Archive for the ‘orca whale watching by seattle’ Category

Steller Whale Day

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Some folks call these groups of islands the “Banana Belt” because they do exist in a rain shadow and they get about half the amount of rain that Seattle is famous for. The Olympic Mountains and the peaks along Vancouver Island block a lot of the incoming rains from the Pacific Ocean. So days here, especially in the summer are usually sunny and calm and there’s many a time where one can look in every direction to see rain clouds, but the islands are in their own little hole of sunshine. Tuesday was one of those beautiful days full of sun and glassy waters, and also let us not forget about the whales! Capt. Mike and I took eleven wonderful people out on the speedy M/V Kittiwake to the west side of the San Juan Island. Then Onyx popped up! Onyx (L-87) has a cool story. His mother died early on which is rough for anyone but for male orcas that spend their entire lives with their mothers it’s especially hard. He travelled with K pod for awhile but now has found a new home with J pod swimming with the J-2′s – Granny’s family. We spent some time with this wonderful guy then moved offshore and met up with some K-podders! The family of K-13, Skagit, was traveling up and down hunting those delicious Chinook salmon that make the PNW famous for both humans and orcas alike. Watching this family with Spock (K-20), Deadhead (K-25), Cali (K-34), Ripple (K-44), and Comet (K-38) do what they are so good at in wild brought a lot of peace to everyone on the boat. I don’t think anyone cannot be amazed hearing the sound of these creatures glide through the water and their massive exhales.

We soon had to bid adieu and start our trip back to Friday Harbor but the fun was not over yet. We stopped at Whale Rocks to see some adorable adult and baby Harbor Seals and also saw a huge but very tired Steller Sea Lion looking like he could not be more comfortable than he was on those sharp rocks. These Sea Lions usually are in Alaska right now breeding but this one probably wasn’t old enough so he stayed here! These Sea Lions are the biggest in the world! We soon had to leave him as well putting a beautiful day full of great views and feelings to a close.


Whale folks that’s all

Naturalist Erick

M/V Kittiwake, San Juan Safaris

Krazy Ks on the West Side!

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Naturalist Rachel, Captain Pete and I were very excited for our day on the M/V Sea Lion. The sun was shining, our guests were chipper, and we had positive whale reports leaving the dock! A positive whale report leaving the dock does not necessarily guarantee whale sightings, but it always gives you that lucky feeling in the pit of your stomach.

We cruised south this afternoon through San Juan Channel and around Cattle Point Lighthouse at the southern tip of San Juan Island. We were treated to great views of the surrounding mountain ranges, including 14,409 foot tall Mt. Rainier a whopping 110 miles away! The water was glassy this afternoon, which made for a smooth trip up the West Side of San Juan, but I was certainly grateful to be wrapped in my fleece while we traveling at full speed.

True to our report (Man, I love it when that happens!), we ended up meeting a group of Southern Resident killer whales right outside of False Bay. Much to our delight, Rachel and I realized that we were looking at some of K Pod, one of our three Resident, fish-eating, pods in the area. K Pod is currently the smallest of the three Resident pods, made up of 19 whales in three different matrilines, or family units. To identify the whales we look at their dorsal fins (the fins on their backs) and the gray marking right behind that fin, called the saddle patch. These are as unique to the individual whales as our fingerprints are to us! We identified members of the K14 matriline as well as the K13 matriline, some of our very favorite families.

K26 Lobo surfacing

Mother-Son Pair K20 Spock and K38 Comet

K25 Scoter of the K13 matriline

After spending about and hour watching the whales fishing and traveling down island we peeled away to go have a look for some sea lions and bald eagles. We found a lone Steller’s sea lion lounging on a rock, soaking up some rays. These formidable animals can grow up to about 12 feet long and can weigh right around 2,500 pounds! We were also able to track down a bald eagle just inside of Cattle Pass on San Juan Island. They are easiest to spot when you keep an eye out for their white heads and tail feathers against the green of the evergreen trees lining the islands. We pulled back into Friday Harbor feeling giddy about the quality of wildlife viewing we had experienced. What an incredible afternoon on the water!

Naturalist Sarah

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

A Whale of a Homecoming-July 27th, 2015

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Today Captain Pete, Erick and I took out the Sea Lion full of excited passengers to have a beautiful evening out on the water and check out some wildlife. We had a pretty great whale report with a bit of history behind it. The Southern Residents had all left the Salish Sea the other day and we had spent a few days seeking other wildlife like humpback whales, minke whales and transient orcas. However, our report had some good news: they were back!

The Southern Resident Killer Whales come back to the same areas each summer to feed on Chinook salmon. Much of their time is spent around the San Juan Islands while they feed on fish returning to the Frasier river to spawn, but they will periodically head out to the Pacific coast to feed on salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers, among others.

Having them back in the area is great news for us, because we love seeing them of course! In our effort to see them, we left Friday Harbor and headed South through San Juan Channel. Usually when we reach Cattle Point, we begin heading North to the West side of San Juan Island, but today we headed West in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We spent a good chunk of time cruising west scanning for dorsal fins, and to our surprise saw a humpback whale fluke up for a dive in the distance! There is nothing like a surprise whale encounter. We were not ready to turn around just yet, however, so we continued on.

Just south of Victoria, BC we began to see fin after fin breaking the surface as K Pod came into view! Slowly cruising East toward the islands, they looked like they were coming home after a long journey. Upon reaching Haro Strait, they woke up a bit. We spent time with all of K Pod, especially the K12 and K13 matrilines. We got great looks at some of the large males of the group like K25 (Scoter), K26 (Lobo) and we even got to see K21 (Cappuccino)! They appeared to be happy to be back in the Salish Sea and celebrated by porpoising, spyhopping, tail slapping and even a full breach!

We enjoyed their company for a while as they escorted the Sea Lion back to San Juan Island before we decided to enjoy their homecoming in peace.

Under the setting sun that made the sky and the water come alive with color, we began to make our way back to Friday harbor. The tour wasn’t over yet, however; we came across a few harbor porpoise, and one was carrying a calf on its back! Good news for the once dwindling porpoise population in the Salish Sea.

Far too quickly, our journey came to an end as the sun dropped below the trees.

Another Whale of a Day on the Salsih Sea!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

The Gang’s All Here–Southern Residents off Stuart Island

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Today we left the Friday Harbor dock and motored north on a report of whales heading in to Boundary Pass from East Point. By the time we got that far north, they had already reached Stuart Island. When they reached Turn Point, they began to head south in to Haro Straight. Although they were very spread out, we could tell that we had a large number of whales in the area, members from J, K, AND L pod. We were able to at least identify the J16s (my personal favorites), the K14s, and Crewser (L92) and Racer (L72), but we know that there we many others. Guests were fascinated to hear the breaths as each orca broke the surface. All whales get some water trapped in the divot that forms on top of the blowhole’s opening. That being said, they must be able to clear the water before they inhale again so that they don’t drown. They are estimated to exhale at about 200 miles per hour, a huge difference compared to the 40 mph at which we sneeze. After the trailing whales passed us, we turned around and headed back to SJI. On the way back, we got to see some harbor seals resting atop the Cactus island kelp forests, as well as saw 4 Bald Eagles and listened to them call–a great way to end a great trip!

Naturalist Alex

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

An Afternoon Social – Whale style

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

It was one of those classic Pacific Northwest day, grey, foggy, eerie making everything look a little more magical than they usually do. We had some rumors of some Southern Residents just off of Salmon Bank on the south end of San Juan Island, so that’s where Sarah, Capt. Mike, and I headed with a boat full of great and enthusiastic people. The ride kept bringing images of the Black Pearl sailing through the ever shifting fog to mind especially when we passed the old schooner Spike Africa in the distance, “Pirates”. Soon though the feelings of eeriness were replaced by those of excitement as the first few dark dorsal fins sliced through the fog. J and K pods! They were in so many different areas around the boat! Everywhere you looked there was a different family group either traveling or milling for their favorite food, Chinook salmon. We had the wonderful opportunity to follow a few family groups as they milled then breached then milled again and then we started to parallel one particular family, the J-19s. This family is one that has one of the new calves, J-51 the son of J-41, Eclipse. This family was sooo goofy they kept playing with each other, pushing against each other, and Eclipse at one point just stopped moving and started blowing bubbles with her blowhole, goofball. They played as a family pushing the new calf on top of their melons, started spinning under water and did several spyhops. We at one point cut the engine and dropped our hydrophone and got to listen to J pod speak for a while as we saw them goofing around. It was too much, There were whales on all sides playing with each other, breaching, spyhopping, and then a few spyhopped and started making vocalizations above the water…woah! Those were some magical moments. It’s probably not the case but sometimes it’s nice to think maybe they want us to join in on the fun too. We eventually had to take our leave of this little family party and let them drift back into the fog.

On our way back to Friday Harbor we stopped by Iceberg Point on Lopez Island and saw wait for it… SIX PUFFINS! These tufted puffins are one of my favorite birds in the area, They have black bodies, a white face mask, orange beaks and awesome, yellow feathers swooped back on their head. Their sort of like our penguins, beautiful birds and experts and fishing since they can swim super fast as they use their wings to both fly and swim.


Whale folks until next time,


Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris


Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

If you haven’t heard yet it’s Superpod week on San Juan Island. This is now an annual event that brings together whale researchers, whale watchers, whale enthusiasts, conservationists, documentarians, and sincerely concerned citizens to Friday Harbor for a week of films, talks, and get-togethers to learn and discuss how to better protect the Southern Resident Killer Whales. So, in all, a big meeting of whale intentioned folks. It’s a big week for the island and a big week for those who care about the whales, but I’m not sure if the orcas know we’re constantly talking about them, but today maybe they did. We started out on a cool sunny morning from Friday Harbor with not a lot of news about the the location of the orcas, we heard some rumors of a group down south near Eagle Cove, but then also heard that there was some activity up north by Open Bay. So Capt. Brian, Alex, and I set off intrepidly to the northern bound whales. We met up with the leaders around Kellett Bluff. We followed this group of milling J podders and some K pod south for a ways but broke off to look at another lone group nearer to shore. As we watched these few whales with awe we noticed another group moving up from the south and then boom 20 orcas lined up! Members from all three pods joined forces to make….wait for it… a Superpod! This group was amazing as 20 plus dorsal fins would rise in unison from the depths. Different whales took turns be the front and sometimes it was the new calves all signaling with tail slaps. They swam northward and once they passed the bluffs, Bam! they picked up speed, some went this way some went that way a few adult males started racing! It was just too much! But it was a wonderful reminder how much both, we as humans and these orcas share in common, especially our desire to be close to family and friends, our need to commune and share a common joy.


Peace for all whales and humans alike,

Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

A Murder most Transient… July 22nd, 2015

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Today Captain Gabe and I left the dock on the Kittiwake with a boat full of excited passengers, sun in the sky and reports of something a little different than our average tour: Transients (cue dramatic music)

Transients, unlike the Southern Resident Killer Whales who subsist mostly on King Salmon, spend their time actively hunting other marine mannals. Here in the Salish Sea, their favorite snack is Harbor seals.

As we left Friday Harbor we headed South through the San Juan Channel towards Salmon Bank, an under-water ridge off of Cattle Point. As we approached, we began to see black dorsal fins erupting from the waves as killer whales cruised NorthEast at modest speeds of about twelve miles per hour. When orcas are engaged in chases with other fast animals, they can reach speeds of up to thirty miles per hour or more!

Kittiwake raced along to keep up as we followed them towards Long Island, just South of Lopez Island, where they slowed down and began to do what they do best: hunt.

Now Harbor seals are very cute and win the hearts of most people while they are awkwardly resting on exposed reefs, but seeing a pod of four-to-six-ton apex predators chowing down usually evokes a similar reaponse to watching a train wreck: it’s horrible for the victims but you just cannot look away!

Harbor seals are quite abundant around the San Juans, in fact they are at what is known as “carrying capacity” this means that they are using all the recources that the ecosystem has to offer, and any more could be an issue. In this way, transient whales act as population control; as the seal population rises so will their main predator, resulting in an eventual decline in the seal population. This decline will also eventually affect the transient orca population. We see this boom-bust cycle in any specific predator/prey relationship including wolves and moose, lynx and snowshoe hare, cheetas and gazelles, and orcas and seals! These relationships allow adequate resources and keep the ecosystem balanced over time.

The transient pod we were watching (identified as the T060 group) began to duck into rocks, crevices and kelp forests on the hunt for defenceless seals. As they found one they sped up, ocasionally slapped it senceless with their powerfull tails, grabbed it in their jaws and shared it amongst the pod members. The whales were ecstatic about this newfound smorgasbord and let us know by spyhopping, breaching and having a grand ol’ time with each new kill.

Possibly the most emotional moment was seeing all of the seals that were safely hauled out on shore watching with terror as their usual hangout spots were razed by twenty to thirty-foot predators. Definitely not a great day to be a seal.

For the passengers and naturalists, however, this was a very exciting and very uncommon look into the more brutal aspects of the natural world of the Pacific Northwest.

After we had seen enough carnage, we reluctantly made our way back to Friday Harbor.

A supreme Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Kittiwake

San Juan Safaris


J Pod Soiree in the West Side-July 18, 2015

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

Today myself, Alex and Captain Mike left the dock on the Sea Lion with a boat full of excited passengers, great whale reports and a beautiful evening ahead of us. As we left Friday Harbor we headed South past Griffin Bay in the San Juan Channel. We stopped near Goose Island (still on fire from 4th of July negligence and hot dry weather) to check out some seals lazily swimming in the current, popping their heads out to check on us as we passed. This time of year holds lots of curious young seal pups as their mothers go back to daily seal life and leave the weaned young, “weaners” on their own. A tumultuous time for a young seal, qeaners face many challenges like avoiding predators, finding enough food, and finding out the consequences of being TOO curious. As a result, not all of them will make it. The ones that do, however, might just pass on any genetic traits that helped them survive. We wish them luck!

As we finished contemplating the existence of seals, we rounded Cattle Point and began heading North in the Haro Strait, the body of water that makes one of the borders between the United States and Canada, Eh? The Strait was exceptionally clear both in and out of the water. We had fantastic views of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Reiner, two dormant volcanoes in the Cascade Mountain range. This was particularly exciting because, due to haze from fires in Canada over the past few weeks, we were denied these spectacular views.

Looking into the water was no less beautiful; we passed over a large swarm or “smack” of crystal jellies, silver-dollar-sized clear jellyfish that feed on minute animals in the zooplankton by stunning them with their Nematocysts, or stinging cells, then digesting them. Seeing hundreds of these living  gems slowly pulsing through the turquoise water was worth the boatride in itself. We also saw numerous pink, or Humpy, salmon jumping out of the water. The water was clear enough to watch the happy fish swim away after it’s impressive leap.

However, we didn’t come out here looking for salmon and jellies, we were scanning the water for black dorsal fins, which we finally encountered near False Bay. It was J Pod (or J Squad if you’re really cool)! The first whale we encountered, easily identifiable by his massive dorsal fin and distinct saddle patch, was L87 (Onyx). A victim of hard times when he lost his matriarch, he left L Pod and began traveling with K Pod for a few years before settling in with the J2 matriline of J Pod. Knowing this, we could assume that the J2′s were present and sure enough the next dorsal fins we saw belonged to J2 (Granny) and J14 (Samish). Granny is the uncontested matriarch of J Pod. At the ripe age of 104 (oldest known killer whale), she is still spiritedly leading the squad.

We also got some great looks at the J19 group, led by J19 (Sachi). She was joined by her daughter J41 (Eclipse) and her new grandbaby J51. The new claves are always exciting to see, energetic miniature Orcas clumsily surfacing right behind mom. J27 (Blackberry), a very distinguished male, also travels with this matriline.

As all of the groups were quite spread out and swimming nowhere in general (“milling”), we assumed that they were searching for and eating Chinook salmon, their favorite food.

We excitedly watched most of J Squad feed, play, and swim for a while as colors from the impending sunset danced on the surface of the water. It was truly a beautiful moment. Although we all would have been happy staying on the West side all evening, we decided to say our goodbyes and begin heading back to Friday Harbor.

On our way back we again encountered some seals and many seabirds before arriving at the dock.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris


Mystical Mysticetes

Friday, July 17th, 2015

On Thursday y’all, we got a rare treat. Usually out here in the summer we have many orca encounters, but there are many other cetaceans (aka whales) that also share the waters of the Salish Sea. One of our visitors is the enormous Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). We went looking for this particular one on a beautiful cool and sunny Thursday afternoon, and finally caught up to him or her (harder to tell with these, folks) around Pole Pass in between Orcas Island and Crane Island. This was surprising since This not a very large pass and as you know Humpbacks are very, very big, around 40 – 50 ft. long as adults – woah! that’s a lot of whale. But this whale looked as happy as a clam probably because these tight quarters left no escape for his minuscule prey. As Finding Nemo taught us all, Humpbacks eat krill, “Swim Away!” As well as small bait fish and other tiny organisms that get caught in their mouths. This is a major difference between Orcas and Humpbacks. Orcas and all other cetaceans that have teeth belong to the classification Odontocetes meaning toothed whales, but Humpbacks and other whales that prey on krill and other plankton belong to the Mysticetes meaning mustache whales. This means that instead of teeth they have something called baleen. Hold on, let me finish I didn’t just say mustache whales to check to see if you were still reading that is actually the truth. This baleen is like a bristly row of think hair in their mouths so they can suck in a lot of water then force it out through the baleen thereby catching all those tiny organisms, and if you’ve ever had a mustache you know that they are great at that process mouth full of water or not. Anyway this guy was amazing to see as he placidly kept heading northeast and nomming on all the tiny things in the ocean. Just listening to the sound of his breathing you could tell the size difference between this Humpback and the Orcas. After awhile we travelled north to the rips near Spieden Island to see some other cetaceans – Harbor Porpoises! These are one of my favorites because they are so cute. We saw five swimming in and out of the strong currents trying to catch fish. We don’t know too much about this species because they are so shy. They belong to the porpoises which are distinct from the orcas which are part of the dolphins and the humpbacks which are baleen whales. It was fun to see how fast these guys were as they swim in and out and even did their porpoising charges to pick up speed. After them with circumnavigated Flattop Island to visit all the Harbor Seals and their adorable pups, but also got a super good show by some Bald Eagles and their young too! Wooh, what an unexpected day! And just remember flukes aren’t always a bad thing.



Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris





A Very J16 Tuesday

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Today myself, Brendan and Captain Pete got out on the Sea Lion to a beautiful day, hopeful whale reports, and a boat full of excited passengers. Word of the day was West side, so we went South out of Friday Harbor through the San Juan Channel. On our way down we began to see lots of wildlife feeding on a herring baitball.

Baitballs are great signs in the Salish Sea that indicate a healthy bottom layer of our rich food web. While feeding, small fish including herring and sandlance swarm into a school in defence of underwater predators including porpoise, minke whales, seals, salmon and diving birds. These predators drive the ball up towards the surface where arial predators like seagulls can take advantage of the smorgasbord. This roch bounty is a great opportunity to see a diverse collection of animals and that we did. After passing by seals, harbor porpoise, gulls, cormorants, auklets and murres eagerly feasting, we rounded cattle point and headed north into the Haro Strait on the West side of San Juan Island.

As we neared False Bay, we saw a large black dorsal fin casually rise from the water followed by the body of J26, or Mike! He has an exceptionally distonguoshed saddle patch making him easy to recognize. Because male resident killer whales will not leave their matriline (matriarchial group of Orca including a female and all of her offspring ), we inferred that the rest of the nearby whales were the J16 matriline! An interesting group, the J16′s are comprised of J16 (Slick), her son J26 (Mike), her daughters J36 (Alki), J42 (Echo) and her newest calf J50, as well as Alki’s new calf J52. This unique family has two out of three new calves in J pod. These youngsters are especially fun to see when they are practicing spyhopping and splashing as much as they were today.

The acrobatics were framed with manestic views of the Olympic peninsula topped with clouds. The day was so clear that Mt. Reiner even showed up in the distance! After getting some great looks at J26, watching moms and calfs swim and splash together, and the breathtaking beauty of the Haro Strait, we decided to let the pod fish in peace as we began our treck back to Friday Harbor.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris