Posts Tagged ‘Bald Eagle’

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

“Watch this you salmon eating weirdos” – Transient Orcas everywhere

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Yesterday Capt. Mike, Brendan, and I set out on one of the calmest evenings we’ve had on the water. We were looking for some of the local Transient Orcas. There are three main communities of Transient Orcas that live on the west coast of North America. They all belong to the same ecotype but form different communities that usually remain in one general area, but each small pod can travel from Baja California up to Alaska. The community here is called the Washington – British Columbia community and guess what they live off the coast of Washington and British Columbia!! These Transients separated from our more well known Resident Orcas around 10,000 – 13,000 years ago. So although they look very similar they are genetically distinct and have two very different cultures. The transients usually travel in smaller pods, have a looser social structure, and hunt marine mammals! Yes, everything that looks cute and cuddly in the ocean, they are going to nom on them.

We headed north to some of the outer islands of the San Juans. We had our first sightings of the trip right of the east side of Johns Island. We saw their blows unbelievably close to shore as we approached, and sure enough they were in hunt mode. Do get excited, this is sort of what the folks at the Discovery Channel live for, but usually from the top of water their is little to no blood floating in the currents. It seems that orcas are not as messy of eaters as we believe them to be. They also drown their prey so little is done in the way of killing above the surface. We continued to see them as they moved south along Johns Island. Transients always offer surprises since they do a lot of direction changes underneath the water where you can’t see them, so they can pop up…anywhere. When we got to the south end of Johns Island they skirted through a very narrow channel and started to check around a few massive kelp beds – where many of their prey like to hide.

Now things were starting to get even cooler they kept popping up all around us, looking like they were hunting something else. We were in a small channel now surrounded by islands, kelp, and now…silent orcas. As a Bald Eagle swooped by the orcas showed us a profile and we could tell there were 5 of them and by their markings they looked like the T36A’s along with a few family friends we were unable to identify. This family has two really young orcas who were extremely playful. As they went in between the Wasp Islands we respectfully followed and they disappeared again. Only to reappear in full force as a synchronous breath and then back under again, then one of the calves did a perfect backflip to nosedive combo! This was finished off with the mother and the other adult female bursting out of the water and doing two body slams!


That. was. amazing! Maybe they did that to have fun or maybe to show up those fish eating Resident Orcas, because I have never seen a full back flip from an orca before. They continued to play as they ate more and more (probably Harbor Porpoises). We watched for a few more moments as they happily played in the road of shimmering light cast by the sunsetting over Spieden Island, then bid farewell once more.

Whale folks until next time,

Naturlist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, 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

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

Breaching orcas and a baby Bald Eagle

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

For the past few days, we’ve been meeting up with the residents on the west side of SJI, so today, when we had a report for Boundary Pass, we were excited to be able to switch things up. So, we left Friday Harbor and headed North. We met up with the K13s just between Saturna and South Pender Island. They were fairly spread out, but we got a good look at all 7 pod members and a good amount of breaches! We were lucky enough to hang out with them from there, all the way past Turn point and a little way down Stuart Island.

On our way back home, we went through Speiden channel with hopes of seeing one of the Bald Eagles that nests on Speiden, and we were not disappointed. We were able to see a nestling (almost turned fledgling) sitting just outside the nest. It was moving it’s wings around but did not fly. Young Bald Eagles often get confused for Golden Eagles (which we do not have here) because of their coloration. While they’ll grow to adult size in the first year, it takes 4-5 years for a Bald Eagle to get adult plumage, or a white head and white tail. Until then, they are a mottled brown color. We were able to spot 3 more (adult) Bald Eagles, as well as many deer, as we moved down Speiden. Overall, a successful whale watch and wildlife tour.

