The Surprising Origin of the Name “Orcas” Island 🐋⛵️

May 28, 2019

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

If I told you about an island that was known for watching cormorants and the name of the island was Cormorant Island, it would be safe to assume that the island was named after the bird that calls it home, right? How else would the name originate?

Now imagine an island known for watching orca whales named Orcas Island. Surely the name comes from the whales, right? They are in the water surrounding the island.

Female killer whales as seen from the Yurt
Female killer whales as seen from the Yurt

The name Orcas Island is even more apt if you know a bit about the orcas in the pacific northwest. Along with “transient” orcas, the Salish Sea is home to three pods of “southern resident killer whales”, which are a distinct population of whales that have been on the endangered species list since 2005.

There are currently 75 southern resident whales, who are closely watched, in part, because their numbers are at a 30 year low and may be falling.

As you might imagine, their plight is big news and I am not immune to feeling the heartbreak. This is especially true now that we live with them in our backyard. Do you remember the national news story of the mother orca who carried the lifeless body of her baby on her back for over two weeks? That’s Tahlequah a southern resident orca. After learning so much about the residents, I couldn’t watch that saga in the news.

Having orca whales in the area is one thing. Having resident whales with names and stories, is another. They feel like OUR whales and it seems entirely logical that an island could be named after them, right?

Male killer whale from the Yurt
Male killer whale from the Yurt

As it turns out, it’s all a strange and unlikely coincidence.

When we visited the San Juans before living here, I always wondered why this part of Washington bore names that sounded so Spanish. To access the islands from the Pacific, you must pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sail past Port Angeles. Lopez Island is one of the San Juan Islands. These names seemed out of place among very English sounding names like Rainier, Baker, Vancouver, and Washington. Why was this the case?

Along with English explorers like George Vancouver, the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the pacific northwest in the late 1700s and named much of what they saw. One of those Spanish explorers was Francisco de Eliza.

How explorers reached the San Juan Islands
How explorers reached the San Juan Islands

Eliza was under the command of the Viceroy of New Spain (now Mexico). The Viceroy’s full name was: Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo.

To honor the Viceroy, Eliza named the area around what is now Orcas Island “Horcasitas” and from that point on, the island was known as Horcasitas on Spanish maps.

The English, not satisfied with the Spanish version of names (or native names for that matter) eventually shortened the name to “Orcas” on their charts in 1847. The new, abbreviated name stuck and the island has been known as Orcas Island ever since.

This is why the name is such an interesting coincidence. The name of the island and the name of the whale appears to have no connection at all.

The southern resident orcas were probably swimming these waters when Orcas Island originally got its name. This begs the question: Were the whales named after the island? The short answer is no. Their name comes from their scientific classification as Orcinus Orca (1758), which references a god of the underworld.

For most of their history, they were called blackfish or killer whales because they were seen killing much larger whales. Only in the 20th century did we start calling them orca whales. For the record, orca whales are technically large dolphins.

A life-size orca in the village of Eastsound on Orcas Island
A life-size orca in the village of Eastsound on Orcas Island

And so, despite the unlikely origins of the name, there is no more pervasive symbol of Orcas Island than the orcas who live around it. They adorn everything from mailboxes and yard art to cutting boards and yoga outfits that tourists take home as remembrances.

When those visitors arrive home, they might tell stories of seeing orca whales from Orcas Island and it will all seem to make perfect sense. After all, they’re in the water.


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