Lucky gawkers have been spotting J and K pod whales up and down the Sound this month.

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Update, Nov. 19, 3:10 p.m.: After thrilling onlookers all over central Puget Sound for weeks, the southern resident killer whales that fed, played and traveled in our midst have departed, at least for now.


Southern resident orcas are making waves all over Puget Sound, in a rare extended visit that began Nov. 4 that hasn’t let up yet.

The orcas have been traveling the central Puget Sound waters, wowing ferry riders, shore-based whale watchers, and orca fans from Tacoma to Vashon Island to West Sound.

About 40 J and K pod whales were cavorting all day long Thursday off the south end of Vashon, near the Tahlequah Ferry dock, the former Asarco Smelter site, and Commencement Bay, making their way back north toward Seattle by day’s end. After spending most of the day scattered in small groups, the pods gathered for a sunset finale, cruising right by Pt. Robinson Park on Maury Island, as islanders stood in astonishment on the beach to watch.

Southern resident orcas travel and play in Puget Sound on Thursday near the south end of Vashon Island. (Lynda Mapes / The Seattle Times, taken under NOAA permit #21348)

The orcas were in fine form, tail and pectoral and dorsal fin slapping, breaching, “spy hopping” and generally horsing around. They are here to chase the chum runs just now returning to Puget Sound rivers, and were actively hunting. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists were out surveying the whales Thursday. They collected shreds of salmon left on the surface of the water after the whales scored a meal, as well as silvery scales and soupy whale scat, all for later analysis.

There is no telling how long the whales will stick around. Try your luck soon. Some suggestions:

The Bremerton, Bainbridge and Vashon ferry routes as well as the King County Water Taxi transit the waters the orcas have been traveling of late. Go online to the Washington State Ferries and King County Water Taxi to check sailing times and dock locations.

Get text-message updates about local orcas

To join the conversation, text the word ORCA to 206-429-4613 or enter your cellphone number below.

On Maury Island, Point Robinson Park offers a great opportunity to enjoy the beach and historic light house while hoping for a whale sighting. Lincoln Park in West Seattle is another good bet, as is the beach at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma. All of these offer a fine outing even if you are skunked by the whales. Be sure to take binoculars.

For recent sighting reports, and land-based whale watching locations, go online to The Whale Trail and the Orca Network. And remember if you do go whale watching in a private boat remain at least 200 yards from any marine mammal and keep your speed to less than 7 knots when traveling withing a half a mile of orcas, to reduce noise intrusion that can hinder their hunting and communication.

The Be Whale Wise guide has all you need to know to watch the critically endangered southern residents legally and responsibly.

[More: Orca recovery task force urges partial ban on whale watching, study of dam removal]