chance I will be kneeling down, doing some close looking on and around the rocks. Rocks provide choice real estate on the beach for animals to make their homes and lay their eggs, and to find food and protective shelter. I had a great week of rock exploring both on Lincoln and S. Alki beaches during the minus tides last week.
Blood Star (Henricia leviuscula). One of 11 that we observed at S. Alki during the minus tide on the 4th of July weekend!
California Sea Cucumber (Parastichopus californicus)
If you’ve spent time at the Seattle Aquarium, you’re probably familiar with the giant California sea cucumbers we have in our touch pools. This one was the very first I had ever seen out in the wild! It was happily hanging out in the shelter of these rocks with some anemones to keep it company. I was watching its back end open and close at regular intervals for quite some time. I wasn’t sure why it was doing that, so I went home and looked it up. As it turns out, sea cucumbers actually breathe with their butts! What I had been observing was the anus opening and closing, taking in water that was being transported to a series of “respiratory trees” just inside the body where gas exchange was taking place.
Lined Chiton(Tonicella lineata) on his/her home rock.
Lined chitons are always a treasure to find. Like my co-blogger Bobby wrote last week, finding them is like finding beautiful jewels on the rocks! Most chitons have a “home” spot on the rocks that they return to after an evening out foraging for food. This molluscan relative of snails, slugs and octopuses has a tongue-like organ called a radula that is covered with hundreds of tiny, sharp, iron-clad “teeth.” The radula is like the chiton’s built-in spoon-knife (spife?!) that it uses for scraping up delicious algae off the rocks.
Real estate in the intertidal zone is a little bit like living in a big city—crowded with limited space! When you take a close look, it might amaze you how many animals make use of a small space. This rock had some sponges (animals), several bryozoan colonies (animals), barnacles (animals) and flatworm eggs all crammed in together.
This tiny pink scallop may have been one of my favorite findings from last week. It was no bigger than my pinky fingernail! All around it was a magical, miniature world of tiny limpets, flatworms, flatworm eggs and tiny Spirorbis polychaete worms.
Porcelain Crabs at S. Alki Beach
Check out those claws! A young visitor on the beach turned over some rocks and was excited to find this striking blue porcelain crab. These crabs use their extra-large front claws primarily for defense. Think of them as the stealth ninjas of the intertidal zone, claws at the ready to defend against any intruder or predator! Their flat bodies make it easy for them to sneakily move in and out of small crevices in the rocks where they try to keep themselves hidden. When feeling particularly threatened, they sometimes drop a claw or two (that they can grow back later) to distract their pursuer.
Beach etiquette tip of the week: Only move rocks that are small enough to be moved with one hand. Carefully return rocks to the exact position you found them in.
Robust Clubhook Squid (Onykia robusta) at the Olympic Sculpture Park beach.
While I was working at S. Alki on July 3, we got word from Beach Captain Bean Yogi over at the Olympic Sculpture Park beach that a huge squid had washed up there! It was collected and brought back to the Seattle Aquarium where it was positively identified as a robust clubhook squid (Onykia robusta). This species of squid is the third-largest in the world. These animals do not frequent the waters of the Salish Sea but we do find them washed up along our shores once in a while. What are they doing here? One thought is that these animals come into our area as they are following their food, most likely salmon. Once they are in our local waters, their bodies may not be able to adapt to the salinity and temperature differences between the Salish Sea and the open waters of the Pacific Ocean, perhaps causing their demise. This squid had arms with pieces missing, so predation might be a factor too. The Aquarium will dissect and examine this amazing animal so we can continue to learn more about it and how it may have ended up here. A big thanks to Bean for sharing her photo and video!
Down in the South Sound, the naturalists working at Dash Point State Park also had some unusual sightings. Thank you to volunteer Dan Hershman for letting me share his photos!
The big skate (Raja binoculata) is the largest species of skate in the waters off of N. America. They can grow to a whopping length of over 6 feet!
Dendronotus iris nudibranch. Dash Point State Park.
Pacific Sand Lance
Notice the hole in the sand next to this Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus)? Looks like a nighttime hidey-hole to me! These small forage fish hunt for food during the day and burrow into the sand at night to protect themselves from predators.
Thank you to everyone who has come out to enjoy the beach with us so far this summer! We will be back on the beach 7/19, 7/20 and 7/21.
Sea Lemon Nudibranch and Blood Star
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Sea Lemon Nudibranch and Blood Star on S. Alki Beach
Calcareous Tube Worm
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Calcareous Tube Worm. Another rock dwelling citizen of the intertidal zone!
Northern Feather Duster Tube Worm
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Porcelain Crab missing a couple of limbs at S. Alki Beach.
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Sea Anemone at S. Alik beach feeling gravity's pull during the low tide.
