In a small victory for animal rights activists, SeaWorld has announced that it will phase out orca displays in order to focus on natural animal behaviour. But no amount of manufactured shows in captivity will ever come close to the experience of seeing these incredible animals in the wild...
This week has been a bonanza of wins for animal rights activists. News first emerged last week that a Californian congressman had proposed a bill to ban the capture and breeding of orcas in captivity, followed by an announcement from SeaWorld itself to say that it would phase out orca displays. Little steps indeed, but ones that should bring about a definitive end to orca captivity.
Regardless of how long these measures take to come into effect, nothing can beat the experience of seeing killer whales in their natural habitat. The world's oceans are home to hundreds of different families, all with their own unique behaviours and habits. You have to know which time of the year is best for viewing, so here are just a few of the best places in the world for orca watching and when to go.
Vancouver Island, Canada
Located between Canada's mainland and Vancouver Island, Johnstone Strait is one of the best places for killer whale watching in the world. The strip of water is home to around 250 resident orcas and summer provides the best chances of sighting these magnificent creatures in the habitat into which they were born.
Other great spots around Vancouver Island are Georgia Strait and Broughton Archipelago. Half-day boat or kayak trips leave daily from several locations along the coast, including Victoria and Sidney for the Georgia Strait and Port McNeill, Alert Bay and Telegraph Cove for Johnstone Strait.
San Juan Islands, USA
The waters around Washington's San Juan Islands are some of the most reliable in the US for spotting orcas. Not far from Vancouver Island, they too are home to Southern resident killer whales, who feed off regular salmon runs. The best time to see them is between late May and early October.
Visitors have a great selection of large boats, smaller (and faster) power boats and individual kayaks from which to choose. Otherwise, head to Lime Kiln Point State Park, which offers some of the best chances in the country of seeing killer whales from the shore.
North and west Iceland
Much of the Icelandic coast is great for catching a sight of wild orcas, as well as minke, blue and humpback whales. You can catch certain boats from the harbour in Reykjavik but for a really incredible experience, head to the north coast during Iceland's period of midnight sun.
Boats departing from Husavik will take you into the Arctic Circle for the best chance of seeing orcas, with peak season between May and September.
Monterey Bay, USA
In the waters of California's Monterey Bay, you may just be lucky enough to witness an orca 'dive-by'. The bay is home to both resident orcas and also transient mammal-hunting orcas, which swim through hoping to catch baby grey whales.
The best time to see transient orcas is a tight window mid-April to mid-May, though there have also been reported sightings in September. There are several companies in the bay offering year-round trips out on larger and smaller boats.
The Antarctic Peninsula is an incredible natural setting to see not only orcas, but minke whales and humpbacks all gather together during the southern summer. Large numbers means a high chance of sightings, with many trips and cruises taking advantage of good probability and spectacular scenery.
The best time to make a trip is towards the end of the summer season, around February and March. Trips can be expensive but well worth the money to see orcas swimming amongst the ice, often in large groups.