The biggest species in our coastal waters had a bountiful year, with record-breaking sightings in the Salish Sea, according to a report by the Pacific Whale Watch Association and local research organizations.

Bigg’s killer whales and humpback whales were particularly plentiful in the waters of British Columbia and Washington in 2022.

The two species were the most-frequently documented whales, with sightings on more than 270 days of the year each, PWWA said.

PWWA, which operates year-round whale watching tours in and around the Salish Sea, also spotted gray whales on 200 days in 2022, and minke whales on 158 days of the year.

Sightings of the elusive southern resident killer whales increased last year in the Salish Sea. The J pod was spotted on almost 160 days in 2022, an increase from the average 100-120 days in the past four years, according to the Orca Behavior Institute. Sightings of the K and L pods each remained consistent with their recent average of 30-40 days present each year. Southern residents remain endangered due to declining salmon populations. Only 73 orcas make up the southern resident population, according to a recent PWWA count.

Southern resident orca pod falls to lowest number in 46 years (Sept. 2022)

“20 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for the Southern Residents to be present for more than 150 days just in the months of April-September. 2022 is the only year in the last five years we hit that number for all twelve months of the year,” said the Orca Behavior Institute on Facebook.

Bigg’s killer whales, which hunt marine animals, have steadily increased over the past decade thanks to an abundance of seals, sea lions and porpoises in the region.

In the decades since the implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the early 1970s, “the Salish Sea can now support many more killer whales than it used to,” said Orca Behavior Institute Director Monika Wieland Shields in the PWWA report.

There were 1,221 unique sightings of Bigg’s killer whales throughout the Salish Sea in 2022, according to the Orca Behavior Institute — that’s 154 more sightings than in 2021, and double the number of their sightings in 2017. 

On a single day in 2022, a record number of more than 70 Bigg’s orcas was sighted in waters from the Hood Canal to Vancouver Island, PWWA said.

Single-day record of Bigg’s killer whales spotted in Salish Sea (April 2022)

Bigg’s killer whales — once dubbed “transient” killer whales because they were seen so infrequently — are now a flourishing 370-whale population, according to Bay Cetology. The species, named after pioneering killer whale researcher Dr. Michael Bigg, welcomed 10 new calves in 2022.

But it wasn’t just a big year for the Bigg’s. 

There were 396 individual humpback whales photographed in the Salish Sea in 2022, the highest number documented in a single year in at least the past century, according to researchers with the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration.

The humpback comeback also includes a record-breaking 34 mothers with calves who traveled from their tropical birthing waters in Hawaii, Mexico and Central America.

The previous record of 21 humpback calves was set in 2021, according to the PWWA.

Humpback whales are another Salish Sea success story, growing in number thanks to ample food supply and protective measures enacted in the 1960s prohibiting commercial hunting of the species, the PWWA said.


“20 years ago, it was rare to see humpbacks or Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea. Now, we see them almost every day,” said Erin Gless, the executive director of the PWWA in their report.

Boaters, sightseers told to keep distance from southern resident orcas deemed ‘vulnerable’ (June 2022)

According to the PWWA, protective interventions by professional whale watchers — like stopping speeding vessels, retrieving harmful debris and reporting entangled or injured wildlife — have contributed to the steady increase in whale activity in the Salish Sea.

One of the most important protective measures people can take is recovering the ecosystem we share, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Recovery actions, such as limiting pollution, habitat restoration and salmon recovery, help ensure whales have adequate food, clean water and a healthy ecosystem to thrive in.

Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril

ABOUT THIS SERIES “Hostile Waters” exposes the plight of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales, among our region’s most enduring symbols and most endangered animals. The Seattle Times examines the role humans have played in their decline, what can be done about it and why it matters.