Archive for May, 2010

Prolific Past 9 Days

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Its been a prolific past 9 days marred by only been 1 day whale-less day. We’ve been blessed by humpbacks, transient orcas and resident orcas. For the past few days we’ve seen the easily identifiable T-40. Transient male dorsal fins can get up to 6 ft. tall and T-40 is all male. Born in 1961, the tip of his dorsal fin is dropping with age. It creates a natural umbrella handle or hook. Over the past few days he has been traveling with 2 companions, possibly both females or juvenile males, or a female and juvenile male.

Orcas have similar life cycles to humans. They live to be the same ages, reach puberty and sexual maturity at the same ages, the females have a long post reproductive life (which is unusual in animals other than humans and elephants), mate year round, and give birth year round. When the males reach puberty, their dorsal fin starts sprouting. Usually we can’t tell the gender of a calf until its reaches puberty, unless we get a photo of their white underside, for example when they breach. Then we can see the markings of their ventral area and discern whether there are any mammary glands.

Maybe T-40 will continue to grace us with his presence…or maybe the residents are on their way back. Its been observed that the transients yield to the residents when they’re in the area, possibly because residents travel in much larger groups than the transients, therefore presenting a larger threat. Transients eat other mammals including whales and dolphins, so it is counter-intuitive in some ways that the transients may be threatened by the residents. But there are 89 members of the Southern Resident Community, and Transients rarely travel in groups larger that 12, sometimes even traveling alone. T-14, Pender as he is also known, circumnavigates San Juan Island.

Transients rarely ever breach and today I saw one breach for the first time. We also saw several spy hops as well. All of the behavior that one sees at Sea World is based on natural behavior, but the mammal eating transients are simply less acrobatic than fish eating residents because mammals are much more perceptive than fish. Sound travels about 2 miles per second underwater, so the sound of their whole 12,000 pound body slapping the water during a breach could travel for 7 miles, alerting every marine mammal in the vicinity of their presence. Last evening when I saw them, and again today, this group of 3 transients seemed especially relaxed and playful. Swimming closely, caressing, tail lobbing, pec slapping, spy hopping and finally breaching, I think some courtship behavior may be involved.

Is This Neverland?

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

It must be since Capt. Hook just arrived!  That is right, we spent the day with good old Capt. Hook and, in this story, his jolly gals.  And we did not have to go more than twenty minutes down San Juan Channel before we met up with them.  Transient orcas T40, or Capt. Hook as he is affectionately known, and two females were traveling north up through Griffin Bay on the east side of San Juan Island today.  It was a quick trip from the dock for us and the rest of the whale watch fleet.  Especially when they led us right back past Friday Harbor.

T40 is a well known and easily recognizable orca due to his distinctive dorsal fin.  At some point in time he must have suffered an injury to the top 1/4 of his fin which causes it to curl over to the left.  Consequently, he has a “hook” which spawned his identity and makes him a sought after sighting specimen in the orca and whale watch world.  Not to mention that he is simply a very impressive older male orca.  His estimated age is 49 years and with male orcas presumed to live between 50 and 60 years, Capt. Hook is possibly getting towards the end of his life.  He is still large and strong though and continues to cover large amounts of water here in the Eastern North Pacific.

Generally an Alaskan local, T40 showed up last year for the first time in many years.  He was seen for a few days and then left for the rest of the season.  Surprisingly, he reappeared more than a week ago back in these waters with the same two females he was swimming with today.  Since the food that they are after, other marine mammals, are constantly on the move in random patterns, then the Transient orcas move in the same manner.  It is for that reason that the familial relationships within the Transient population are not as well know as those of our Resident orcas.

It was a wonderful encounter today, being able to spend time with a big sexy animal like Capt. Hook.  Hopefully, he will be around for many years to come captivating the attention and curiosity of researchers and lay people alike.  And if you ever have any question about where to find him, just remember, follow the “second star to the right and go straight on ’til morning.”

So, from all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you never want to grow up, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

Rock ‘n Roll Whales!

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Okay, well it was actually all of us on the M/V Sea Lion that were doing the rocking and rolling, but I am sure that the orcas were having some fun too.  Especially if all of the breaches by the calf were any indication of their state of mind.  The waters were rough, (unusual for the San Juan Islands), but our guests were tougher and we prevailed in the end.  The orcas were spread all along the south end of San Juan Island in little clusters that were hard to find until we stumbled upon each one.  Despite the heavy spray and the pitching of the boat, our guests were good spotters and helped Lauren, Capt. Craig and me track the orcas on our quest.

