Posts Tagged ‘friday harbor’

Salmon, Cetaceans and Sea Lions, Oh My!-July 30th 2015

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Today Captain Jim and I left the dock with a boat full of excited passengers, no wind, sun in the sky and several whale reports. We decided to head to the West side to check out J Pod who was in town feeding on Chinook salmon.

As we headed South out of Friday Harbor into San Juan Channel we were greeted by a flock of rhinoceros auklets, small black, diving puffin-like birds with a horny protrusion on their bill, plunging into the water to distance themselves from the boat. These “Rhinauks” will dive up to fifty feet to catch their favorite meal: herring! We will occasionally see then suddenly appear from underwater wearing what looks like a collection of silver moustaches, but is actually two or three herring hanging from their bills.

As we continued South the passengers learned a bit more about the Southern Resident Killer Whales (what/who they are, what they eat, how they behave, if they are at all in danger, etc.) In preparation for meeting them face to face. Nobody was nervous for this interview, however. We were all excited.

After rounding Cattle Point at the Southern tip of San Juan Island we headed North and offshore a bit into the Haro Strait to began to scan for signs of life. The first thing we saw was a Pink, or Humpy, salmon jumping out of the water again and again and again! This is a common sight this time of year as pinks prepare to run up the Frasier River to spawn. When they began this odd behavior in late June, they had all the characteristics of a salt-water ocean fish including silver coloring and not entirely impressive jumps. Their bodies have been changing to adapt to the impending freshwater march to their one opportunity to spawn and their inevitable doom (they will die moments after they spawn). Some changes that we can see are that their bodies are turning green, males are developing large humps on their backs and sharper, more formidable teeth, and they can jump higher, perhaps three or four feet into the air! I am sure they are all just as excited as a salmon can be, they definitely appear to be ready.

As mesmerized as we were by the salmon, we soon became fully aware of the huge, six foot dorsal fin that appeared above the water. It was Blackberry! J27, or Blackberry, is one of the most distinctive males in the Southern Resident community. He has a massive dorsal fin and a very unique saddle patch with a line of black separating the white blotch. He was soon joined by his sister J31, or Tsuchi, and we were able to watch them zig and zag as they fished together for Chinook salmon.

We also got great looks at the J22s, or the Cookie clan. This family is made up of J22 (Oreo), J34 (Doublestuff) and J38 (Cookie). While they were feeding they got a bit playful and we even saw a breach!

Watching Orcas during any activity is always a huge joy, and it is always over far too soon. This experience was no different. We decided to let them eat their whaley hearts out while we meandered back home.

Along the way we stopped at Whale Rocks, some exposed reefs that are usually covered in Harbor seals. Today along with a plethora of the awkward seals coating the shoreline, we were able to catch a glimpse of a group (or “raft”) of Stellar Sea lions in the water!

Stellars are massive creatures. The largest of the sea lions, males can meaaure twelve feet long and weigh in at a hefty 2500lbs! Mid summer is their breeding time, and most adults head north to give birth and mate. Their duries done, this group at least decided to head back through the incredible waters of the Salish Sea.

Adter spending some time oggling our otariid friends, we made our way back to Friday Harbor. Whenever wildlife is involved, it is a good day. With our encounter with birds, salmon, whales, seals AND sea lions, I’d call this a Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Kittiwake

San Juan Safaris

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

SuperPodia

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

 

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

Whale to do

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

It was a drizzly morning here in Friday Harbor, but we definitely needed that rain and by the time the afternoon rolled around the sun was peaking out again. Capt. Jim, 9 guests, and I all left the harbor on the Kittiwake with reports of Southern Resident Killer Whales heading south along the southern tip of San Juan Island. Never ever has there been a calmer day that I can remember on the Salish Sea especially when we got onto the west side – smooth as glass. On the way to meet up with the orcas we stopped at looked at a group of Harbor Seals sunning on some exposed rocks. Two seal pups – oh yeah it’s pupping season so there are a ton of these little cuties – offered us a great view of the different coloration of our two morphs of Harbor Seals in the Salish Sea. There is a darker morph and a lighter morph. They are the same species they are just two distinct fur colorations. These folks are a key linchpin in the food chain between between fish and squid and Transient Orcas that eat marine mammals. Seals consist of 70% of their diet! But, back to the Southern Residents. After we passed Cattle Point we headed a little north to Eagle Cove. There they were a mother with a tiny calf drafting right off her port side. Well I mean tiny is relative, the calf is probably my size and definitely weighs more. Then the rest of the family group caught up. It was the J-16s! My favorite family is in J pod and is the family group led by J-16 (Slick). There is ¬†also Mike, Echo, and Alki and… and… two new calves! We got to see all of them as the spread out heading south looking for salmon. Mike (J-26) is really big one of the biggest males I’ve ever seen and you can definitely tell when you see his enormous dorsal fin slowly rise from the depths. We were so lucky that J pod was so close because we got to stay and move around to see most of J pod for almost an hour and a half as they grouped up, spread out, spyhopped, and Mike gave us a big breach at the end as a farewell, cue more Michael Jackson music. Until next time from the sunny San Juans Capt. Jim and Erick are out.

