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Bush Point, Admiralty Inlet, WA 19 April 2023


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]

After ten unsuccessful attempts throughout March and April, I finally caught up with a pod of killer whales in Admiralty Inlet off Whidbey Island. An hour before sunset, I launched into the swirling tide races off Bush Point and paddled out to the middle of Admiralty Inlet. I arrived just in time to catch a parade of orcas from J-pod of the southern resident killer whales passing in the distance.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. The lighthouse at Bush Point is private property, but there is a public boat ramp on the north side of the point.

The killer whale was the second of the four inland whale species I was hoping to photograph from a kayak in the year 2023. Two weeks earlier, I had photographed the first species, a gray whale in Possession Sound on the east side of Whidbey Island.

Killer whales move faster than gray whales do and forage across much larger territories, so they are more difficult to capture. Kayaks just aren’t fast enough to pursue killer whales on the water, so a kayaker’s only chance is to launch somewhere ahead of the whales and hope they happen to pass by.

In the morning, I launched from Possession Point and paddled up the east side of Whidbey Island, hoping to intercept the local J-pod of southern resident killer whales. Fifteen-knot winds kicked up so much chop in Possession Sound I had no chance to see the whales’ fins or spouts nor to hear their breaths. Observers on shore reported the whole pod passed me on the water, but I never saw a thing.

Shortly before sunset, I tried again, this time launching from Bush Point on the west side of Whidbey Island. The wind had died down to a mere five knots, so I could actually see and hear what was going on around me. I fought the powerful and confusing tide races off Bush Point and gained the middle of Admiralty Inlet. The whales must pass me here if they intended to exit Puget Sound.

01 Choppy conditions in Possession Sound.JPG

01 Choppy morning conditions in Possession Sound. If you can’t see the horizon, you can’t see the whales.

02 Calm conditions off Bush Point.JPG

02 Calm evening conditions in Admiralty Inlet. Across the water are the Quimper Peninsula (left) and Marrowstone Island (right).

For twenty minutes, I saw and heard nothing. Just when I was starting to doubt, a huge splash two miles (3 km) to the south signified a breaching whale. I had found the pod!

J-pod consists of twenty-four individual killer whales. At least half the pod was present this day, perhaps even all of it. The whales were spread across several miles of Admiralty Inlet, moving in a northward direction. They were traveling closer to the Marrowstone Island side than the Whidbey Island side, so most of them passed me at a distance of a mile and a half (2.5 km). The fading sunlight to the west lit up their spouts like spotlights.

The train of whales was several miles long. Each time I thought the last of them had passed, a fresh round of spouts would signify another whale or pair of whales coming through. One pair surfaced without warning quite close to me, no more than a hundred yards away. I spun myself around in my kayak (which was itself spinning around in the tide races and whirlpools) and tried to photograph as much as I could.

03 Distant orcas in Admiralty Strait.JPG

03 Killer whales across Admiralty Inlet. Most of today’s pod consisted of females and young whales, with only a handful of adult males.

04 Orca spout Admiralty Inlet.JPG

04 Killer whale spouting in Admiralty Inlet. The spouts were visible at about two miles’ distance and audible at about half a mile’s distance.

05 Orca passing in Admiralty Inlet.JPG

05 Killer whale passing in Admiralty Inlet. The whales were in a hurry and did not remain on the surface more than a couple seconds during each breath.

06 Orca fin off Whidbey Island.JPG

06 Dorsal fin of departing killer whale off Whidbey Island. According to shore-based observers, the J-pod orcas exited Puget Sound late in the evening and did not return.

The ebb current was starting to build, and it would soon become too powerful to resist. As soon as the last whale passed, I made for Bush Point as quickly as possible to avoid getting sucked out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca by the current. Killer whales might be able to gad about wherever they like in the inland waters, but we slow-moving kayakers have to be more strategic.

Even returning as promptly as I did, I would have been unable to land at the Bush Point lighthouse if that had been my destination. The current whipped me past the lighthouse at well over four knots. Fortunately, my destination was around the point to the north, where I was able to take advantage of an eddy to reach the shore. I unloaded the kayak by the light of the setting sun.

07 Kayaking under old dock at Bush Point.JPG

07 Kayaking under derelict dock, Bush Point. The beach north of here is one of the few public access points on western Whidbey Island.

08 Kayak on beach at Bush Point.JPG

08 Sunset at Bush Point boat ramp. As is usually the case during springtime trips on challenging waters, I was the only kayaker out today.

The southern resident killer whales, especially the J-pod family, are pillars of the Puget Sound community. It is a rare pleasure to kayak in their company, even for just a few minutes, and even if they made me work for the encounter.

With the gray whale and now the killer whale found and photographed, the next two species on the inland waters are the humpback whale and the minke whale. These two species can be seen any month of the year, but they are most numerous during the summer, so I will likely need to wait a few months to find them.


[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]
I agree with Natasha - you get out on some cool adventures!
Those are fantastic shots as well. Are you still using a Sony bridge camera (I think I read that it was a RX10 IV in another post)??