Archive for August, 2010

Over the river and through the woods……….

Monday, August 30th, 2010
Map: Active Pass, Canada

Map: Active Pass, Canada

Today we ventured to Active Pass in Canada to admire those beautiful black and white creatures known as Orcas.
It is not very often we have to travel this far to see them. Thanks to the gorgeous weather, our guests definitely did not mind the boat ride. The longer boat rides are often very nice because we get the opportunity to know the guests on board a little better and delve into deeper subjects relating to the Orca population. Also we get to see many of the islands along the way and talk about the history and unique groups of people that live on them.

Today the guests got a special treat of seeing some of the Canadian gulf islands as we wound our way through active pass. We caught up to the whales as they were making there way through the pass and out into open waters.  There were orcas as far as the eye could see practically! This large grouping was a mix of different pods and they were very spread out.  We observed parts of J pod with a small grouping of L pod nearby. In the distance large splashes were observed as the whales breached and slapped their tails. It was not long before the groups near us were doing the same actions. We even got to observe a few spy hops, which are my personal favorite. It was a great day and well worth the extra drive!


Cross-cultural Communication

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

With the orcas being able to swim 30-35 mph and covering 100 miles in a day, it is easy to see how they can become “lost” from one day to the next.  And with the Salish Sea being such a large body of water, how is it that the whale watching companies ever find what they are looking for?  Since we do not use bait sites, spotting planes or boats, and none of the animals we see are animatronic, we must be using some other means of detection.  Sonar?  Nope.  Fish finder?  Only works if we are on top of them.  Radio or satellite tags?  Information is not instantaneous.  Word of mouth?  Bingo!  That is right, the best trick we have for finding orcas or any other wildlife is to listen to the gossip.

All of the whale watching companies work cooperatively.  It does not matter if they are from the U.S., Canada, mainland or islands, we all share information.  It is part of the code out here on the water and the penalties, both real and social, can be harsh for a captain that does not play the game right.  Since all of the captains know each other, they will call back and forth directly to confirm reports.  The radio is also alive with all manners of maritime talk.  This way each company can supply the best trip possible for their guests.  It does no one any good to keep all of the intelligence to themselves, since it would be a lot of water to search if they were the last company standing.

International tourism also depends on the continued good health of the whale watching community’s friendship.  All of the boat companies are allowed to travel beyond the boundaries of their own country in search of wildlife and beautiful views.  Guests do not need to carry passports, so long as they are on a licensed whale watching vessel.  Out on the M/V Sea Lion and Kittiwake, it is not unusual for us to cruise into Canadian waters to see orcas, sea lions or birds and to talk about the sites that can be found in our sister country.  And there is no better place to tell the Pig War story than while floating on the international border out in the middle of Haro Strait.  A wandering pig was the linchpin in a dispute that finally decided the location of the border that we crossed today in our commune with wild orcas.  Wildlife has no boundaries, so we do not either.

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

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

Tag-wearing Transients

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

We often have people ask us about whether the orcas wear tags and if that is how we know where they are.  Since the Southern Residents are listed as an endangered species, researchers are not given permission to attach tags to them.  The same logic that discourages the use of tags is the same safety-based thinking that prohibits taking skin or blood

White dot on dorsal fin is satellite tag. Photo courtesy of Cascadia Research

samples from the resident orcas, thereby limiting the introduction of bacteria and infection.  Because the resident population is so small (a total of 87 animals) researchers do not want to cause any further stress on this fragile community of marine mammals.

Tags on transient orcas are a different story, though.  Since transient orcas are not endangered and appear to have a much larger population than the resident orcas, there are some individuals with tags on their dorsal fins.  The satellite tags are used to map the travels of the orcas to try and discover where they are doing most of their hunting and whether there is a discernible pattern to their movements.  The tags cannot, however, be used to monitor the animals’ locations minute to minute.

Satellite tags have a lag when transmitting information that can be three days or more.  Since the tags only transmit when they are out of the water and the signal is picked up by three satellites, the information can be very random and spotty.  The transmissions that are logged are then archived by the satellite company and need to be accessed and collected by the researchers who applied the tags.  The information is then integrated into the data storage and sometimes posted onto a website for general consumption.  Because of the time periods present in this multi-step process, the whale watching industry cannot use satellite tag information to help find the orcas on a daily basis.  The visual approach to finding wildlife still works, though, and we use it to our best advantage: even when it comes to transient orcas wearing tags, like the female T099 that we spent time with today.  She and her family were swimming up and down San Juan Channel and we could see the tag that she wears on the left side of her dorsal fin.

So, from all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you who like to accessorize, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

The Bigger The Better!

Friday, August 27th, 2010

When it comes to orca mating, researchers do not know how the pairs are established.  Mating is indiscriminate, meaning that males and females do not stay together.  Females raise the calf with their family and the males help to raise their siblings, cousins, etc.  It has even been theorized that the matriarch has some say in who will pair with whom and when.  Talk about a nosy in-law.

If the matriarchs do not condone, or even establish, when the mating will take place, and we know that males do not appear to fight for breeding rights, then in what manner are the pairs formed?  We do not hear singing like with the humpbacks.  There are no pitched battles like with narwhals.  Orcas are pack hunters and share their food, so being a good hunter/gatherer seems an unlikely means of conquest.  What is left?  Well, male orcas have very tall, straight dorsal fins that do not resemble the ones that females have.  Maybe that is what is used to determine a male’s virility or health.  Researchers have assumed that the big old male, J1 “Ruffles”, fathered large numbers of offspring simply because there were so few adult males available.  What if the real reason was the big, wavy dorsal fin that he carries around.  I know one or two naturalists who think it is sexy, why not the lady orcas as well?  And now that L41 “Mega” is so grown-up, maybe he will become the top breeder and J1 “Ruffles” can enjoy his twilight years in peace.

If the size or shape or turn of the male’s dorsal fin is what decides the case, then the transient orca that we spent the day with must be very popular.  It was actually a group of four transient orcas and the one male in the pod, T169, has a dorsal fin that is so wide and heavy it actually hangs to the side making it look curved.  He runs with his sister, T168, and her two female calves, T168A and T168B.  These four were spotted earlier this season and were maybe the animals that we saw at the start of this week in an area where resident orcas were feeding.  As amazing as that encounter was, the really interesting thing about these orcas is that researchers could not be sure that they were actually transients until they ran DNA tests on them.  This family does not interact with other transients and while they have very heavy dorsal fins, they are shaped more like those of the resident community; very rounded at the tip.  It made for fascinating contemplation out on the water today.

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

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

Banner Runs of Salmon and Steelhead Are Migrating Up Some Northwest Rivers This Summer

Friday, August 27th, 2010

This just out regarding Salmon (resident orcas mainstay of food). It is interesting enough that I am putting up on our blog, which is usually reserved for  crew to report on their tour experiences.

Here is the link.  It is only about a 2 minute piece – give a listen?

NORTH BONNEVILLE, WA (N3) – Banner runs of salmon and steelhead are migrating up some Northwest rivers this summer. Not since dams were constructed on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have this many sockeye salmon returned. Sockeye bound for Baker Lake in northwest Washington also smashed the pre-season forecast. Meanwhile, the 2010 summer steelhead run is on pace to be the second highest on record on the Columbia. The modern record for steelhead was set in 2001. KPLU’s Tom Banse explores possible explanations for the unexpectedly high salmon returns.

The Sea Is A Cruel Mistress

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Compass Rose

All of the old mariner’s tales that you have heard about the watery deep are true.  She is unpredictable, untameable and undeniable.  She giveth and she taketh away, and usually when you least expect it.  Here in the Salish Sea, nestled amongst the San Juan Islands, it is no different.  Each day and every trip is different.  The weather changes just like a woman changes her mind and everyone knows that there is no arguing with that.  The water will be glass one minute and sloppy chop the next.  The orcas and other wildlife are there and then they are gone.  The only problem is, that once you have met her, the bounding main is nothing that you can turn your back on and you will do all you can to spend your life with her.

Such is the plight of sea captains and marine naturalists.  Even if we find another place to live or another career to follow, we always land near the briny.  Whether it is choosing a college that happens to be next to the beach or moving to a town that rests along a waterway, the inexorable draw is always there.  It always brings us back for more.  It is the same magnetism that brings people to these islands in the first place; the orcas are a perk.  It is the closeness to Poseidon’s realm that the masses long for and is easily attainable in this unique land.  Once here few people can deny the hold that it exerts on them or their desire to stay.  Even the orcas and the birds return, season after season, fulfilling the ancient quest to know the sea and her minions.

So, from all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you who chase sea nymphs and mermaids, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

Watch This Space

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Each day as we cruise out of Friday Harbor, with hopes of seeing whales drifting about in our heads, I start the guests of with an introduction to the San Juan Islands and the all the wonders the islands offer. I often mention in this introduction that we as naturalists love questions. Not only do we have a passion to educate, we all have a passion to share the facts that YOU as a guest want to know. As an educator, I feel that people retain information better if it is something they are interested in. Boy oh boy did that statement have an effect today! We had a boat load of question asking folk aboard the Sea Lion! I always love being able to share my knowledge of these islands and the amazing animals that reside throughout them through answering questions related to people’s specific interests.

We met up with the Southern Residents as they crossed the Haro Strait and began milling off of False Bay. The whales traveled this way and that, breached and back dived, splashed, traveled and fished. We saw a young calf, many females, and quite a few adult males. Throughout most of the trip, we saw whales traveling or milling in groups of 2 or 3. It was a fabulous time spent with the whales and we had some incredible views!

On our way back home, we passed through Cattle Pass. This pass is a narrow waterway that cuts between San Juan Islands southern tip and Lopez Islands south side. Here in the San Juan Islands we have 4 tides a day (2 high, 2 low) and 8-12 foot tidal fluctuations. This means there is A LOT of water continually rushing in and out. Cattle Pass is a narrow pass and is adjacent to two large Straits, the Haro Strait and the Straight of Juan de Fuca. Oh, how I so thoroughly enjoy driving through this pass at certain points in the tidal exchange. Water doesn’t like to be uneven, so will do its best to even itself out as quickly as possible. This means that, as it squeezes it way through Cattle Pass, the water moves fast at times – up to 7 knots! It also will crash into itself or underwater ridges and get pushed straight up! This is called an upwelling zone, and it one of the main reasons our water is a uniform temperature and nutrient level top to bottom (2 feet down will be the same temperature as 200 feet down). The rushing water also causes whitecaps, back eddys, whirlpools and other turbulence. Although I see this amazing event sometimes twice a day, it never ceases to amaze me! As we cruised through the pass, I explained all of the tidal action that was surrounding us to the guests, and we all took time to awe at it collectively.

All in all, it was yet another fabulous day out on the water!

Ashley, Naturalist

What have you guys been up to?

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Today was an exceptional day, amazing wildlife everywhere and beautiful weather! The animals seemed to get bigger and bigger as we continued our trip. We started by observing some harbor seals warming themselves on the rocks, these animals weigh about 300lbs as adults. Our next stop was the much larger Sea Lions that we spotted in Cattle pass. They have been hanging out in this area fishing for the past few days and it’s been exciting each time to see them.  We were now on our way towards Salmon Bank just off the west side of San Juan Island to see the Orcas.

I have to admit I have been a bit spoiled this summer seeing the Orcas so consistently and being able to say “yes that’s J pod member Ruffles” at least every other day or so. Well it’s been about 4 days since I’ve seen Ruffles (J-1) and I was very excited to see his big wavy fin today. There was lots of social activity today and members of different pods were seen mixing and mingling.  Maybe they had been apart for a few days too and were just as glad to see each other as we were to see them! The Orcas were not the only show around though. A minke whale appeared traveling right in the middle of the orcas.  These baleen whales are just slightly bigger than the Orcas. Minke whales can be very curious and today they proved that. We were observing the minke whale and the Orcas for some distance when all of them took a long dive.  We sat patiently waiting for them to reappear when all of the sudden Captain Mike alerted everyone to all of the bubbles appearing at the bow. The water was crystal clear and as he looked down a minke slide gracefully beneath our boat. Everyone rushed to the side just in time to see this curious creature appear out the other side. We were eye to eye with the Minke whale since he was turned sideways staring up….perhaps he was out people watching?

I almost forgot we saw a Puffin today! These extremely cute birds have almost all but disappeared from this area. They like rocky cliffs with very few people around to nest on. These diving birds can reach depths up to 80 ft and hold their breath for up to 1 minute! Like I said it was an exceptional day on the water!

L pod returns

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

It has been a few days since we have seen L pod (or the Southern Residents in general)  and we can only assume that means they have gone off in search of food in the Pacific, but today we were in luck!  This  afternoon reports came in that they were headed towards San Juan Island. As we headed off for our afternoon trip we decided to go south around the tip of San Juan Island and over to false bay to greet them. Before we could get there we stumbled upon a stellar sea lion swimming in Cattle pass. Always a treat to see their massive heads, but you get a real appreciation for how big they really are when they are hauled out on the land. We traveled over to Whale Rocks and saw many of them basking in the sun. These animals can weigh anywhere between 1500-3000 lbs.  We did not make it out of cattle pass before we were stopped again, but this time it was a Minke Whale. A few good looks at this baleen whale and we were off again.

We had heard L Pod was at  Discovery Island shortly before we departed on our trip. By the time we reached them they had crossed Haro Strait and were traveling by False Bay on San Juan Island. We watching as many adult males, a few females, and a female with her calf travel and fish along the west side.

We were glad to have the orcas back in our area. Although we love all the wildlife that resides here in the San Juans, the orcas are always a special treat and it was great to see them yet again!

Over and out,

Casey and Ashley

Naturalists at San Juan Safaris

Orca Whales Vocalizations off San Juan Island Washington

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Click on this link to hear Orcas Vocalizing -The Hydrophone on the MV Sea Lion August 2010

and see part of the whale watching tour