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Five great places to see killer whales in the wild

There are more interesting places to see orcas, or killer whales, than inside a theme park.

That's been the drumbeat of animal activists who have worked against keeping black-and-white whales in captivity, the lightning rod being the release of the documentary film "Blackfish" in 2013.

On Monday, Sea World San Diego -- where ticket sales have slumped since the controversy started -- announced plans to change its signature tail-flapping orca act and replace it with a show that focuses on natural whale behavior.

Last week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) unveiled legislation that would prohibit anyone from keeping orcas in captivity.

Regardless of how these efforts play out, there are plenty of places to see killer whales. Orcas, which really belong to the dolphin family, are found in oceans around the world.

You have to know when to go to see them in, say, Antarctica or Norway.

Here are five places not so far from home that may provide a front-row seat.

1. San Juan Islands, Washington

This is one of the most dependable place to go to see orcas in the continental U.S.

The waters off the San Juan Islands are home to what's called Southern resident killer whales, meaning they stick around to feed off salmon runs. The best time to go is late May through mid-October.

There are lots of whale-watching outfitters in the San Juan Islands, which also are part of a national monument.

But if you want an almost guaranteed sighting, go by power boat. The small boats may get you to killer whale country quickly; some bigger boats move more slowly in the waters (but are a better refuge if the weather turns).

You can book a stay at San Juan, Orcas or Lopez islands (all have overnight facilities) and take a big whale-watching boat, a small one or go kayaking on your own.

And if you're a confirmed landlubber? "One of the best places in the world to see whales from shore, because they come in close on the west side of the islands, is Lime Kiln Point State Park," said Barbara Marrett of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. It's also nicknamed Whale Watch Park.

2. Vancouver Island, Canada

Summer is the best time to see orcas in the southern Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland, just west of the San Juan Islands.

You can leave from Victoria, Sooke and Sidney for whale-watching tours.

The Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago off the island's northeast coast also have resident orcas -- about 250. Tours (whale-watching boats or kayaks) leave from Port McNeill, Alert Bay and Telegraph Cove.

Check out wildlife-viewing outfitters at British Columbia's tourism website.

3. Southeastern Alaska

In the southeastern part of Alaska, the best place to see orcas is in Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. Whale-watching tours leave from Seward usually from May 5 to June 5, the sweet spot for seeing them. They're usually feeding on a king salmon run at that time of year.

Other killer whale hot spots can be found at Prince William Sound; along the Inside Passage for those on a cruise; and from the Kodiak to the Shumagin Islands. 

Alaska Whale Tours is a good resource for specifics on when and where to go.

4. Monterey Bay, Calif.

Kate Spencer knows where to find orcas. She takes visitors into Monterey Bay in a six-person Zodiac boat.

Sometimes there are orca "dive-bys" such as the one she recently captured in the video above. It's an intimate way to experience these impressive creatures in the wild.

"There are different types of killer whales around the world, different species, they use different languages," said the naturalist and captain of Fast Raft Ocean Safaris, based in Monterey.

Monterey Bay also has transient mammal-hunting orcas. The best times to see them are mid-April to mid-May, when they ambush and kill baby gray whales on their northern journey. They've also been turning up in October, Spencer said.

You'll also find fish-eating resident orcas too.

Check out tips on what to wear as well as whale-watching outfitters at the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

5. Southern California

Seeing whales in Southern California is usually tied to the annual migrations of the grays between Mexico and Alaska. However, it's not out of the question to see orcas along the coast too.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a marine mammal researcher who runs the American Cetacean Society / Los Angeles Chapter's annual gray whale census at Point Vincente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, counts killer whales too.

"They're not as common; we do get killer whale sightings but not as regular as Monterey Bay," Schulman-Janiger said. She said December and January may be the best time to look for them in the warming waters off the coast.

The orcas, which have been seen more frequently in Southern California in the last four years, may be transients from Monterey Bay or they may be eastern tropical Pacifics, which come up from Mexico.

Whale-watching tours on which you may see an orca are offered in Santa Barbara at Condor Express, which tours the Channel Islands. Shulman-Janiger recommends tours that leave from Marina del Rey and Redondo Beach, Long Beach, Newport Beach (Newport Landing Whale Watching reported seeing two orcas last week), Dana Point and as far south as Oceanside and San Diego.

This year's gray whale census begins Dec. 1 and continues daily through the end of May. Visitors are welcome to come sight whales from land, check out the daily numbers board and tour the Point Vicente Interpretive Center.

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