Archive for the ‘orca whale watching by seattle’ Category

Late September Whale Watching at Its Best: September 25-29

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

              The last four days have been incredible for crew and guests on our Whale Watch and Wildlife Tours in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands. Nearly every tour this September has encountered whales including humpbacks, a fin whale, both Transient (mammal-hunting) and our Resident fish-eating Orcas. We’ll have to double check the historical data, but this may be a September record for whales present in the Salish Sea in our 20 years in business.

                Like the weekend, Monday and Tuesday (Sept 28th and 29th) was full of autumn wildlife, both big and small. On Monday, Captain Mike, crew Emily and myself, and many happy passengers motored south through San Juan Channel on a sunny and crisp fall afternoon. In addition to killer whales, we received word early that an active juvenile humpback whale was sighted several miles south of Lopez and San Juan Islands. On approach, we could easily see his 15 foot long pectoral fins flopping in the air as he performed several back floats.  We quietly observed his acrobatics of breaching, tail lopping, and several fluke-up dives before motoring along to our Southern Resident Orcas.

                Members from L-Pod, the largest pod in the Southern Resident Community, were milling and foraging along the southwest side of San Juan Island near False Bay. Newest member of the SRKW community, L122, was tucked close in with its mother, L91. Although little L122 (less than a month old!) is tiny compared to its adult mother, L122 appears to be healthy, rambunctious, and full of zest.  L92 Crewser, a 21 year old male, also gave our vessel a good look over as he cruised-on by.

                Tuesday was equally as exciting with encounters with two different ecotypes of Orcas. After motoring south through Cattle Pass once again, we veered south to the shoreline along Lopez Island. There, we encountered the T49As, a well-known family of transient mammal-hunting Orcas. These whales are considered “in-shore specialists” and are primarily encountered along rocky shorelines in the Salish Sea where they are likely hunting seals, Stellar’s sea lions, and porpoise.

                As with the day before, we traveled on to meet up with members of Lpod along the west side of San Juan Island. Many of the large males in Lpod, such as L41 Mega and L89 Solstice, could be seen swimming solo off in the distance, perhaps foraging on their own, which is not uncommon for adult male killer whales. Several mothers and juveniles including L121 (born last year!) and L119 came together and were playing, rolling, pectoral fin slapping, and tail lobbing as they continued north along San Juan Island. At one special moment, mom Calypso L94 raised her son Windsong L121 out of the water and we heard a surprising and very rare above water vocalization!

Overall, we’ve had a very special September with great autumn weather and amazing wildlife.

Naturalist Brittany

M/V Sea Lion

Whales on Whales on Whales!-September 24, 2015

Friday, September 25th, 2015

Today was one of those days that comes maybe but once a summer here in the Salish Sea, and Captain Mike, myself and some lucky passengers were fortunate enough to see some incredible examples of our local wildlife.

We left the dock at exactly noon (despite a slightly tardy naturalist) on the trusty Sea Lion and headed South out of Frdiay Harbor through the San Juan Channel. As soon as we left the harbor, the show began with sightings of some harbor seals and about six playful harbor porpoises snagging some baitfish.

As we continued south, we had a friendly encounter with a Stellar’s sea lion as it checked out the boat sporting the same name and that was just a taste of the behemoth pinniped.

As we went through Cattle Pass, in between the southern tips of San Juan and Lopez Islands, we checked out the Whale Rocks and the surrounding turbulent water. Lounging like kings and queens on top of the barren rocks among cormorants and gulls were about thirty enormous Stellar’s sea lions. Reminiscent of aquatic grizzly bears, these cream-colored pinnipeds have recently migrated back south from their breeding grounds in Alaska. Here in the San Juans, they spend their time eating whatever they can catch and snarling at one another.

While we were watching the sea lions, we unexpectedly caught sight of a Minke whale! These, the smallest of the baleen whales, are notorious for surfacing once then going out of sight for some time. This one, however, allowed us great views of its characteristic curved dorsal fin as it surfaced every minute or so.