 

Naturalist Erick

M/V Kittiwake, San Juan Safaris

Flying Whales in Haro Strait!

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

Today was (as usual) a fantastic day! My co-natty Erik, captain Mike and myself had a boat full of excited passengers, sunny skies and great whale reports ahead of us. We left the dock and headed south out of Friday Harbor towards Cattle Point. On our way through San Juan Channel we stopped to check out some cormorants and some harbor seals enjoying the sunshine on some rocks. Its currently pupping season for harbor seals! We saw a few little ones learning “banana pose” from the adults.

Harbor Seals are at Carrying capacity in this area, meaning that the ecosystem cannot handle many more seals than already exist. As an unfortunate result, there is about a 50% mortality rate for young seals or “weeners” as they are affectionately called. The good news is that more seals means more happy Transient Orcas!

We were not on our way to see Transients. As we rounded Cattle Point into Haro strait, we began to see fins! We were looking at members of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, fish-eaters that follow salmon into the Salish Sea each summer. This summer is no different, we saw lots of big salmon jumping for joy out of the water, which is a clue as to what the whales were doing as we were watching them.

We identified a group as the K12 matriline and watched K22 (Seiku) and her son K33 (Tika) lazily feeding for a while. We then decided to head to another group further north near Lime Kiln Lighthouse where we ran into the K13 matriline! K13 (Skagit), her four children and 2 grandchildren were beinf particularly active and we got some great looks of K20 (Spock) and her son K38 (Comet). The whole pod spent time tailslapping, pec clapping and even cartwheeling (throwing tails up in the air) but the crown jewel was when Skagit breached! The first one was exciting enough, but then she breached again, and again! Hard to miss that shot. Watching a 9,000 pound carnivore propelling itself into the air is a spectacle that seems to happen in slow motion (when you arefortunate enough to not miss it) and is over far too quickly.

After watching the K13′s play around a bit more, we headed south to visit with the K12′s once more before embarking on the journey home. On our way back we crossed paths with a few more harbor seals in the water as well as a great blue heron fishing in a kelp bed. After that amazing whale experience it was like waking up from a dream as we came back to the dock in Friday Harbor.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Residents up and down the West side

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Today we embarked from Friday Harbor without having decided which report we were going to pursue, having heard that there were whales North of East Point, as well as on the west side. We turned south in San Juan Channel to try our luck on the West side. On our way out there, we passed Goose Island. Unfortunately, Goose Island caught on the fire the other day, and a large portion of the nests (of 4 bird species) burned up in the flames. The smell of smoke is evident if you are downwind.

Just as we passed South Beach, we came across our first pod of Southern resident killer whales. There, we were able to get some good looks at a few females and an adult male. They were surfacing very infrequently, which led us to believe that they may have been pursuing some salmon.

We then shot off a mile or so North, to observe a second pod of residents, which appeared to be a number of different family groups. They were much mores surface active, with a few tails slaps and pectoral fin slaps on the water. We also saw two adult males in very close contact, which is not typical. We were able to identify them as male, because of the size and shape of their dorsal fin. Males, with a straight triangular shaped dorsal fin, up to 6 feet tall. The dorsal fin of a female is more of a crescent shape and won’t get more than 2-3 feet in height. However, it is easy to mistake a young male for a female, because they don’t begin to really lengthen that dorsal fin until about 15 years of age.

After getting in a good dose of resident orca sightings, we headed back down the island and around Cattle Point to get back to Friday Harbor.

Naturalist Alex

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris