Today Captain Brian and I left the dock under perfectly Pacific Northwest cloudy skies with a boat full of passengers who, as usual, were excited to see the wildlife of the Salish Sea.
Captain Brian and I were particularly excited as well because we had heard reports of something that has been lacking in this area for over a week now: Southern Resident Killer Wlhales! The fish-eaters were spotted heading back into the San Juan Islands after spending some time in Northern British Colombia waters.
We planned on heading South out of Friday Harbor to get to our reports on the West side of San Juan Island. Even before we got out of the harbor, we encountered several harbor seals! These critters live up to their name and are found where there is food to be eaten. Our clear Autumn waters show us that there are abundant herring underneath all the docks in the harbor, so the harbor seal buffet is open!
After leaving the harbor we headed South through San Juan Channel and began to notice the incredible water motion that is a result of our significant tidal influx. This water is concentrated into a river-like torrent in the channel. The intense water motion stirs up all the sediment and nutrients in the water which enables this water to teem with life, and makes it a great place to be a predator. The next thing we knew, we were watching a Stellar’s sea lion surfacing and taking some deep breaths. It took some time to look us over before slipping its body back into the rippling water of the channel.
We then continued south past another Stellar’s sea lion as well as a male california sea lion! The San Juan Islands make up the northernmost extent of their range. We aproached the Whale Rocks where dozens of the enormous Stellar’s, which can be as heavy as a Volkswagon, haul out to sun themselves, rest up, and be generally unpleasant toward one another.
After battling a fierce current to get out of the mouth of Cattle Pass, we began to head West and North into the Haro Strait, the age-old stompin’ grounds of the Southern Resident Killer Whales.
Interrupted only by the occasional howl of a common murre on our way North, we were able to take in the incredible views around us. The low Autumn sun was resting just beyond the clouds sitting atop the Olympic Peninsula to the South, producing a sunset-like glow surrounding the breathtaking silhouette of the mountains. Due West of our path we could make out the South end of Vancouver island and the buildings that make up the city of Victoria, BC. Between the two unbelievably scenic landmarks, a large bank of fog lay just over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Despite the light rain that we were beginning to feel the islands, sea, clouds, fog and the soft glow evoked the magic of the Pacific Northwest.
Before long we were on the lookout for black dorsal fins, and our search was a success! We saw the large dorsal fin of a male orca directly ahead of us. Typically, where the Southern Resident are concerned, where there is one orca there are more and this held true today. We began to see black and white everywhere we looked as K Pod materialized around us.
We got some great looks at K25 (Scoter) and K26 (Lobo), a few of the easily recognizeable males in K Pod, both with massive dorsal fins and solid saddle-patches. Having seen them, we then realized that the K13 and K14 matrilines were our whales of the hour. We got some incredible looks at these families, but the show was far from over.
Captain Brian mosied the Sea Lion out into the middle of the Strait and we began to see small splashes, or “rooster tails” erupting from the water. This could only mean one thing: Dall’s Porpoise!! These “pigfish” are a black-and-white relative of the harbor porpoise with a few notable differences. They have an extremely robust Caudal Peduncle, the muscle that powers the tail. As a result, they are the fastest marine mammal on earth and can travel more than thirty miles per hour! Another difference is that while harbor porpoises are quite shy, Dall’s enjoy surfing the bow wake of boats in the water.
As we watched mesmerized at the fast critters darting through the water something completely unexpected happened: an orca popped up! Right in the middle of the pod of Dall’s! This was L82 (Katsaka), part of the L55 matriline (yea L Pod was there too!). She was having what looked like a very playful interaction with a different species of cetacean! I have never seen anything like it. What is curious is that while THESE Dall’s were excitedly swimming about this orca, Southern Resident Orcas have been known to beat and batter harbor porpoises to death on numerous occasions.
The way these Dall’s surfed the small whitecaps and swam like torpedos around L82 was anything but brutal, and one might say that she was playing with them just as deliberately as they were chasing her around. Following this black-and-white cetacean parade were some other members of the L55 matriline, L55 (Nugget): Katsaka’s mother and the matriarch of the sub-pod as well as L116 (Finn), Katsaka’s four-year-old son. Why the Dall’s porpoise were only interacting with L82 and not the other family members we cannot say, but either way it was an unforgettable occurance. Shortly after we saw the entire matriline splashing and breaching, adding evidence that they were all having a great time.
We decided to continue cruising north where we passed group after group of black dorsal fins connected to various members of the Southern Residents. Our goal was to see as much as possible on this awesome October day, so we continued towards reports of a humpback whale further north in Haro Strait. As we scanned for the characteristic exhalation of the immense baleen whale, we saw not one, but two blows!
We were seeing a pair of humpbacks that were in the early stages of their southern migration. It is not exactly common to see two humpbacks traveling together who are not a mother and calf, and both of these whales appeared to be between twenty and thirty feet long. This means each of the giant animals may have weighed up to thirty tons!
We watched as they exhaled several times each, pushing a column of water vapor twenty feet up each time their blowholes broke the surface. Their backs would follow, exposing their diminutive dorsal fins and then one by one we saw a huge pair of flukes rise into the air as the whales took their terminal dives. It is always a breathtaking sight to see these flukes, trailing water, disappear beneath the surface and to think that a massive mammal is exploring the depths underneath our vessel somewhere.
Innevitably, our time with whales was running out so we bid our farewell to both orcas and humpbacks and headed East through Speiden channel, where we could see introduced mouflan sheep and fallow deer grazing on the grassy hillside of Spieden island among boulders leftover by receding glaciers.
From there we headed South back through San Juan channel to complete our incredibly fruitful circumnavigation of San Juan Island. Along the way we caught glimpses of a few more harbor seals and a bald eagle perched in a tree on the shoreline, but many of us were nearly overwhelmed by the incredible diversity we were fortunate enough to see today.
Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J
M/V Sea Lion
San Juan Safaris