Archive for September, 2010

Some Days Need Bullet Points

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

San Juan Islands and Mount Baker. Photos courtesy of

I am envious of those people that can sit down and power out a blog entry everyday and have it be different, interesting and engaging.  I am finding that as the season grows colder, quieter and slower, I am having difficulty finding the necessary inspiration.  Now, I do not want to give the impression that I am bored or that I in some way am not excited to continue to see the orcas every day.  What a gift it is to live and work in this beautiful place.  Winters are agonizing because I am no longer on the water, even though the less hectic pace is a slice of heaven, believe you me.  I just feel like I can not do justice to the wonderful animals that we see here on a regular basis.  So, tonight I am going with bullet points and that is all there is to it.  This is what we saw today:

  • Resident orcas
  • Dall’s porpoises
  • Steller’s sea lions
  • harbor seals
  • fallow deer
  • mouflon sheep
  • many, many seabirds, including grebes

So, from all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you list makers out there (bucket or otherwise), thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

A Picture Perfect Kind of Day.

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Wow! That is pretty much the only way to describe our tour today. Dream up your perfect vision of a whale watching trip and we pretty much had it. We started the whale watching portion of the trip at Turn Point on Stuart Island. Captain Craig parked the boat with the perfect view a Turn Point lighthouse and the tippy-top of Mount Baker peeking out above giant fluffy distant clouds. The sun was shining down on us and the waters were calm. The warm land breeze from Stuart Island blew upon us, keeping us much warmer than a chilly sea breeze would.

Such a wonderful setting, even before we found the whales … but the perfect whale watching trip hadn’t even begun! Suddenly, whales started rounding Turn Point. Then more whales, then more! Orca after orca came toward the point, puffs of water vapor could be seen as distant whales headed our way and the orcas that passed by glistened in the sun. It was a super pod today, meaning all the whales from the Southern Resident community passed us by! Before seeing the whales we had seen harbor seals and bald eagles, after seeing the whales we saw MORE harbor seals, tons of wildlife on Spieden Island, a few harbor porpoise AND a minke whale!

Boy oh boy, it was a fantastic day!
Ashley, Naturalist

Lasting Impressions

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Today was my last day on the water.  I’m heading back to a place where there are no breaching orcas or island dotted waters- the Utah desert.   It was as if all the marine wildlife came out to say goodbye!  We left the harbor with reports of orcas along the southern tip of San Juan.  As we headed towards Salmon Bank, Captain Craig skillfully navigated through the fog.  Along the way, we saw harbor and dall’s porpoises. Cattle Point Lighthouse stood illuminated in a sun patch, wisps of fog slowly drifted by.  “Pooofffttt”  We heard the powerful blow of an orca’s exhale.  L79 “Skana” appeared off our starbird side.  In the distance more dorsal fins emerged out of the fog.  It was hard to leave the whales today, knowing I won’t see them until next season.  I haven’t spent more than a few days without seeing orcas this summer.  I have been deeply touched and truly hope that our guests have made a connection with the natural world as well.  After circumnavigating San Juan Island, we traveled down Spieden Island’s south side.  Many mouflan sheep, fallow deer, and sika deer grazed along the south slope.  Harbor seals and stellar sea lions also graced us with their presence.  Oh yeah, and a bald eagle too.   As we pulled into our slip back in Friday Harbor, Popeye the harbor seal was in the water welcoming us home.  I couldn’t have asked for a better last day.

Until next season.

Over and Out,



Gelatinous Masses

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

When you cover as much water as we do in a week, it is easy to feel proprietary about the islands and creatures found therein.  We all feel like we know and own the orcas, trees and birds.  We even feel a fondness for the slimy spineless creatures, and who wouldn’t when they make up most of the biomass (living bulk) of the ocean?  So, the orcas are fabulous and I could not be happier that we have been continuing to see them everyday, but I think that the invertebrates need some love too.  This is my ode to them.

Moon Jellyfish. Photo courtesy of m_stephens

Cross Jellyfish. Photo courtesy of BiodiversityGuy

Since the all consuming category of invertebrates is way too large to cover in just one short blog, I am going to pay particular homage to the Cnidarians (ni-DARE-ee-ans).  This complex group of animals includes the mysterious and beautiful jellyfish.  As with all of the other creatures found in this phylum jellyfish have the ability to sting, sometimes fatally so.  The other stinging animals in the phylum are sea anemones, corals and hydra (no not the mythological monster).  It is the ability to sting, and the cells associated with that power, that gave the phylum its name.  Cnidocytes (ni-doe-SITES) are cool little mechanisms of chemical engineering that shoot out stingers that can burn and kill if you are the right kind of food or an unlucky swimmer.  Not all cnidarians are dangerous though.  It is completely possible to touch an anemone without anything happening other than feeling like the tentacles are stuck on your finger.  There are also many corals that will just scratch without causing horrible burning and some jellyfish can be held in your hand without any untoward affects at all.

Lion's Mane Jellyfish. Photo courtesy of BiodiversityGuy

Egg Yolk Jellyfish. Photo courtesy of

In the San Juan Islands there are four types of jellyfish that are readily seen.  Two small species can be seen floating in the harbors around the docks and pilings.  Two larger species, one of which is the largest in the world, are more easily seen out in open water from a boat or kayak or while diving.  Moon jellies are recognized by the four-leaf clover pattern that shines through their bell, the curved top part, and cross jellies have just what their name suggests, a bright white “X” that crosses their bell.  Lion’s mane jellies are the largest in the world and are known by their deep russet coloration.  Here in the Salish Sea we do not get exceptionally large ones like they do on the East Coast, with the largest ones recorded having bells that were more than 6 feet across with tentacles that reaching 100 feet in length.  Finally, egg yolk jellies also look just like their name suggests, a raw egg that has been broken open with the yolk and whites exposed.  It is the lion’s mane and egg yolk jellies that divers and kayakers have to be aware of while in the water.  These jellyfish have the long hanging tentacles that carry very strong stinging cells.  The small moon and cross jellies have simple, short fringe-like tentacles along the edge of their bells and are not potent enough to harm humans.  The potency of the lion’s mane jellyfish is so well known in England, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featured it as the killer in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”.

So, from all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you out there with a painfully stinging wit, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

An Orca By Any Other Name

Friday, September 24th, 2010

The naming of an orca calf is a sensitive and involved process.  By the means of soliciting suggestions, sifting through the offerings and choosing the best options, and then serving up the prime choices for heated voting, orcas are endowed with monikers that help elevate them to the most regal of heights within the marine mammal community.  These chiefly labels will help the orcas define and express their personalities, strengths and values.  Because of this, orca calves must withstand the gauntlet of their first year, so that they have an understanding of the gravity of the naming process and the responsibilities that will be handed to them by the benevolent deities at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.  Past powerful nom de plumes have been Oreo, Doublestuf, Yoda, Granny and Mike.  Clearly awe inspiring.

Earlier this month it was once again time to perform this most precious of rituals and “name the babies”.  With the most sincere gravity and honor, I would like to present the rubrics bestowed upon the four calves that proved their mettle in this, the life battle of the ocean.  Please stand when your name is called:

  • J44 “Moby”
  • J46 “Star”
  • L112 “Sooke”
  • L113 “Cousteau”

Let us hear a round of applause for our newest graduates.  So, from all of us at San Juan Safaris, to all of you name-droppers out there, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!

~Tristen, Naturalist

Orca calf tail fluke

A SUPER(Pod) Day of Whale Watching!

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

A day of boating on crystal calm, sun-sparkled waters with the very slightest breeze caressing our smiling faces as we stared out at the beautiful San Juan archipelago. What more could a boatload of people ask for? How about every member of the Southern Resident community gracing this scenery? Well, ask or not, that’s what we got!

The flat waters allowed guests to watch as large clusters of orcas crossed Boundary Pass, heading towards Turn Point. The whales traveled in tight groups towards Turn Point lighthouse. As we paralleled a large group of slowly moving whales, surfacing in what appeared to be a synchronized pattern. We looked out in the distance and as far as the eye could see behind they whales we were closest to, others large groups of whales surfaced in the same synchronized fashion. More than one guest remarked about how incredible the day was, and I couldn’t agree more! Beautiful weather, amazing orcas, and majestic islands … a person couldn’t ask for more.

Ashley,  Naturalist

Surprise Orca Reports

Monday, September 20th, 2010

We left the harbor without any orca reports.  For about 20 minutes we wondered whether or not we would see our black and white friends today.  As we neared Spieden Island, Captain Craig started to receive reports of whales on the west side of San Juan heading north.  Surprise! This is my first season with San Juan Safaris, and I am almost convinced that I’m the lucky charm.  Either that, or it’s the fact that the Fraser River is experiencing one of its biggest salmon runs in almost a century.  Whichever is the case, I can’t say I was too surprised when I heard the good news.

We passed Henry Island and started to see whales spread out around the north end of San Juan.  J1 “Ruffles” was traveling close to shore with a few other members of the Jpod.  We identified J16 “Slick” and J30 “Riptide”.  Riptide is a “sprouter” male born in 1995.  “Sprouter” is the term we use for juvenile males as they mature and their dorsal fin becomes taller and pointier.  Riptide’s handsome dorsal fin appears to be getter larger every time I see him.

After leaving the whales, we traveled along the south slope of Spieden Island.  We saw a Steller’s sea lion in the water and Fallow Deer and Mouflon Sheep roaming the grassy hillside.  With the sun shining, our guests had many great wildlife photo opportunities.  It will definitely be a great day to remember.



Active Orcas and Foggy Passes

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Lately I’ve been appreciating the mysterious, blanketing fog. It wraps itself around the trees and the land, clinging like spider webs.We left Friday Harbor slowly and headed north, towards the orcas. Luckily for us, the fog cleared as we turned out of the harbor, but for those on the ferry headed west, the fog quieted their hearts and minds, while the sun shone on ours.

We headed north through San Juan Channel, past Flattop into President’s Channel and then finally into Canadian Waters to Point Roberts. In our line of vision were the coal docks and the sky scrapers of Vancouver. The water was smooth as glass with very little wind or rain to disturb any lingering fog. The orca’s dorsal fins reflected the light of the sun, and fish jumped while on the run, madly dashing to escape the orca’s tongue.

There were several large males and calves on the scene. When we lowered the hydrophone into the water we could hear them vocalizing, almost singing. It was exceptionally close, as these same vocalizing orcas passed at a 125 yards off our stern. They were breaching and tail lobbing, playing and hunting in the sun, unaware that further south lay the sleepy time fog.

Lauren Sands
Support Seeing the Orcas in the Wild


Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Another great day on the west side of San Juan Island!  To start the trip off right we almost immediately spotted a bald eagle perched on Turn Island.  This must have been a good omen because today’s trip was spectacular.  Little did we know it at the time, but there were about 20 orcas on the west side.  We traveled towards False Bay, stopping to watch the Steller’s sea lions on Whale Rocks.  They were roaring loud today!  Our crew was so entertained with these charismatic creatures that we could have stayed there all day!

The whales were widely spread out along the west side.  We identified L87, L88, and L2.  We turned off the boat and watched the whales swim by in every direction.  After lowering the hydrophone, we heard a large variety of squeals and squeaks.  It was hard not to be completely entranced by the orcas.  Although it was raining, our enthusiastic guests were practically begging us to stay longer.  With word from the other whale watching boats, there were more orcas headed our direction.  We stayed put and watched as about 15 more orcas appeared across the smooth waters.  Apparently the K pod was near because we identified K21 “Cappuccino”.  On our way back to Friday Harbor, we saw Dall’s porpoise playing in the wake of our boat.  Rain shmain, today was a WOW kind of day.



“Pooooft” – Whale listening … It isn’t always about watching.

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Well, the residents graced us with their presence today after a brief hiatus. However, so did the fog. Although Captain Craig isn’t crazy about the fog (which I guess makes sense seeing he’s in charge of our lives and safety and such), I love it. We drove through Cattle Pass on the way to reach the Southern Resident orcas and were hit with a wall of fog. Taking advantage of the luxuries of modern technology, Capt. Craig skillfully maneuvered the M.V. Sea Lion to the scene of the whales, without the slightest glimpse of land or sky to guide us. When we arrived on scene visibility was minimal at best, but we were determined to find the whales.

So, in a situation like this one, what’s the best way to accomplish this goal? Shut off the engine! Excited visitors to the San Juans are enticed with the lure of “Whale Watching,” but it’s all too easy to forget it isn’t all about our eyes. It is so easy to forget our other senses. The orcas use their hearing much more than their vision. They use echolocation to hunt and various squeaks and squeals to communicate. An orca pod can be miles away from one another, but because they use sound to travel, communicate, and hunt, they are still considered to be “together.” Today passengers on the boat got the chance to experience a brief glimpse into an orcas world. We LISTENED instead of LOOKED. We heard the breath of various orcas as they surfaced all around us … “poooofft.” We envisioned them fishing and traveling – and occasionally caught a view of one or two doing so! It all felt like a dream. Eventually we drove out of the fog, the sun began shining on our faces and we all smiled realizing that in fact it wasn’t.

It’s always something different out here in the islands. But you can’t fight the weather and lets keep wildlife wild. So, we roll with the waves and enjoy the ride!

Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!
Over and out,
Ashley, Naturalist