Eager for Orcas, we headed North up the Haro Strait and were rewarded by our forst orca sighting: Transients! This “ecotype” is characterized by having small pods (five whales in this one), silent hunting patterns, and of course a diet of marine mammals. As they were moving very calmly with no splashing, we assumed that they were on the hunt and continued north as not to diaturb their efforts.

Just a short boat ride away, however, was another ecotype: the Southern Resident Killer Whales! These orcas have a diet mainly consisting of Chinook Salmon, which determines their behavior of following the salmon runs to the same river each summer. We got some incredible looks at members of J Pod and K Pod, whom we can recognize using their dorsal fins and natural markings on their bodies.

Fortunately, the Sea Lion has an underwater hydrophone on board and we were able to listen to the long, eerie vocalizations and echolocation clicks present as pod members communicated with one another while they hunted salmon. Combined with the powerful WHOOSH noise present when they exhale air, these orcas make some of the world’s most beautiful natural sounds.

After observing whale after whale make their way by us, we unfortunately had to begin saying our goodbyes to the Southern Residents. However, the show was far from over! On our way back around Cattle Point, we caught up to the pod of Transients just as they were making a kill! These expert hunters were diving incredibly fast and surrounding one spot as if they were eating some poor seal. The presence of a NOAA research boat that was collecting sanoles of the animal remains confirmed our suspicions, as did the behavior of the orcas.

They began splashing, swimming upside down, even breaching as they tend to do when their bellies are full. After a bit of socializing and playing, it was back to business as they went back to stone-face hunting mode. We took that as our cue to begin our journey back to Friday Harbor, during which we saw a few more Harbor porpoise, harbor seals and the same curious sea lion. We returned to the dock with the full monty of experiences: harbor seals, harbor porpoises, sea lions, a minke whale, Transient orcas as well as residents. Wow.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Granny Makes a Splash!

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Spring ended with a glorious day out on the water. After the fog rolled out, the sun shined through the clouds as the M/V Sea Lion headed north out of Friday Harbor. Captained by Mike, Naturalist Sarah and I led a full boat on what would be a wonderful day towards Canadian waters following reports of wildlife in the area.

We didn’t need to travel far- as soon as we turned into San Juan Channel dozens of harbor porpoise appeared, playing in the swirling waters. Dorsal fin after dorsal fin rose out of the water as the large group traveled through the channel. We continued motoring north, when lo and behold we encountered three large Steller sea lions just off of Spieden Island.  These animals are massive with males growing up to weigh over 900 pounds! But we were determined to see an even larger marine mammal that day.

Finally, as we rounded the north side of Stuart Island at Turn Point we found the orca whale jackpot. We had found the entirety of K-pod, lazily swimming north towards Canada with other members of J-pod including the infamous Granny (J-2). Though they were spread out across the channel, guests got good looks of over 30 whales, some even tail slapping and breaching. Though Granny has been seen in the San Juan’s many times over the summer, I had yet to get a good glimpse of her in the recent months. Not one to disappoint a good reunion, the J-pod matriarch put on a spectacular display, and showed us that being 104 meant little as she propelled herself into the air for a fantastic breach.

Another fantastic day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Danna, M/V Sea Lion
San Juan Safaris

L-pod Love

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Today was a truly magical day aboard the M/V Sea Lion.

It started out as any other beautiful San Juan Island summer day. The sun was shining as Captain Mike turned the boat south east, headed towards Haro Strait. We encountered orcas on the south side of San Juan Island at False Bay and soon identified that we were traveling with members of L-pod and, sure enough, spotted L-91 (Muncher) and her new calf L-122. Our second sighting in two days!

Members of the Southern Resident killer whales will stay with their moms for the entirety of their lives and Naturalist Sarah and I, as well as the guests aboard the boat, were lucky enough to see that incredible bond between mother and calf being made as they played and communicated with one another as both new calf and mom were breaching, tail slapping and rolling with one another.  It was extremely humbling to witness such an intimate and important aspect of orca behavior as L-91 and L-122 strengthened a bond that would last a lifetime!

Naturalist Danna, M/V Sea Lion
San Juan Safaris

M/V Sea Lion meets L122!

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Tonight we had a great encounter with some of our Southern Resident killer whales. After a great afternoon trip spent with the L54 matriline (L54 Ino, L108 Coho, L117 Keta, L84 Nyssa, and L88 Wavewalker) we were overjoyed to hear that a Superpod, or a gathering of all three of our Resident pods, was headed towards San Juan Island. Captain Brian and I left the dock for a two hour sunset charter with whales on the mind. We shot south out of Friday Harbor, meeting up with the whales just off the west side of the island. We were overjoyed to realize that we were in the presence of the newest member of the community, two and a half week old L122, calf of L91 Muncher! The sunset was beautiful and we enjoyed a wonderful evening with the whales!

Naturalist Sarah, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris Whale Watching

The Boys are Back in Town: J and K pod Playing in the Chop-September 13th, 2015

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Today was another Mike & Mike adventure on the Sea Lion! Captain Mike and I loaded up the boat with an awesome group of passengers eager to see wildlife. We were no less excited about getting out on the water, so we left Friday Harbor headed South through San Juan Channel. As we had both an incoming tide and a stiff southern wind, we were in for a bit of an adventure further South.

As we made our way through Cattle Pass, the narrow opening of the San Juan Channel between the southern tips of San Juan and Lopez Island, we found the current being squeezed, and thus accelerated, through this narrow passage. The water was alive with upwelling zones that look like smooth glassy patches, small whirlpools forming, birds eagerly waiting on rip lines to snack on some fish, and of course the choppy waters characteristic of this area. This was nothing the Sea Lion couldn’t handle of course, so we headed on to the Whale Rocks at the mouth of the pass to see some Stellar’s sea lions!

There were perhaps twenty immense sea lions, looking very much like grizzly bears with their tan fur, humped back and snarly attitudes, either lounging or patrolling this rocky outcrop. This group of female and juvenile male pinnipeds chose an excellent location for their rocky kingdom, as the turbid waters surrounding the rocks are rich with nutrients. For the sea lions, this translates into food. Lots of fish, crabs, octopus and the odd baby harbor seal or seabird are found right nearby, but a Stellar’s is certainly not above munching a salmon off a fisherman’s line given the chance.

After admiring the sights (and smells!) of these incredible animals, we headed West and North up into the Haro Strait toward our reports of Southern Resident Killer Whales! The wind coming out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca was piling up a few whitecaps which rocked the boat just a bit. Luckily everyone aboard had already taken their Dramamine and we were good to go! When the waters of the Haro Strait are riled up, so are the whales! as we approached Eagle Point, we began to see black dorsal fins erupting out of the water followed by the massive shape of an orca every which way we looked. We were fortunate enough to be hanging out with members of both J and K Pods who were currently having a blast. The way the animals were spread out, it was clear that there was some fishing for their favorite food, Chinook salmon, going on. However, every so often a whale would slap it’s tail on the surface while another would jump clear out of the white-capped waves! We also were able to witness some surfing going on, where one of these enormous dolphins would ride a wave for fifty yards or so before submerging completely.

During this time, we got some great looks at some of the most distinctive males in the group. The choppy waters makes it somewhat difficult to get great looks at the saddle patch, the white markings on an orca’s side that allow us to identify them. However, the raucous, playful behavior of the males combined with their large conspicuous dorsal fins gave some of them away. We got great looks at K21 (Cappuccino), K26 (Lobo), K25 (Scoter)and even L87 (Onyx) who travels quite exclusively with J Pod. These huge animals continued to play, breach, slap and splash throughout the entire time we spent watching them, enjoying the playground of water that the wind provided. Boys will be boys, I suppose.

After getting some great photos and even better memories, we decided that it was time to leave J Pod and K Pod to their devices and begin our journey back to Friday Harbor. Along the way we got some great looks at some of our abundant seabirds like Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets along with some harbor seals bobbing on the water’s surface. While the array of wildlife and surface phenomena that we are able to see is incredible, it is just a tiny fragment of the ecosystem that exists in the Salish Sea. The interface between air and waters in itself is a big part of this system, as gasses and nutrients are passed from air to water in the forms of bird guano, fir needles and all sorts of fur and feathers entering the water and vice versa as fish and invertebrates are brought out of the water by birds, humans and other mammals. This represents but one way the world continues to amaze.

After a bit of this deep, existential contemplation, we were back at the dock with awesome stories to tell.

Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Dark Fins

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

I know fall hasn’t officially started yet, but with a foggy morning and a cool sunny afternoon it’s sure starting to feel like it. Capt. Mike, Naturalist Mike, and I headed out with calm seas and reports of whales. We headed north towards the outer islands in the direction of Spieden and Johns. Right around Spieden we started to see some very tall blows on the sunny horizon. The sun on the cold water created an optical illusion called the Fata Morgana which made it hard to make out exactly what was in the distance. Once we got close enough, it became clear that we were looking at a big Humpback Whale! We stood amazed at this 35 feet long animal that went up and down feeding showing us his fluke often. With humpback whales you can identify individuals based on the pattern present on the bottom of their flukes. This unique pattern of dark and white markings along with any scars or notches is kind of like a fingerprint and each fluke is a little bit different. This big guy was something special because he had a fluke that was almost all dark, perhaps no white. After being amazed by this placid animal, we motored on through Johns Pass, a beautiful yet skinny pass between Johns and Stuart island towards Turn Point – the end of the US. Soon after hitting the watery border between US and Canada. There were more dark fins in the distance… orcas! It was a single family of K pod, the K-12s, with all their members swimming steadily towards East Point on Saturna Island. The K-12s is headed by K-12 herself, Sequim, and she has three children: Sekiu (K-22), Rainshadow (K-37), and Saturna (K-43), and Sekiu had one child K-43 (Tika). This family is great and Rainshadow and Saturna are nothing but trouble. It was pretty cool seeing Saturna swim right in front of her island namesake for awhile and even more interesting to see how much she and her older nephew, Tika, have grown. Since Tika is a male his dorsal fin is going to be very tall and straight and it’s getting there, he’s not even full grown and you can easily pick him out in a crowd. After watching this family scoot through a few hug freighter wakes, which they did with ease, we headed back south, but the fun was not over. We stopped again to look and some humpbacks and even saw an Elephant Seal sleeping in the water! These guys are huge and have hilarious trunks for noses, hence the name. They can weigh up to 8,800 lbs and we often don’t see a lot of them here, but what a cool moment!


Whale folks until next time,


Naturalist Erick,

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

The Big Five!-September 8th, 2015

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

What an incredible day out on the water! Today was Captain Pete’s last day driving for us, and the Salish Sea made sure it was a special trip.

We loaded up the Sea Lion with excited passengers ready to see some of the unique wildlife and headed North out of Friday Harbor under a clear sky. We had heard some reports of orcas up in the Canadian Gulf islands and were excited to get up into whale country!

Along the way we checked out the islands and scenery of the San Juan Channel along with the odd murre or auklet, but our first big surprise came in the middle of Spieden channel: an enormous Stellar’s sea lion surfacing to take a few breaths! Also known as Northern sea lions, these huge pinnipeds can weigh in at over a ton and are the bane of fishermen all over the Pacific Northwest. Along with pre-caught salmon, they are also fans of different kinds of crab, halibut, ling cod and other rockfish. As this sub-adult male rolled his tan back to dive back into the murky depths, we continued West towards Moresby island in Canada stopping briefly to admire an exposed reef draped with plump grey harbor seals.

Nearing the island, we could see some commotion and as we inched closer we saw the sight that never ever gets old: black dorsal fins slicing through the water as the mist of a recent exhalation drifts over the water. It was Killer Whales!!!

This small group was a pod of Transient, or mammal-eating, orcas. Transient orcas are famous for earning the name “Killer Whale” as their diet consists of warm blooded marine mammals like seals, sea lions and porpoises with the occasional larger whale or dolphin on the menu as well. This pod, identified as the T65A matriline, was in the middle of lunch as we showed up. Typically when we see transients, they are travelling or hunting which means they are attempting to maintain silence in the water. This way, they can listen to any telltale sounds of prey swimming about.

These whales, however, were celebrating a successful hunt by slapping their tails on the water and breaching into the air!! This excited (and exciting!) behavior was interspersed with orcas diving to retrieve slices of seal, as well as a unique behavior termed “moonwalking”, where an orca propels itself backwards through the water. Possibly they are big Michael Jackson fans, more likely they are using that momentum to rip apart bits of food. After a few more minutes of feeding and jumping, playtime was over and they were back in hunting formation, spread out as they crossed the channel.

Unfortunately, that was our cue to turn around and wish them happy hunting, but our adventure was far from over. As we made our way South and East back to San Juan channel, we saw something we don’t see every day: the enormous spout of a Humpback whale! There was no mistaking this twenty-foot plume of steam that can be seen for miles. As we approached a bit closer we were able to see the huge back arching into the characteristic hump as it lifted its massive flukes into the air for a terminal dive. This moment, when the flukes are in the air with water streaming off the trailing edge, makes for both a great photo and identification opportunity. These humpbacks have unique patterns of black, white, scratches and barnacle marks that make it possible to distinguish individual whales from one another and see who’s who. We stayed with this whale and got some amazing looks for a few more dive cycles before we decided to begin making our way home but we were not done yet!

As we cruised South in the San Juan channel, we looked behind us to see a bald eagle soaring and dipping in the Southern wind follwed closely by some gulls eagerly awaiting a scavenging opportunity. This eagle dipped and dived and circled low on the water perhaps trying to locate a tricky fish, perhaps attempting to evade the ever-watchful gulls. We watched fpr an action-packed ten minutes or so before the huge bird decided to take off and try again later.

After a trip full of Stellar sea lions, snoozing deals, breaching transient orcas, fluking humpbacks and diving eagles, we finally pulled back into the slip in Friday Harbor with lots of stories to tell.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J
M/V Sea Lion
San Juan Safaris

JK-ing but not about the whales – Sunday 8/30

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Sunday, served up another San Juanderful day.

Capt. Pete, Alex, and I headed toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This is the major channel that connects the island to the North Pacific Ocean and all its glory. Lucky for us it was a calm day as we approached Middle Bank. This a shallower area in the strait where schools of fish love to gather due to the swirling currents that concentrate food in one place which is probably why when we got near we started to see some delightful dorsal fins slicing the waves. As we approached we saw that a group of J pod and K pod from the Southern Resident Killer Whales milling about a fishing! We ended up paralleling them for awhile and got to see the J-2′s with Granny (J-2) and T’ilem I’nges (J-49) traveling close with each other again. It’s been interesting to see these two the past few days travel with each other especially since J-49 is in the fourth generation of Granny’s family! The K-14′s also gave us some great looks as they scooted by. Soon though we had to scoot on home, but we stopped and saw some Steller Sea lions on the way and gawked at their 2500 lb of fur, fat, and flippers hauled out on the rocks.

Whale folks until next time.

Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Ks & Ls in Haro!

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Today under grey skies the M/V Sea Lion left Friday Harbor with positive reports of our local celebrities: the Southern Resident killer whales! Traveling south we encountered a number of very playful harbor seals and enjoyed the presence of some of our numerous seabirds. We also took a few minutes to stop at Whale Rocks in Cattle Pass to look at about a dozen Steller’s sea lions sprawled on the rocks. These large pinnipeds are about the color of a perfectly roasted marshmallow and can weigh upwards of 2500 pond, while achieving a length of 12 feet. THEY ARE MASSIVE! We moved on from the sea lions, heading north up the west side of San Juan Island. We met up with the K12 matriline just off of False Bay. K33 Tika was foraging with his younger Aunt K43 Saturna, and we got awesome looks at both of them! We peeled off off the K12s to head offshore to a group of incoming L pod whales. We saw breach after breach, tail slap after tail slap as the whales  joyfully made their way towards San Juan Island. We were delighted to see members of the L4 matriline, L54 matriline, as well as crowd favorites L92 Crewser and his Aunt L90 Ballena. We got some awesome looks at these beautiful whales today, despite the cloudy skies. Yet another great day to whale watch in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Sarah, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris!