Archive for May, 2011

Big and small black and whites: Orcas and Dall’s porpoises

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Heading south from Friday Harbor, we had word that a potential transient pod was seen off Middle Bank and was headed further out towards the Strait of Juan De Fuca.  With the traveling pod in mind, we searched out in that direction.  After a about and hour and a half of travel, fifteen plus miles and some choppy seas, we spotted some whale watching vessels and then, at last, the orcas!  A pod of four to five unidentified transients were on the move, surfacing for several breaths and then diving as a group for two to three minutes at a time.  A small calf was seen with the pod, with 1-2 males and 2-3 females and/or juveniles.

Alas, our time was up and we had to make the inevitable journey back to Friday Harbor.  But the wildlife viewing was not over.  On our way back in we saw several bird balls of gulls and other sea birds, possibly foraging on bait balls.  At Whale Rocks, we saw ten to fifteen stellar sea lions hauled out sunning themselves and resting as well as a few harbor seals swimming in the water.  Just when we were running low on time and about to make our final turn towards the harbor, we had one last surprise: six to ten dall’s porpoises swimming quickly around the boat and diving as fast as we were seeing them!

Serena, Naturalist

San Juan Safaris

J-pod Traverses Past the Harbor Entrance

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

We started our adventure with a little rainfall as we left the harbor but within minutes the rain stopped and after heading south for a few more minutes, we found two harbor seals hauled out and resting.  After cruising just another 10 minutes south, we spotted some dorsal fins off of Cattle Point, and then more dorsal fins and then even more.  We had discovered a very spread out J-pod!  The pod was split up into several different groups, some of which were diving for extended periods of time (several minutes), others were tail slapping and others were breaching full out of the water.  We had  sightings of Mike and Blackberry as well as the calf Looker and a possible sighting of Granny.

After watching the orcas for a few minutes, we circled around Whale Rock and found six to eight Stellar Sea Lions frolicking in the water and a few more hauled out on the rock.  We returned to watching J-pod as they continued traveling north towards and then past Friday Harbor.  We left the pod and found a lone Bald Eagle perched at the very top of a tree next to a stream just north of the harbor.  Returning to the harbor, we passed… J-pod again!  All in all, a very productive wildlife watching day!


Naturalist, San Juan Safaris


Whale Extravaganza!

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Departed at low tide and headed south through Cattle Pass.  There was word of Minke’s and J-pod out towards Port Townsend.  On the drive out we saw lots of Gulls feeding in bait, which is a good sign for whales.  We arrived on scene about an hour after departing the harbor.  As we slowly approached the area where the Orca had last been spotted a Minke whale took a breath straight off our bow!  It surprised everyone.  While we were still catching our breathes from the Minke encounter the passengers began seeing smaller blows all around us.  J-pod was well spread out and seemed to be feeding.  Gulls and Auklets swarmed the bait that was being pushed to the surface by the feeding orca.   After about 20 minutes or so of feeding the birds seemed to disappear and J-pod began to move in a more steady direction towards the west side of San Juan Island.

On the trip home we used some passengers photos to positively ID Riptide out of the group.  The passengers couldn’t have been happier with the Minke and the Orca, but to top things off we found a pair of nesting Eagles, a couple of Steller Sea Lions hauled out on the rocks, and even some charismatic Harbor Porpoise in the channel on the way home!

Mike – Naturalist

San Juan Safaris

A sunny, Minke kind of day

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The sun was shining as we left the harbor and headed south toward Cattle Pass.  A few of the seals hauled out on the rocks lazily lifted their heads to give us a quick glance before returning to their afternoon nap.  A river otter scampered down the shoreline and slid into the water, quickly disappearing below the glassy surface.  A hand full of Steller Sea Lions were rolling around in the pass, floating and lifting their flippers into the air.  They too seemed to be enjoying the sunshine, lazing about.

Once we got around the corner off of South Beach we saw a diminutive fin pop up in the distance.  Certainly not an Orca.  We drew closer and had the privilege of seeing a small Minke Whale lift his head to the surface and then slowly roll back under.  He surfaced 3 more times and then took a longer dive.  We waited about 10 minutes before he surfaced again about a quarter mile away from us.  We idled forward in the direction of his last surfacing and saw him come up once more about 250 yards from our boat.  It was a great Minke sighting.  The smooth, calm water made it easy to see the elusive cetacean.  It was one of the best Mike encounters I have had.

The weather was so beautiful that we did a circumnavigation of San Juan Island, coming back along the south coast of Speiden to catch a quick look at a few deer and sheep.  We saw a bald eagle sitting a top a tree and then watched Harbor Porpoises pop up here and there all the way back to the harbor.


Laura, Naturalist, San Juan Safaris

7th in a Row!

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Wednesday arrived with sunny skies and the warmest temperatures of the season.  We departed a little early for our trip due to word of whales in the area.  We headed through Cattle Pass with the tide flooding against us.  As we cleared the pass and entered Haro straight Captain Craig pointed our bow south towards Partridge Bank.  But half way there we took a sharp right and headed up the straight as we spotted some Orca closer to our position.

We came on scene with just a couple other boats and found maybe 8 or so charismatic animals.  None of the boats had been able to get positive IDs on any of them.  But there was plenty of surface activity including some porpoising behavior and a few spectacular breaches.  We stayed with the whales for about 25 minutes before turning back towards home.  On the way we encountered Pacific Loons, Cormorants, Bald Eagles, Harbor Seals, and some Steller Sea Lions.  What a great day!


Mike – Naturalist

San Juan Safaris

A Proud Day for San Juan Safaris, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island WA

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

All staff,

With a spectacular spring day, the MV Sea Lion and crew (Captain Craig and MikeO) headed north with our special charter of Western States Agency Policy Makers.

Ken Balcomb, of The Center for Whale Research, Kari Koski of The Whale Museums SoundWatch program and me were asked to describe in our view, the process that lead to the new NOAA rules.  We were asked how those new rules would affect the whale watching industry and how they might affect the orca whales themselves.

Yesterday was what I call a “World Bank” day. In my past I have educated young children, then teenagers, then more influential adults.  It became clear to in my forties how short life really is.  I realized that if I were to make a difference, I needed to be talking to the “World Bank”

The people aboard the Sea Lion tour yesterday are mid-level managers through the northwest. The group was brought together by a bright, kind and gentle man who is making a real difference in the western United States as he develops and facilitates seminars relating to resource issues.  His name is Mike Crouse.

It was Ken Balcomb who said that “These are serious people and I am impressed. Maybe there is hope for the future.”

What I want you to realize is that not every day is a “World Bank” day, but someone who you may have on your tour may just be waiting for that positive message that you deliver.

Please know that a few facts well-delivered with enthusiasm and conviction can make a big difference.

We did that yesterday.

Bill Wright

Owner, San Juan Safaris Whale Watching & Wildlife Tours

Natural Resource Charter May 17, 2011

Whales and all

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

There is only one word that could describe today.  Epic.

The sun was shining and the water was calm.  We headed north on a whim, taking the opportunity to cruise the scenic passes between Saturna Island and Pender Island.  We ended up slightly north of the Coal Docks and found ourselves amid Orcas.  At first I thought they were Transients.  There were two whales cruising west, then three, then a whole bunch more.  They were spread out to the east and west of us and we realized they weren’t transients.  One male with a huge dorsal cruised by and I suspect it was Mike of J pod.  We shut down and watched the whales mill around us.  At one point there was a large direction change and suddenly the whales were headed east.

The best part about the encounter was three moms with calves, cruising close together.  The females would surface and then the little guys would pop up for a quick, mini breath.  When time ran short we headed back around toward East Point, took a quick peek at some Stellers, caught a quick glimpse of some Harbor Seals, and even saw a few porpoises right outside of the harbor.

One of the most encouraging things to see, when observing a struggling, endangered animal, is new life.  The little calves warmed our hearts and made our day extraordinary.



Naturalist, San Juan Safaris

Transients in Rosario

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Monday found us out in Rosario Straight.  The wind was picking up and there was a little bit of swell and chop, but it didn’t deter us from spotting a very spread out group of Transient Orcas.  They were headed south at what seemed like a pretty good speed. There was one big male about 500 yards from us and two smaller whales another 600 or so yards from him.  They had consistent, 4 minute down times and would surface even farther from us every time.  The wind made it a challenge to keep up  and we realized that the whales were hardly moving, just keeping up with the opposing current.  We were the ones drifting and getting blown farther away.

The big male continued to surface every 4 minutes or so.  Even at 500 yards it was impressive every time.  The very top of his towering dorsal would surface first and cut through the water like a shark for a few seconds.  Then, slowly, he would rise until the rest of his enormous body was at the surface.

Finally it was time to go.  We peeled off and headed for calmer waters.



Naturalist, San Juan Safaris

J Pod Vocalizations!

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

I have to say that some of my best whale days have been gross, rainy days.  Today was no exception.

We made our way down the east side of San Juan Island and around toward False Bay.  It was one of those silent, glassy, flat water days.  No seals hauled out, no sea lions on our way south.  We passed a bunch of soggy Cormorants and saw a Bald Eagle sitting on the ground.  When we got closer to Lime Kiln we saw blows way in by the rocks.  Then we saw a few more farther north. Then a couple surfaced about half way between us and shore.  We soon realized that just about all of J Pod was spread out over a distance of close to 5 miles.  It was hard to focus on just one group of whales.  I think at that point every passenger was watching a different whale.
We picked Blackberry and Mike out of the lineup as well as Looker, the 2010 calf.  There wasn’t a lot of surface behavior.  The whales in close to shore were cruising north at a steady pace and the few different groups farther out looked like they were just slowly milling.  We shut down the engine and sat for a long time, observing the whales about their business.  None of them were particularly close to us, but Capt Mike dropped the hydrophone and I couldn’t believe what I heard.  They were, hands down, the best vocalizations I have heard this season.   There was even a point when we could hear the whales at the surface, without the hydrophone.  A couple of other boats in the area said the same thing.

We sat still and silent while we watched and listened in the rain.  The passengers were in awe.  I was in awe.  There wasn’t a single noise aside from the whales.  It was the type of day that makes you appreciate just how incredible these animals are and how lucky we are to share these islands with them.


Naturalist, San Juan Safaris

Orcas – Three Days in a Row!!

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Left Friday Harbor around 1:30 with reports of Southern Residents in the Strait of Juan De Fuca heading our way.  We cruised down San Juan Channel and out towards the reports hoping to come across them.  The trip out was beautiful with clear views of the Olympic Mountains and glassy, flat water.  It took us well over an hour to reach the area of the last reported whales, but it was well worth the trip.

J-pod was cruising steadily east.  Our passengers were very excited to see multiple breaches, spyhops, tail slaps and some swimming on their backs.  We were able to positively identify ‘Mike’ and ‘Blackberry’ out of the group.  We had a lot of first time whale watchers on board so they got very spoiled with a great first encounter!

On our way home we even encountered a Minke Whale!  And just before entering the channel home we spotted lots of Steller Sea Lions making noise on the rocks and a pair of Bald Eagles perched on the rocks as well!


Mike – Naturalist

San Juan Safaris