“I ventured westward from Albany, NY and fell madly in love with our city from the moment I arrived. It was 21 years ago this August when Seattle first charmed me with its lush, forested parks, beautiful beaches, and water and mountain views (when the skies are clear enough) all around.
I spent the first half of my 21 years here immersed in Seattle’s wonderful coffee culture. My husband and I owned and operated Victrola Coffee on Capitol Hill until 2008. We sold our business that year to spend more time with our newborn son and I have been a stay-at-home, homeschooling mama and budding photographer and naturalist ever since! It started with me taking my young son to the beach, gazing into tide pools and wanting to know more about what we were looking at. Soon, I was going to the beach by myself, every low tide I could, and following the Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists around asking questions.
I signed up to be an interpretive volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium in 2013, became a beach naturalist volunteer in 2014, and this will be my first year as an official member of the Seattle Aquarium staff as a beach captain. My favorite place to be is on the beach, with my camera, sharing my love and knowledge of our intertidal dwellers with the hope that I will inspire others to love and protect the Salish Sea and the ocean beyond.”
Ballots will be mailed today for the August 2 election. For Seattle voters, the ballot includes a little publicized initiative that is of great importance to the Seattle Aquarium and to all those who live in the region. Passage of this initiative would reverse the work of thousands of citizens over the past seven years and toss out the Waterfront for All plan—replacing it with a substitute plan to build a new elevated structure that would permanently divide the city from the waterfront.
The Seattle Aquarium board of directors has voted to oppose Initiative 123. Please carefully consider these points and join them in voting NO as well:
I-123 offers only a vague description of an elevated structure on our waterfront, which would retain a portion of the seismically unsafe viaduct. Proponents initially sold this as Seattle’s version of New York’s High Line—but the landscape architect for the High Line, James Corner, strongly criticized the idea in a recent Puget Sound Business Journal article.
I-123 creates an unelected and self-selected board with no public accountability.
I-123 would give this board a blank check on the City general fund, requiring the City to pay for this undefined plan, which currently has no cost estimates.
I-123 has no requirement for public input.
I-123 would give proponents the right to any surplus City property to fund the project.
I-123 would put other City priorities at risk, including public safety, affordable housing, and other vital services.
I-123 would allow private, commercial development in the waterfront public right of way.
Please see this link to the Seattle Times op-ed page for more detailed information.
Your support is important—please vote NO on Initiative 123!
Have you ever been mesmerized by the giant clams in the Aquarium’s Pacific Coral Reef exhibit? Learn more about them here, get even more details from our giant clam fact sheet, then come check them out on your next visit!
How giant is giant?
There are actually several species of giant clam, all in the genus Tridacna. The largest species, Tridacna gigas, can grow over 4 feet long and weigh over 600 pounds! We don’t display that kind at the Seattle Aquarium—but we do have the species T. derasa, T. squamosa, T. maxima and T. crocea.
Does big equal old?
Scientists don’t know how long these animals live, but here are some things we do know: All giant clams mature first as male, which can happen within two years, depending on the species. They later transform into reproductive females, which happens after several more years (again, exact timing depends on the species). Two of the larger clams in the individual window exhibits at the Aquarium have been with us for 20 years, according to Senior Aquarist Alan Tomida. One of the larger ones, also in an individual window exhibit, as well as the smaller ones in the main Pacific Coral Reef exhibit, came to us in 2008.
Getting a grip
Most bivalves have a strategy for sticking down to the substrate, whether it’s rock or sand: mussels have byssal threads and many clams have a digging foot. How do giant clams stay in place on the reef? It’s different for the different species. The smaller species, T. crocea (which grows to 6 inches) and T. maxima (which grows to 12 inches), use strong byssal threads. T. crocea can also use its shell itself to bore into the rock. Those two species need a firm grip because they live in shallower water with more wave action, compared to the two larger species, T. squamosal (which grows to 17 inches) and T. derasa (which grows to 24 inches)—both of these live at the outer edge of a reef, in deeper, calmer water. They stay in place by virtue of their bottom-heavy shells and weak byssal threads.
Shimmer and shine
The shimmering patterns on a giant clam’s mantle come from iridophores, cells that reflect the light. These cells aren’t just beautiful—they’re useful as well. Iridophores and pigments act as sunscreen, blocking UV rays that could damage the clam’s flesh (just as most of us would be damaged by too much exposure to tropical sunshine). These clams also have amino acids that serve this sun-blocking purpose, so that function doesn’t completely explain their brilliant coloration. Coloration is partly determined by genetics, but a species can’t be identified simply by the color of the mantle. Individual clams have their own unique coloration, a bit like an orca’s saddle patch or a harbor seal’s spots. Examining the shell is the definitive way to identify the species of a giant clam.