Naturalist Alex

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

North of the Wall: Transients are Coming

Friday, June 19th, 2015

Today was a very exciting day. We left the dock without any reports of whales. No humpback whales, no minke whales and unfortunately no reports of orcas. We started to steam North keeping our eyes out for any signs of marine mammals. We had the most amazing fly-over by a mature bald eagle and enjoyed traveling up the east side of Waldron Island through Presidents Channel under clear blue skies. Suddenly our Northern bet payed off, as some tall, black dorsal fins cut through the waves around Patos Island. TRANSIENT KILLER WHALES! We were lucky enough to join two family groups as they hunted and socialized in the Strait of Georgia around Alden Bank. We were fortunate enough to witness the groups make at least a couple of kills, and watch the two females present with the group spend time teaching their young ones the ways of being an orca… everything from how to best kill a seal to how to breach and slap the surface of the water with their tails. What a treat! On the way home we got to take a closer look at some harbor seals hauled out on some rocks. These small pinnipeds are at their carrying capacity on this ecosystem, meaning that they are at their maximum population that can be supported. They are adorable to see bobbing in the water! These are the days that really make me appreciate our sighting network, and our ability to go the distance to find whales. If you board our boat and we have no report of whales do not be discouraged, a lot of the time we end up finding them… because just like winter in Westeros, the whales are always coming.

Orca in the Mist

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

This evening Captain Pete and I left the dock on the ol’ Sea Lion in classic Pacific Northwest misty weather with a boat full of good natured passengers and reports of a male Killer Whale traveling on his own in Canadian waters.

After meeting everyone, we took off in search of wildlife. Right off the bat we spotted first one than a second Bald Eagle on San Juan Island. As we headed west through Spieden Channel we saw some harbor seals and harbor porpoise appearing breifly and then disappearing beneath the steely grey waters.

Boating through the San Juan Islands in the mist brings a slightly mystical dimension to our adventure and to me makes the entire atmosphere seem a bit more primordial.

As we left American waters crossing Haro Strait into the Canadian Gulf Islands, we began to see lots of seabirds and then suddenly a lone six-foot-tall black fin broke the surface and rose slowly into the mist before the Orca exhaled and returned beneath the waves. The solemn aspect of the mist and rain, especially with the evening sun in the West attempting to break through the clouds, added a special kind of beauty to this experience.

We identified the male as a Transient, or mammal-eating killer whale, number T049C. He is 17 years old and has two very distinct notches near the bottom of his dorsal fin. Transient Orcas have a much more fluid social structure than Resident whales, and it is not uncommon to see mature males traveling on their own.

This male was very mellow while traveling and even ignored a seal that surfaced near our boat. He maintained a slow and determined course through the evening fog as we were struck with awe each time his dorsal fin came into view against the backdrop of green islands, golden sunset and silvery clouds.

After sticking with T049C (really rolls off the tongue, right?) For a while, we decided to let him continue his lonesome journey while we made our way back to Friday Harbor, thus ending our magical evening out in the Salish Sea.


Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

JK in Haro Strait

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Today Captain Mike along with Sarah and myself took off from the dock in Friday Harbor with a warm sun in the sky, a boat full of excited passengers, and reports of resident killer whales in Haro Strait, on the west side of San Juan Island. I had a feeling it was going to be an awesome trip because before we left there was a “Sundog” in the sky, a full rainbow around the sun. We headed south toward Cattle Point where we saw lots of seals with their heads bobbing up and down in the water like a game of whak-a-mole. At low tide, we will typically see tens of seals hauled out on exposed rocks to sun themselves and enjoy a respite from the chilly water of the Salish Sea. We rounded Cattle Point and began to head north and as the Lime Kiln lighthouse came into view so did black dorsal fins breaking the surface of the water. As we got a bit closer, we saw first one then another huge dorsal fin break the surface, the sign of two large males.  Killer whales, like many animals, exhibit “sexual dimorphism”, meaning that males and females have different physical characteristics. This can sometimes be a result of sexual selection, for example females choosing the crab with the largest fin or male elephant seals becoming larger than females to battle one another for mating rights. In Orcas, mature females retain a short and curved fin after reaching maturity while males dorsal fins sprout skyward to reach an impressive height of six feet when fully grown! The role of the dimorphism in Killer whales is not very well understood.

