Archive for the ‘orca whale watching by seattle’ Category

J Pod on the West Side

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Today the M/V Sea Lion left the dock with Captain Mike, naturalists Mike and Tyler, and a boat full of excited passengers. We had reports of Orcas traveling up the west side of San Juan Island so despite a few clouds, we were all smiling. On our way around the south end of the island, we stopped at Whale Rocks off of Cattle Point to check out some pinniped action! We were able to see harbor seals and Stellar’s sea lions hauled out on the rocks while a bald eagle perched on top. It is always nice to see both the diminutive harbor seal and the impressive Stellar’s Sea lion in the same area because we are able to point out some of the differences between seals and sea lions. In addition to sheer size (harbor seals weigh in at around 300lbs while Stellar’s sea lions take the cake at a whopping 2,500lbs!), Sea lions have external ear flaps and are able to bring their hind flippers underneath their bodies in order to “walk” on land. Seals, after evolving to life in the water, lost those ear flaps in favor of a hydrodynamic body form and use their hind flippers only while swimming. Seeing both of these animals at the same time usually helps avoid confusion!

After taking a look at our flippered friends, we began heading north on the west side towards False Bay, where we got our first looks at huge black dorsal fins slicing through the water. After counting about 14 whales spread out in discreet groups, we determined that we were watching members of J pod including the matriline of J2 or Granny. Granny, at an estimated 104 years old, is the oldest known killer whale in the world! Her pod was very active while swimming along the coast, gracing us with awesome views of tail lobbing, spy hops, and even a few breaches! We also got some fantastic looks at J27, Blackberry, as he slowly raised his massive dorsal fin and showed off his distinct saddle patch.

After watching mesmerized for what seemed like forever, but was really far too short a time, we said goodbye to J pod and began our journey back to Friday Harbor. We stopped to witness a large pod of harbor porpoise feeding on a school of fish along with some seals and a lone sea lion before making our way home. All in all a great trip full of incredible wildlife!

Naturalist Mike

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris


Orcas at East Point

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Today Captain Mike left the dock with rumors of Orcas from J pod near Saturna Island. As we made our way north out of Friday Harbor, we had calm water and awesome views of bald eagles, harbor seals and even a few harbor porpoise. After cruising in gorgeous weather with views of the San Juan Islands, we arrived at Java rocks to see Killer whales from J pod! after seeing several females and the dorsal fin of a tiny calf, we realized that it was the J 16 matriline. The whole crew was present, including the matriarch J 16 (slick), her daughters J 36 (Alki) and J 42 (Echo) and her very recognizable son J 26 (Mike). In addition we saw J 50 and J 52, two of the newest additions to J pod! Both of these calves are descendants of Slick, J 50 is her daughter (making Slick, at age 42, the oldest female to have a calf) and J 52 is the daughter of Alki. Slick must still be excited about being a new mother and grandmother, because we saw her perform a series of very impressive breaches! There is nothing like seeing a full grown, black and white killer whale completely out of the water.

At first the pod was quite spread out, but we did get to see them come together, some great breaching, some very cute calf swimming, and some tail in the air as some pod members did some synchronous diving. That was our cue to say goodbye and begin heading back down south. On our return journey, we got to see some more bald eagles on Spieden island and lots of seals hanging out on some exposed rocks near the Cactus Islands. All in all a great trip with some wonderful weather, fantastic whale sightings and good times had by all!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Orcas at Point Roberts

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Today we left the dock on the M/V Sea Lion with a gorgeous day on our hands.  We had reports of J Pod up North heading South towards Point Roberts.  We headed in that direction and had a nice cruise through the San Juans towards the whale reports.  On our way we stopped at East Point and got to see some harbor seals as well as some Stellar sea lions.  We got to see first hand some of the main differences between the sea lions and seals.  One of those differences is the sea lions ability to rotate their long flippers allowing them to walk on all fours.  Compared to seals which have short flippers and basically flop around on land.  Once we reached Point Roberts we got to see the J16 matriline which includes J16 (Slick) Her four offspring J26 (Mike), J42 (Echo), J50 (New baby!), and J36 (Alki) as well as J36′s new baby J52.  We watched the two new calves, which are about two months old, tail slapping and breaching while keeping up with the foraging family.  After looking at all the females we then went and saw J26, who was doing his own thing a little ways a way from the females.  After watching the whales feed for some time we decided to head back towards Friday Harbor through President Channel.  We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day out on the water today!

Naturalist Rachel

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Dall’s Porpoise at Play in Boundary Pass

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

When a Captain decides to take the Sea Lion up North into Boundary Pass and beyond, I’m always hopeful. We left with reports of a Humpback near East Point on Saturna Island, which is what we aimed for leaving the dock. We got to see a lot more.


Meandering up North our guests were treated to Steller Sea Lions, Bald Eagles, and a lot of Harbor Porpoise en-route to where other companies are currently watching the Humpback. When we arrived on scene, we quickly determined this individual whale was Big Mamma, otherwise known as BCY0324. This ID code is in reference to where the individual was identified, BC for British Columbia. X,Y, or Z for the amount of white on the flukes. And, the number for the individual.


While watching the Humpback heading West across the coast of Saturna, we heard reports of a group of Dall’s Porpoise nearby. Leaving the Humpback we met up with a large group of Dall’s Porpoise who were incredibly friendly and rambunctious. They played in the wake of the boats in the area and even went out to rush through the huge waves a tanker made as it passed by to the West.


After getting our heart rates going, watching the Dall’s zipping around, we eased into some wildlife viewing before heading back into Port. Between the Cactus Islands and Speiden we saw lots of Harbor Seals lounging and Bald Eagles posted up on Douglas Firs. But I’ll be honest, all we could think about were the Dall’s we’d seen out on Boundary Pass all the way home.

Naturalist Brendan
M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Breaching Whales and Bonuses

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

I saw the first splash from a quarter mile away; a great backwards leap that sent water twenty feet in the air. Hoping for some repetition I crossed my fingers as we motored closer to the scene, deep in the middle of the Strait of Georgia. We’d finally made it to J Pod.


Many people don’t realize why whales breach. Be they Killer Whales or Humpbacks, breach we may not know the meaning of every individual action, but we do know these are social displays meant to send a message. J Pod was clearly saying something, because as we got closer and strafed the animals we saw multiple breaches, pectoral slaps, and flukes. As these Southern Resident Killer whales cooled down and started to travel we were able to stretch out alongside them and see all the pod, traveling close in their respective matrilines, but moving as a cohesive group.

As if this wasn’t enough on a gorgeous day, as we headed back after a great show on the water, we stumbled upon a Humpback Whale off of Saturna Island. You know it’s a good day when you leave Killer Whales to head home and find yourself watching a Humpback diving for food. With a last wave of it’s tail, the whale took a deep dive, and we left it to continue feeding and headed home, happy with a great day of sights on the Salish Sea.

Naturalist Brendan
M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Humpbacks, Minke, and More

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

One of my favorite things about Humpback Whales is that they are far less illusive and hard to track down than Killer Whales. Particularly this time of year the Southern Resident pods are farther afield in search of Salmon but some Transients tend to stay near shore year-round hunting marine mammals. The challenge is finding them, in their small groups, is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Thankfully Humpacks are a little different, 40 ton, 50 plus foot long needles, with 30 foot tall blows!

It didn’t take long for Captain Mike to pick up reports of two Humpack Whales along the South Coast of Saturna Island after we left Friday Harbor. Under a beautiful blue sky we met up with them and enjoyed seeing the pair surface and dive in unison for almost an hour. While it was obvious they were actively foraging, we were treated to some nice fluke slaps as the animals went down for deeper dives.

The day is always great when we have time to check out other wildlife in the San Juans, so with plenty of time to spare, we headed off to the Cactus Islands and Speiden. Harbor Seals and Bald Eagles were everywhere and we found a group of Steller Sea Lions resting off Green Point on Speiden. This in particular was a treat because we managed to sit and silently along side them as they snorted breaths and rolled about near the surface.

You never know when plans will change, and just as we were about to head down San Juan Channel, a call came in of a Minke Whale North of Flattop Island. Minke are in the same family as Humpacks but are much quicker when they surface and harder to see, so it was a delight to get some excellent moments with a more cooperative animal. We left it hunting off Waldron Island and headed back into port, recounting the great sightings of the day.

Naturalist Brendan

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris 

Transients and Humpbacks Across the Border

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Leaving Friday Harbor with reports of both Transient Killer Whales and Humpback Whales is always a great way to start a trip. Captain Brian took us North on the Sea Lion and we sped through Speiden Channel aimed for Moresby Island and the rest of the Gulf Islands of Canada. Many people don’t realize that we in fact cruise into Canadian waters on a regular basis. Animals don’t know our borders.


Starting a trip with Humpbacks is never a bad way to go and we had two to watch out in the Haro Strait. Sometimes it’s difficult to get good looks at Humpbacks in this region because they are intent on feeding and make deep dives to forage, surfacing far from where they were last seen. These two were no different, but nonetheless we had good views of the two, side by side. Seeing two Humpbacks together here isn’t totally uncommon, but we often see lone animals, and all are typically destined for the rich cold waters of the far North Pacific where they sometimes hunt the fish and krill they eat cooperatively.


The animals we almost always see hunting cooperatively are Killer Whales, and in particular the small groups of Transients that cruise through our waters stay close together when hunting for the marine mammals they specialize in. We caught up with the T124 group, with four younger animals led by mother matriarch T124 just off Beaver Point on Saltspring Island. This was a good jaunt of the afternoon and after we watched them make at least one kill, they started traveling further North into the Northern Gulf Islands. It was time to turn around but we left with the excitement of seeing not only Killer Whales but Humpbacks as well!

Naturalist Brendan

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Transient Brotherly Love and Puffin Power

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Any day on the water can be full of surprises and as we left the dock, intending to go find Humpback Whales, Captain Mike got word of two male Orcas in Rosario Strait. Humpbacks are wonderful creatures, but any chance to see black and whites shouldn’t be taken for granted. So, we headed for the East side of the San Juans with high hopes.

When reports of lone or small groups of Orcas come in, they can often be Transients. Also named Bigg’s Killer Whales, after the first researcher who studied this ecotype, Transients while still very closely related to Residents have a very different style of hunting and different social dynamics. While they do form matrilinal groups, their dynamics are less static and you can frequently find small or even lone animals around the San Juans. Largely this has to do with their main source of food, which are marine mammals like Harbor Seals which require different foraging techniques and in turn influence social dynamics.

Arriving in Rosario Strait, we found flat water under blue skies, and the two males cruising around in search of food. After several surfacings, we figured out that these were T097 and T093, presumed brothers. We followed them through the strait as they zip-zagged around between Lopez and Fidalgo Islands. It was fun to see two males traveling in such close association, coming up for breaths within seconds of each other.

We had a great rest of the trip too. The South end of Lopez is one of my favorite coast lines in the San Juans and we followed that back to Cattle Pass. Lots of seals, sea lions, and eagles are typically seen, but as a birder I’m always excited about birds on the water. As we rounded Iceberg Point, Captain Mike stopped the boat on a dime, and there they were, a pair of Tufted Puffins! As an infrequent, charismatic bird, this was the best possible way to round out the day!


Naturalist Brendan

M/V Sea Lion San Juan Safaris

Epic Looks in San Juan Channel

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

A good day on the water is full of tough but ultimately great choices to make. Which whales to see? Southern Residents, Transients, maybe a Humpback Whale? Leaving port with Captain Mike at the helm, our weekend guests were excited for nature on the water.


Working our way North through President’s Channel, we had the looming forested slopes of Turtleback to our Starboard and the slanting cliffs of Waldron to our left. It was another gorgeous day on the water, which Pacific Northwesterners know should never be taken for granted, especially when you’ve got whales in your sights. And we certainly did, even before we made it to Succia Island, we turned to meet up with a cast of Resident Orcas.


I’m beginning to feel a bit spoiled by this early season, because every day has been so incredible. The J16s we’d seen the day before in the Haro Strait had traveled about 20 miles Northeast in their search for food, their presence confirmed by the big Male J26 with his iconic open saddle patch. We spent more time floating and enjoying their presence than motoring to keep up and were favored with excellent looks at the two calves in the matriline (the smaller dominant female led groups within a pod) and several extended spy hops.


By the time we’d spent a good hour with the animals, we cruised off to check out some other sights. En route to the Harbor we spotted multiple adult Bald Eagles, a great number of hulking Steller Sea Lions, and of course, adorable Harbor Seals. Back in port, there were many smiles as guests departed to enjoy the rest of their sunny afternoons.


M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris


Southern Residents in the Haro

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Leaving Friday Harbor with reports of whales is always a great feeling and Captain Mike took us off the docks with good vibes for J Pod. We made a few stops along to the way, taking in Spieden’s open slopes, Steller Sea Lions, and Harbor Seal lounging on the rocks, but we had a destination in mind. Before too long we caught up with Orca on Open Bay on the West side of San Juan Island.


Being early in the year, the Southern Resident Killer whales, which are largely hunting King Salmon aren’t as predictable in their presence. The salmon that run up the Fraser River in British Columbia aren’t present in larger numbers until at least June, so seeing J Pod foraging on the West Side was a real treat. We spent the most time with the J16s, which includes the newest member of the pod, J52 who stayed close to mother J36 as they moved South.


The next hour was spent surrounded by the animals as they traveled South toward Cattle Point. At a certain point it became apparent that most of J Pod was around and Captain Mike took us on a tour of the Matrilines in the Haro Strait. It was a spectacularly beautiful day on the water, with the Olympics beaming in the background as we sped around through Cattle Pass, bound for Port.


Naturalist Brendan


M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris