Killer Whales – The Element of Surprise

Note: A number of students will be dropping us notes from around the world as they participate in Ripon College’s Liberal Arts In Focus program at the start of this summer. Sara Heitkamp ’14 just graduated from Ripon with a major in psychology and a minor in business management. Her blog post arrives from San Juan Island, Washington where she is taking “Ethology of Killer Whales: Field Experience” with Professor Bob Otis.

The Element of Surprise

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to attend a vacation you did not plan? Nine students did exactly that when agreeing to spend 20 days with Professor Otis in Friday Harbor, Washington, which is one of the San Juan Islands.

When boarding the plane in Milwaukee, I didn’t exactly know what to expect when I landed in Seattle. All I knew was I was going to Washington to see Killer Whales. Washington is often considered one of the best places in the world to see whales in their natural environment.

Our location makes us more likely to see whales which are members of the Southern Residents (J, K, L Pods), and Transient Whales. One difference between the two is their dietary habits; Resident Whales are strictly fish eaters while Transient Whales eat seals and sea lions.

Lucky for us, Chinook salmon (king salmon) are in abundance near the San Juan Islands, which happen to be Resident Whales’ favorite type of fish! Unfortunately the number of Chinook salmon spawning in the Fraser River is quickly depleting, meaning the whales are spending less time here than they used to. This will make it even more special when a pod of whales swims up right next to the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, which is where we spend the majority of the day.

The remainder of our day is spent finding other activities to do on the island. This has been the largest surprise for me because there are so many unique things to do. Today we went and watched the local sheriff set out raw chicken in a little field near the woods to feed the population of bald eagles. I have never witnessed anything like this before; 30 bald eagles circled above the area, and then began diving down to the ground to grab the chicken pieces to take back up to their perch. This event happens every day at the same time, and a line of cars pulls off the road to witness this spectacular sight on a regular basis.


Although the highlight of my trip will be the moment I see killer whales for the first time, it is surprising how many other interesting things there are to do on the islands. We need to stay patient and optimistic that the whales will be sighted soon, but until then we will keep ourselves occupied with the other wonderful surprises available on the San Juan Islands.

To learn more about the Liberal Arts In Focus program at Ripon College, click here.

To read more stories about and by Ripon College students, click here.


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