Gateway: News

Up-close experiences with orcas leave peninsula residents in awe

By Haley Donwerth

Special to the Gateway

Fox Island resident Cheryl Nelson and her husband were out boating between Fox Island and Hale Passage earlier this month when she noticed a notification on Orca Network’s Facebook page that there had been sightings in their area.

After traveling toward the Narrows bridges to try to catch sight of an orca, the couple was able to spot three coming up to the water and spouting before going back down.

Nelson was excited to see them after a stressful week.

“It was exhilarating, better than watching any TV shows or anything ... it was relaxing and exhilarating all at the same time,” she said.

Nelson’s experience is one of several from peninsula residents posted on social media over the last few weeks.

Lance Loyd, 46, along with his 10-year-old son Luke and 16-year-old niece Juliana Morris, also caught sight of the orcas while on a Jet Ski between Fox and McNeil islands.

When the trio first got on the water to try to see the orcas, the Jet Ski wouldn’t steer correctly.

Luckily they were able to get it fixed and head back out, Loyd said, and about a half hour later they saw four off of Green Point.

They started following the whales, keeping the required 200-yard distance.

“They were beautiful, and we tried to stay away from them,” Loyd said.

It looked like they were heading toward Chambers Bay, he said, and sometimes they would split apart and the male would go off on his own.

Thinking the orcas were going to breach, the trio stopped to take some video, Morris said.

“We had the engines off, our (phones) were (shooting video),” Morris said, “we thought they would come up.”

The mother orca swam underneath them, while the baby came up and almost hit the Jet Ski, Morris said.

The eeriest part was seeing a huge orca swimming below them, Loyd said, but he was also worried when the baby got so close.

“We had the engine turned off,” he said, “It was like the baby didn’t see us.”

After that encounter, it was thrilling for the trio to see the whales in their natural habitat.

“After my heart stopped racing, I could appreciate how truly majestic and beautiful they were,” Loyd said.

The sightings are frequent because it’s the time of year where Chinook salmon are returning to Puget Sound waters, and with that, orcas.

While it’s exciting that these creatures are coming back, people should still try and keep their distance when they are out on the water, said Rachel Easton, education director for Harbor WildWatch.

“You have to stay 200 yards away and keep the path they’re traveling clear. Don’t intersect yourself where the whales are going to show up,” Easton said.

The reason for this is the potential damage too much interference can cause, she explained. Noise from boats or personal watercraft can scare off the whales’ food, and the proximity of humans can cause them to change their course.

Because this is the time they’re following their food back, it’s even more critical to give orcas a wide berth if you see them on the water.

Luke, Loyd’s son, enjoyed seeing the whales up so close.

“It was really cool … I wanted to swim with them,” he said.

And that reaction from seeing the orcas in their natural habitat is not unusual, Easton said.

The whales are intelligent and have excellent vision, she said, so they can see boats and the people on them.

“Sometimes the whales will come close to boats to take a peek and see what’s up there,” Easton said.

At Harbor WildWatch, the nonprofit’s mission is to inspire stewardship within the Puget Sound, and they try to make people aware of what’s going on within the killer whale population.

“Right now is a difficult time for the orcas, because the salmon population is down,” she said.

The two orca population in this area are the Southern Resident Killer Whales and Transient Orcas.

More information about the orca population in the Sound can be found at