When we had all seen our fill, and were ready for some drier conditions, we moved on up the west side of the island and through Mosquito Pass.  Ah, the lull of calm waters was intoxicating and we slid past Henry Island and Roche Harbor with nary a care in the world.  Over at Spieden Island we saw numerous members of both the mouflon sheep and fallow deer herds and the bald eagle on O’neil Island is still working hard at incubating the eggs in it’s nest.

All in all it was an action packed day and I for one will be sleeping well tonight as visions of killer whales dance in my head.

So, from all of us here at San Juan Safaris, to all of you with cast iron constitutions, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

Whales look better when they are wet!

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

It was a bit of a rocky day out there with 2 foot swells, but it was still a great day!  The Southern Resident L- pod was first spotted off False Bay on the southwest side of the island. The pod was spread out into several smaller groups.  We chose to take a look at a smaller group that seemed to be frolicking in the waves. They picked up speed to porpoise over them. Eventually they moved offshore to slightly calmer waters and milled about.  We continued along the west side of the island encountering a small pod of Dall’s porpoise. These small black and white porpoises are often very social riding the bow wake of boats.  Rounding the northwest corner of the island the waves calmed and the ride began to smooth out. On the privately owned Spieden Island we had some up close views of the spotted fallow deer and mouflon sheep that were out grazing. We even saw some of the male mouflon sheep (rams) that have very large curled horns like those of mountain goats. A quick stop by O’neil Island, a small island composed almost entirely of limestone, provided us with a view of an adult bald eagle sitting on it’s nest. Last year this nesting pair started a little late in the season, but it appears they learned from their lesson and have started early this year. They have been on this nest for approximately 4 weeks and we hope to see chicks soon! A few harbor seals later and we were back at the dock.

I’m not in Kansas any more!


Going with the flow, the art of watching wildlife.

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Working as a Naturalist, I have become accustomed to going with the flow (pardon the nautical idiom.) This is often an acquired skill for people, as wildlife has a way of constantly thwarting our wishes to watch them in their natural setting. With a world now filled with zoos, aquariums, and Sea Worlds expectations are often high to have wildlife cooperate with our desires, even ones outside these man-made settings. The orcas have started coming back into this area very frequently – which is common for this time of year. However, some days we see them and others we don’t. This adds to the excitement during the days we do and, luckily for us, today was one of the amazing days where orca sitings seem to be coming from all over place! There were reports of orcas near Galiano Island, the report of L Pod off the south end of San Juan Island, and another group was reported to be somewhere in the vicinity of Victoria.

Captain Craig, our guests, and I headed out of Friday Harbor with the intentions of going south to catch up with L Pod who were reported by Eagle Point near South Beach on San Juan Island. Just minutes after leaving the harbor the Captain began driving around in circles. I went to check with him and he explained to be that the whales couldn’t make up there minds about which way to travel. Until they did, we couldn’t make up ours either. L Pod had started to move north. Then had turned around and started heading south. So, after cruising around in a circle or two we headed south, too!

We found L Pod (or some of L Pod) just north of False Bay. When we first arrived most of the animals were traveling in groups of 3-6 animals traveling close to shore. As we continued to travel with them, various groups seemed to converge and moved offshore. We saw a young calf, an adult male, and many females (or younger males).

It was a chilly, gray day – but nice and calm on the water. After waving goodbye to the whales we headed back towards Friday Harbor – coming back the way we’d came. On the journey homeward everyone onboard saw a bald eagle sitting on the tree adjacent to it’s nest on Long Island. We arrived back to Friday Harbor chilled and content, ready to relax the evening away with a warm cup of coffee and dreams of orcas.
Until next time,

Orca Whale Hat Completes the Whale Watching Tour

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Orca Whale Hat for Young and Young-At-Heart $19.95

You will be a hit in this hat, made in the USA

Only $19.95 and made in the U.S of A! Soft and light. Mails easily and does not break!

A Day of Unusual Events

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Today was a unique day. Most of the 23 people aboard the Sea Lion were part of a wedding party. The funny thing is, no one told me a couple was getting married on board. It was innocuously written in our reservation book. When I asked the pastor if he needed the space cleared of people for the ceremony he said to me “These are all our guests.” And he didn’t just mean the people they’d brought with them. There were several guests in the cabin who didn’t even realize two people were getting married and they looked about them confused when they heard people clapping and cheering. It was a casual affair with both people clad in jeans. I squealed loudly when I met ‘the couple getting married.” Upon registering my over-the-top delight they asked me when I was getting married. The afternoon moved easily like this-people cheerfully cracking jokes and ohhing and ahhing over orca whales, everyone in good spirits.

Another unusual occurrence was that we saw two different groups of orcas in two different locales. The first group was off of Orcas Island near The Sisters and the second group was on our way home near Obstruction Island. It was a whale watching extraordinaire. There were 4 or 5 orcas in the first group and 3 or 4 in the second. All of them transient orcas. Paradoxically, transient doesn’t mean that the orca travels freely with no place to call home. They do in fact have a home range of about 600 miles. So what does transient mean? It means marine mammal eating. Which is why it was also unusual that a Minke whale passed the first group of transients from only 50 feet away. Transients are cannabalistic in that, they eat other whales. The Minke whale was not attacked and as one of the captains said over the radio (to explain this perceived bizarre behavior), he doesn’t stop at every bar he sees. This first group of orcas also had a calf with them, a tiny one, swimming close to its mother. Orcas are birthed tail fluke first. This ensures that they won’t drown during the birthing process.

The second group of transients had the amazing T-40. T-40 spends most of his time in southeastern Alaska and rarely makes it to the Salish Sea. His dorsal fin is what makes him so unique; giant, broad at it’s base, 5 ft. tall and drooping at the top creating a hook. Dorsal fins fall over in captivity, for reasons only theorized, but in the wild male’s dorsal fins droop with age. Its akin to how our skin sags. We also saw a spy hop. That’s when they poke their head straight out of the water to take a look at their surroundings. The word actually breaks down into its meaning. Using their tail fluke to propel themselves they literally hop to ‘spy’ their surroundings. Although they may spyhop or tail lob they rarely breach. Breaching is not a stealthy move because the sound of their entire body slapping the water can travel for miles underwater. Marine mammal hunting transients require stealth because marine mammals are alert and intelligent. To kill their prey they must drown it, beat it to death or chase it to exhaustion. It can take them 2 hours to kill a Stellar Sea Lion. Their dorsal fins are often ripped and ragged  because their food fights back. In our modern society, we often forget that the meat on our plate came from an animal that was killed by a human hand. Seeing a transient make a kill can be upsetting to some people, but the orcas don’t have the convenience of going to the grocery store and buying packaged steak.

Many wildlife tours use Zodiacs, a kind of zippy, open boat, close to the surface of the water.  A guide from Victoria had a giant, male Steller Sea Lion chased by transients jump into his boat to escape. The guide told the passengers to hold on tightly and made a sharp turn throwing the sea lion back into the water. Heart wrenching, but you don’t have much of a choice when 2,000 lbs. of panicked flesh, teeth and claws is staring you in the face. There is a much more heartwarming story of a gentoo penguin in Antarctica that was being chased by a group of orcas. This penguin was swimming as fast as he could and outrunning the orcas. That’s one of their tactics though, chasing to exhaustion. The little gentoo penguin finally rocketed into the wildlife viewing boat. He actually stood on one of the customer’s laps and looked them straight in the eyes. At that point the orcas just gave up and swam away. We see many things in the wild that you would never see at Sea World. We even see them mate.

Support Seeing Orcas in the Wild

Lauren Sands, Naturalist

Hump Day

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

It was whales again today, but this time it was two humpbacks along the west side of San Juan Island.  That makes three different whale species in two days spotted here in the San Juan Islands!  Wow, what a cool place.  It is exceptionally cool when you think about the fact that humpbacks are rare here around the islands.  Normally, if they come into the Salish Sea they do not make it past Victoria Harbor.  Today was our day though and we took advantage of it.  And, as if seeing the whales was not enough, 15 minutes after we arrived on scene the juvenile whale breached three times in a row.  I abandoned all trappings of civility at that point and squealed and clapped and jumped up and down.  My first humpback breach and it was by a youngster.  People on other boats probably heard me losing my mind.  Luckily, Capt. Bill is used to my antics and Casey took it all in stride.  The guests thought I was a little strange though.

As we followed the mother and juvenile pair up the island they would alternate between coming up for breaths together and separately.  The youngster was small enough that his blows were hard to see and did not hang in the air for very long.  The mother was a big adult though and finally moved into waters deep enough that when she went down on a dive we were allowed a view of her tail fluke.  When whales roll down for a deep dive, because there body is nearly vertical, their tail comes up out of the water.  For those of us viewing them, it gives us a chance to photograph the fluke, possibly for identification purposes, and signals that the animal will be underwater for several minutes.

The pair worked their way north and we finally left them as they started along the coastline of Stuart Island.  We never did see any other humpbacks or get reports of any others in the area, so it is unclear whether these two animals were truly alone or not.  Casey, having worked with whales on the East Coast, says that it is rare to see just two like that, especially in this secluded area where they would not normally travel.  It is possible for them to eventually work their way back to the Pacific by going north, but most likely they will turn around some time in the night, maybe with the tidal change, and head back out through the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  If not, maybe we will get to see them again tomorrow.

So, from all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you whale lovers out there, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

Shades of Grey/Gray

Friday, May 21st, 2010

#53 – Photo courtesy of Cascadia Research Collective

Today we followed whales across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.   A vague report of a whale south of San Juan Island became a gray whale known as #53 (see photo above).  On our way towards the area where he was said to be, one of our guests spotted something else in the water.  I quickly left the bridge to sit on the bow and see if I could help find anything.  Sure enough, up popped a juvenile minke whale a few hundred yards from us.  The guests that came up to the bow when the boat slowed down had the opportunity to see the whale surface several times before finally slipping away.  He was moving rather quickly for a minke and made numerous direction changes.  All good indicators that he was being well fed by the sea.

Minke whales are a small baleen whale that are common in the Salish Sea.  All of this means that they are 30 feet long with a flat, streamlined body and are filter feeders that live in the waters around the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound.  Like other baleen whales they require huge clouds of plankton, krill and bait fish to survive.  Since cold waters have more food, and therefore more life, in them than warm waters, baleen whales are fond of this area.  Besides minke and grey whales, we also see humpback whales, just like the one spotted on May 18th.  Since our minke friend gave us the slip, it was time to go and join the hunt for the grey whale.

We met up with other boats at Eastern Bank about 3.5 miles west of Smith Island.  After watching the water for a few minutes there was finally a great blow 500 yards off of our bow.  We got to see one more before the gray whale went down on an extended dive.  All in all we saw him surface several times over the next hour and we were rewarded to views of his tail fluke twice.

The sun peeped in and out of the clouds and the breezes kept us bundled up.  It was worth it though to see one of the grey whales that are considered residents in these waters.  As Cascadia Research Collective expands their knowledge of this species and population, and integrates all of the sightings and photographs from throughout the year, the more we will all know.  We may even find that the San Juan Islands are just as good a place to see grey whales as the lagoons of baja Mexico are.

So, from Capt. Mike, Ashley, the M/V Sea Lion and all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you who think that grey/gray matters, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

Cruising Time

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

What do you do when there are no reports of whales?  Which way do you go so that you are in the best position in case whales are spotted?  How do you predict where whales are going to be?  The answers are – wildlife tour, any way you want and you don’t.  The hardest part about being a Marine Naturalist when there are no whales, is convincing people that no one else is seeing whales either and that when it comes to our orca whales, it is impossible to predict when and where they will be anywhere.  Even if you left them there last night, or two hours ago.  Wild animals roam, just as ancient humans used to do in response to the movements of those same animals.  Of course, there is a method to the madness of that roaming, but without the ability to live the exact life or understand the words associated with that travel, we will never fully understand the reasoning behind any of it.  Since that is the case, then we must muddle through the best that we can and have as many adventures along the way as possible.

With the dilemma of direction of travel upon us today, Capt. Mike, Casey and I decided that South was the way to go and hopefully we would be the boat to find a whale and again be heroes.  It turned out to be a beautiful trip and one that I had a great deal of fun on, the wet seat of my pants included.  With me chatting up the people in the bow of the boat and Lauren covering the stern with Casey floating back and forth, we discussed island history and geography, watched seabirds feeding on baitballs, spotted eagles, seals and porpoises, and laughed at each others antics.  The sun came and went and the clouds provided us with an orca look-alike.  We never did find any whales, but there was no lack of company or topics for discussion.  As always, it was a lovely day on the water.

So, from all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you who think that life is better on the the “Old Salty”, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist