The orca, or killer whale, is the largest member of the family Delphinidae, a classification that includes toothed whales and dolphins. Named “killer whales” because they take warm-blooded prey, these cetaceans eat anything from harbor and ringed seals to seabirds, otters, dolphins, fish, and squid, depending on the local food supply. In Puget Sound, they generally eat only fish—mostly salmon, rockfish, and cod—and leave the other species alone.
Orcas are highly social, traveling in packs or “pods” of up to 40 individuals. Families stay together, protecting the young and mourning their dead. There are three resident pods in Puget Sound and along the Washington coast, with a total of about 75 members; other transient pods occasionally swim into the area but don’t stay long. The most frequent sightings are around the San Juan Islands , especially at Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island . Unfortunately, the resident population of orcas around the San Juans has declined sharply in recent years. Get the latest at the San Juan Island-based Whale Museum  website (www.whale-museum.org ).
Every spring, tour boats leave the docks at Westport  and a few other coastal towns for a close-up look at the migrating California gray whales. These enormous whales—up to 42 feet in length and upward of 30 tons—migrate from the Bering and Chukchi seas to the warm breeding lagoons off Baja California in winter, passing the Washington coast southbound in November and December and northbound from April to June. Occasionally a group of gray whales comes into Puget Sound, and several have beached themselves and died for thus-far-unknown reasons. Most, however, follow the outer coastline. After a 70-year hiatus, the Makah tribe in the far northwest corner of Washington again started hunting gray whales in 1998. They are allowed to take a maximum of five each year for food.
Gray whales are easily identified by their gray color, the absence of a dorsal fin, and bumpy ridges on their backs; their faces are generally covered with patches of barnacles and orange whale lice. Unconcerned with their appearance, gray whales often lift their faces out of the water up to about eye level in a motion referred to as spyhopping.
Commonly seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca  alongside the ferry Coho from Port Angeles  to Victoria, B.C., Dall’s porpoises frequently travel south through the Admiralty Inlet and, on rare occasions, as far south as Tacoma . Dall’s porpoises reach lengths of 6.5 feet and can weigh up to 330 pounds; they feed primarily on squid and small fish.
The harbor porpoise is Puget Sound’s smallest cetacean, ranging to nearly six feet in length and 150 pounds. Although similar in appearance to the Dall’s porpoise, the harbor porpoise is much more shy and rarely spotted in the wild. Accurate counts are impossible, but the population around the San Juan Islands  has been estimated at fewer than 100; none live in Puget Sound anymore, though resident populations were spotted there in the 1940s.
In summer and early fall, schools of up to 100 Pacific white-sided dolphins enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca , traveling as far inshore as Port Angeles  but rarely any farther east. Reaching up to seven feet in length and 200 pounds, these dolphins are common off Japan and along the continental shelf from Baja California to the Gulf of Alaska. They have black backs, white shoulders and bellies, and hourglass-shaped streaks that run from their foreheads to their tails; the rear halves of their dorsal fins are light gray. Like the Dall’s porpoise, white-sided dolphins enjoy riding bow waves and often leap full-length out of the water alongside a boat.
Harbor seals are numerous throughout Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca , with their statewide population estimated at 7,000. They can be seen at low tide sunning themselves on rocks in isolated areas, but they will quickly return to the water if approached by humans. Though they appear clumsy on land, these 100- to 200-pound seals are poetry in motion underwater; they flip, turn, and glide with little apparent effort, staying underwater for as long as 20 minutes.
The California sea lion is a seasonal visitor to the Strait of Juan de Fuca  and northern Puget Sound, though on some mornings in winter and early spring their barking can be heard in shoreline communities as far south as Tacoma . These dark brown sea lions breed off the coast of California and Mexico in the early summer, and then some adventurous males migrate as far north as British Columbia  for the winter. A large group of them collects just offshore from Everett , where a commercial tour boat takes visitors out for a closer look.
The lighter-colored Steller sea lions are more numerous in the Puget Sound area, numbering up to several hundred in winter, primarily around Sucia Island in the northern Sound. The males of the species are much larger than the females, growing to almost 10 feet in length and weighing over a ton, while the females are a dainty six feet long and 600 pounds. Both are almost white when wet; the male has a yellow mane.
Puget Sound is home to the largest species of octopus in the world. Though it grows to 12 feet across the arms and weighs 25–30 or more pounds, it’s not dangerous and, in fact, often plays with divers.
Another peculiar Puget Sound inhabitant is the geoduck (pronounced GOOey-duck, from the Native American gweduck, meaning dig deep). These large clams can burrow as deep as five feet and weigh in at four or five pounds, with reports of some clams exceeding 15 pounds. The fleshy part of the body is so large that neither the entire body nor the siphon can be completely withdrawn into the shell. Geoducks are generally cut up and used in chowder, but some quality restaurants serve them as regular menu items or specials.
The horse clam is the second-largest Pacific Northwest clam, weighing up to five pounds. Horse clams only dig about two feet deep, so they’re much easier to gather and can be found in Cultus and Useless bays at the south end of Whidbey Island . Both geoducks and horse clams prefer sandy or sand-gravel beaches.
For information on clamming, contact the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (360/902-2700, http://wdfw.wa.gov ). Some years, the overabundant growth of microorganisms causes the clams to build up dangerous levels of toxins. So, before digging, it’s practically mandatory to call the Shellfish Hotline (360/796-3215 or 800/562-5632) for the latest on the edibility of clams.