The whales we saw were a smattering of groups from J pod and K pod including the K12 matriline, from which we saw multiple breaches, spyhops and tail lobs from Sekiu and Tika and the J22 matriline or “cookie clan” including Cookie and her offspring Prep and Doublestuff.

We stayed with them for quite a while as they all were very active and happy while fishing and swimming along the west side. They graced us with all sorts of happy whale activity until we had to head back to friday harbor.

On the way back we saw bald eagles a’plenty as well as some harbor seals and harbor porpoise. Another Whale of a day in the Salish Sea!


Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Transients, Birds, Humpback and Seals

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Today Captain Mike, Brendan and I spent a bright and warm day out on the water. We left the dock with no reports of orcas, but some Transients were reported just as we pulled out of Friday Harbor. There are two ecotypes of killer whales that swim in the waters of the Salish Sea: Residents and Transients. The Residents are the famous three pods of salmon-eaters, while the Transients are marine mammal eaters focusing most of their attention on harbor seals. We met up with the group of Transients right off of Sidney Island, BC, and it turned out to be my absolutely favorite family of Ts….. The T65As!!!! T65A is a female who has a very pronounced nick out of the trailing tip of her dorsal fin. Sh travels with her four kiddos, T65A2, A3, A4, & A5. We spent some quality time with the family as they leisurely made a kill and started to get a bit surface-active, splashing around and generally celebrating having full bellies. We left them as they started to settle down so that we could check out some nearby seabird colonies. We were treated to views of cormorants and various gull species as well as a VERY nice look at a bald eagle. As we finished looking at the birds yet another report came over the radio, this time of a humpback whale near Spieden Island. We got some very nice looks at the young humpback whale, and continued on our way to check out some harbor seals hauled out on a rock. These little critters can be 4-5 feet long and weigh right around 200-250 pounds. On land they flop around and are no so graceful, but in the water they can be described as acrobatic. We motored back to Friday Harbor with the sun shining on our backs and smiles on our faces. Yet another great day on the water.

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

Humpbacks in the Georgia Strait

Friday, June 12th, 2015

This evening Captain Mike and I left the dock with excited passengers, warm breeze on the water and a report of humpbacks in Canadian waters. We headed north out of Friday Harbor and up the San Juan Channel toward East Point on Saturna Island, the easternmost point of the Canadian Gulf Islands. We stopped here to check out a haul out of harbor seals (or as we call them Pacific Northwest Rock Sausages) and some pairs of black oystercatchers feeding on intertidal invertebrates. After our brief visit with our pinniped friends, we continued to the Northwest in the Strait of Georgia towards the lowering sun and TWO tall columns of steam on the horizon. Could it be humpbacks?

As we neared where we saw the blows we slowed down and heard a massive WHOOSH as first one then the other humpback blew as we saw their massive black backs emerge from the water. Despite what we all may have seen in Finding Nemo, humpback whales do not actually swallow any water that then emerges from their blowhole, in fact their mouths are not connected to their respiratory system at all. Their “blowholes” are actually a huge pair of nostrils that have migrated to the top of their head over evolutionary time. Each one is contained by a splash guard that traps about three gallons of water when they come to the surface. To clear this water, a humpback will exhale at about 300 miles per hour from its monstrous lungs, vaporizing this water  into the ten to twenty foot plume of steam that we see above the water.

We hung out and watched these magnificent animals for a while in the waning sunlight and got some great looks at their flukes as they dove to feed on herring. In what seemed like much too short of a time, it was time for us to wave goodbye as we saw their flukes disappear under the water for the last time.

Even though we left the humpys, we had a great scenic ride ahead of us through Georgensun Pass and Plumper Sound where we saw numerous eagles, an occupied osprey nest, and more seals. We finally made our way back through San Juan Channel back to Friday Harbor where our passengers disembarked with smiles on their faces after a magical evening on the water.

another Whale of a day in the Salish Sea!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris