Archive for the ‘orca whale watching by seattle’ Category

A Day with Salish Sea Diversity| Transients, Elephant Seals, and More

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Leaving the harbor with a full boat, Captain Mike took us North into San Juan Channel on a beautiful sunny day. We’d had no reports yet, but Naturalist Kevin and I were optimistic for a great day on the water. We weren’t disappointed.

We’d cruised around Yellow Island for some looks at the wildflowers and Harbor Seals lazing about and headed up to Flattop Island, when we stopped to check out a Bald Eagle. Seconds after, the bird stooped and crashed hard into the water after a fish. The next 15 minutes were spent watching the eagle swim to shore, battling a strong current, and the fact it’s not exactly a species we expect to see swimming. With a cheer of relief, our guests watched as it finally struggled up on shore and immediately began eating a hard won fish.


A Minke Whale, one of two baleen whales we see in the San Juans, had been reported further North off Sandy Point on Waldron Island. We got on scene for a few good views of it surfacing with Mt. Baker glowing in the background. Waiting around for more views (they can stay under for 20 minutes at a time), we had great views of Harbor Porpoise, many grebes, ducks, and Rhinocerous Auklets, all obvious finding good fare below us.

Leaving Sandy Point, we hooked around Turn Point on Stuart Island, getting ready to cruise around Spieden Island for more wildlife. Just then a report of Transient Killer Whales came in. They were deep in the waters around Hein Bank, where the Strait of Juan De Fuca and the Haro Strait come together. We had just enough time to zip down and starting off immediately. As a bonus, en route Captain Mike and I spotted a male Elephant Seal floating in the middle of the Haro! We only got a few moments view before it went below the surface, but this was a rare find and a great treat.

We found the Transients, which we presumed to be the T65As, T075Bs, and T075Cs because they’ve been traveling together for a little while now. This was further confirmed when we got great looks at their new baby, dubbed T75B2. Such a name doesn’t do the cuteness and excitement of seeing a slightly less coordinated little one keeping close to its mother. The group traveled around the open water while we took in this special sight.

We finished out our already fine day with a look at Steller Sea Lions on Whale rocks, before heading back to Friday Harbor. It was a spectacular day, time spent with our largest bird of prey, our largest sea lion, our largest seal species, and of course, the impressive apex predators that Killer Whales are. Not bad for a day starting out with no reports!

Naturalist Brendan

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

J Pod Time in the Haro Strait

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

The day was sunny, the guests were excited, and we had whales to see! Captain Mike and myself whisked our guests off for a day on the water that felt more June than April. With reports of J Pod on the Westside, we zipped North to catch up with them.

Knowing we had time to see these Residents Killer Whales, we worked our way there, stopping for a few Harbor Seals, Bald Eagles, and Steller Sea Lions around Spieden Island. As the largest privately owned island in the San Juans with no permanent residents, there’s always a lot of wildlife on land and around its shores. After some nice looks, we left a group of sleeping Harbor Seals at Sentinel Rock, set off to see J Pod.

What followed was an early season show to match them all. We followed many members of J Pod, seeing big males like J27, J34, and L84, as well as the newest member of the group, J51 following mother J19 along Kellet Bluff. The rest of the afternoon was spent at a relaxed pace, letting the many whales in the Haro Strait move around us. We were lucky witnesses to spy hops, a few full breaches, and some exciting hunting behaviors. It seemed like everywhere you looked there were dorsal fins slicing through the calm water.

After almost two hours with the Js we needed to head back, but everyone was beaming from the experience. We stopped a couple times around Spieden for better looks at Steller Sea Lions, but I could tell everyone was still in a daze from our lucky encounter that afternoon. It was all smiles all the way home.

Naturalist Brendan

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

A J Pod Encounter on the West Side

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Captain Mike, Naturalist Emily, and myself took our guests out on the M/V Sea Lion for what turned turned out to be a stellar trip today. We had reports of members of J Pod in the Haro Strait, so we sped up and around the North end of San Juan Island there right from the Harbor. Not long after entering the open strait we had our first sighting!

L87, who travels with J2, was the first animal we saw. He popped up a few times in the Haro and we followed him South, his tall dorsal fin dipping through the waves with Spieden Island in the background. Soon after following him down the strait, we  ran into a larger group of J Pod and were witness to a bevy of breaches, spy hops, and cavorting youngsters. This was a real treat so early in the season. While it was hard to tell in all the activity, it looked as if the newest youngster of J Pod, J51 was cavorting in the waves. Calves are certainly noticeable by size, but they really stand out because of their coloration, an off orange that is a result of a less developed layer of insulating blubber, apparent on this young one.

After continuing to enjoy the whales as they headed South with the ebb, we took a calm tour through Mosquito Pass between Henry and San Juan Island. Along the way we enjoyed a quick view of a California Sea Lion and some nice close looks at Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks. Rounding off an already excellent day, we cruised the shoreline of Spieden Island for some looks at the introduced sheep and deer on land, Bald Eagles in the air, and basking Steller Sea Lions in the water. We couldn’t have asked for a better early season tour with Southern Residents and wildlife galore!

Naturalist Brendan

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Transient Orcas Abound Around San Juan

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

What a beautiful day on the water!  Guests aboard the M/V Sea Lion, along with Captain Mike, Naturalist Brendan, and I departed the dock in Friday Harbor with word of orcas near the south end of San Juan Island.  Naturalist Brendan was the first to spot these whales on his ferry commute from Shaw Island!

After viewing harbor seals hauled out on the rocks and Steller Sea Lions rafting in the water, we motored out towards the group of 8 transient orcas located near Hein Bank.  With water like glass, the full Cascade Range, including Baker, in view, and beautiful sunny skies, it was a beautiful day to watch whales.  The group of transient orcas were feeding and displaying many surface behaviors.  The gulls also appreciated a free meal as they snacked on the mess left behind by the orcas.

After watching the orcas in the sun, we began motoring towards home and even got to see several Bald Eagles along the way!  All in all, it was one for the books!

Naturalist Emily

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Humpback in Haro

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Departing Roche Harbor Captain Mike, the guests, and I headed towards Spieden Island.  As is common for this time of year, we did not have any whale reports when leaving the dock, but this did not dampen our spirits!  After enjoying the green hill side and many hoofed animals, we received a call on the radio that a humpback had been spotted!

Big Mama, a local female humpback was swimming in Haro Strait headed north.  We were able to watch and enjoy her surfacing slowly and many tail flukes as we accompanied her.  Humpback whales can reach lengths of 60ft and 90,000 lbs!

After visiting Big Mama, we viewed Steller Sea Lions and many Bald Eagles before returning to home port.

While it was a chilly day on the water, the sights were breathtaking and we cannot wait for more humpback encounters!

Naturalist Emily

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Transient Orcas on the West Side

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

With guests aboard and the sun on our backs, we were feeling lucky just being out on the water.   To make the day even better, a call came in that there were transient orcas on the west side of San Juan  Island!  We motored around the north end of San Juan and caught up with two of the members of the T137s near Lime Kiln State Park  We followed the pair north to Henry Island where they made a kill, which was likely a harbor seal.  After the commotion of the hunt, the other two members of the group came out of no where to enjoy the meal!  These orcas were spotted over a hundred miles north in Nanaimo BC just yesterday!

On the way home we saw many Bald Eagles and Steller Sea Lions hanging out on Spieden Island.  We cannot wait to be back on the water next week!

Naturalist Emily

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

New Baby Orca Joins L Pod

Friday, February 27th, 2015

We had more great news yesterday when NOAA reported a new member of L Pod!  NOAA, who has been conducting research on the Southern Resident Orcas located L Pod off of Westport WA.  Westport is located on the Pacific Coast near the Columbia River.  L94 appears to be the mother to young L121.  This is the second calf for L94, Calypso, who had L113 in 2009.  L119, born in 2012, is the last calf that has survived in L Pod.  In the fall of 2014 L120, born to L86, only survived the first months of life.  Unfortunately, there is a very high mortality rate for orca calves.  Luckily, L121 seems spunky and healthy.

L121 marks the 3rd calf in just 2 months.  J50 and J51 have both been spotted regularly looking happy and healthy.  We certainly hope the 3 newest members of the Southern Resident Killer Whales continue to grow and become lasting member of the community.   Now at 80 individuals, the SRKW community seems to be on the rise, something we could not be more excited about!

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris


Another Baby Orca for 2015!

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Late last week another baby orca was spotted in the Salish Sea and confirmed by the Center for Whale Research.  The newest member belongs to J Pod and is designated J51.  The calf of 36 year old J19 seemed to be happy and healthy as it swam alongside its mother.  It is estimated that the calf is about a week and a half old.  J50, born at the end of 2014, was also spotted looking healthy and energetic.  J50 has even been confirmed a female, which is great news for J Pod.  The first year of life for baby orcas can be very difficult and we certainly hope these two little ones make it!  The birth of J51 brings the population up to 79 animals and we are very excited at the upward trend.  We can only hope there are more baby orcas to come!

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris

Almost Back on the Water!

Friday, February 6th, 2015

A week from tomorrow, we are finally getting back on the water!  We are running a special Valentine’s Day Wildlife Tour and cannot wait to feel the cool breeze aboard the M/V Sea Lion.  Even though we are not in Southern Resident Killer Whale season, we hope that transients will be in the waters around San Juan Island.  While the SRKWs do sometimes enter the sound in the winter months, it is transient orcas that are spotted the most during this time of year.  Transient orcas do not migrate or have a set travel path, so it is always possible that they are traveling in our waters.   A single transient has been spotted in Alaska, then Washington, and continuing down the west coast of North America.  Wherever the food is plentiful, the orcas will go.  Thankfully, our harbor seal population is thriving here in the Salish Sea.  Harbor Seals are the preferred food source for transient orcas consisting of 60% of their diet.  We cannot wait to enjoy seals, sea lions, eagles, and all the sea birds and we  hope orcas make an appearance next weekend!

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris

Orcas of the PNW

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Across all the worlds oceans there are at least 10 ecotypes of orcas, and possibly even more.  An ecotype is a distinct population of animals separated by diets, region, or social factors from the whole species.  Currently there is only one Orcinus Orca, but some argue that is it time to give separate species names to some of these ecotypes.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have what are known as resident orcas.   Resident orcas diverged genetically about 13,000 years ago.  This means that their genes are completely different from that of other orca ecotype!  In the wild, different ecotypes do not cross bread and often avoid each other.  Resident orcas are separated by diet, which consists of 90% salmon here in the San Juans, and family grouping.  Resident orcas travel is large family groups made up of matrilines.  These family groups, or pods, can consist more than 40 members!

Another ecotype often spotted in the San Juans, are transient orcas.  Transient orcas are marine mammal eaters and tend to travel in smaller groups.  Since their prey is harder to catch, it is advantageous to travel in a group of 3-6 animals, but sometimes transient orcas will travel solo or in groups of 15 or more!  Researchers think that we are starting to see the transient orca population become prey specific.  Since hunting is passed down from mother to offspring, if the mother does not know how to hunt a minke whale, then neither will the offspring.  It is possible that we will start seeing specialized hunting tactics by transient orcas, and only some will hunt minke whales, and others porpoises, and still other seals.

Offshore orcas also inhabit the waters of the PNW, but very little is know about this ecotype of orca.  Since they travel off shore, hence the name, they are hard to spot.  It is believed that this group feeds mostly on pelagic sharks and large schooling, fish such as tuna.

The more we are able to observe these creatures in the wild, the more we understand what makes each group different and unique.  Only time will tell if there are more ecotypes to be discovered!

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris