Posts Tagged ‘friday harbor’

November Wildlife at its Finest!

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Yesterday the M/V Sea Lion headed out on the water for a private charter. I love being a part of hosting these private events, as we can totally taylor the trip for whatever the groups are most interested in. Yesterday our group wanted to find as much wildlife as we possibly could, and wildlife we found! We left Friday Harbor and motored north. At Spieden Island we encountered a lively group of Steller’s sea lions, and a number of bald eagles. As we headed further north up and around Stewart Island, we were treated to sweeping views of the landscape as well as to a visit by some Dall’s porpoise bow riding! These porpoises are right around 7 feet long and can weigh up to 450lbs… I call them fat oreos due to their black and white coloration. After spending sometime with the porpoises we sped off in search of some humpback whales. We stubled upon two whales traveling together and lunge feeding: lifting their enormous heads out of the water, mouths wide open! We stayed with the humpbacks for a couple of dives, when we received word from a land-based spotter within our network of communication that he was looking at killer whales near Orcas Island! We quickly left the humpbacks in search of the orcas. This time of year killer whales are fairly hit or miss, and normally we are looking for transient, or marine mammal eating, killer whales, who tend to be a little bit wily and hard to predict. It was all hands on deck as we sought out these whales! Luckily we had Captain Brian “The Whalemaster” Goodremont at the helm and he skillfully found the needle in the haystack yet again. Arriving on scene it was immediately clear that we were looking at transients, and more specifically the T049A and the T123 family groups. We were the only boat on scene and enjoyed some quality time watching these beautiful whales romping around Skipjack Island just to the northwest of Orcas Island.

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


Ringing in November Right! Orcas!

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

Today was one of the best trips I had all season. Captain Brian, Naturalist Mike and I set out from the dock without a single report determined to find some wildlife we set out North towards Spieden Island. When we reached the Wasp Islands just west of Orcas and Shaw Islands we received a report of a large group of orcas moving south through Rosario Strait on the other side of Orcas Island, so of course we had to go check it out. Though there was a bit of wind and some significant rain, spirits were high! We braved some serious choppy water as we left Lopez Channel and made our way our into Rosario. Though we had a positive report, we were going to be the only boat even looking for these whales, so it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack! We were very fortunate to have been in contact with a friend watching the whales from land, so we had somewhat of an idea where to look, but it was certainly challenging! We ended up meeting up with 40+ Southern Residents near Lawson Reef, for November whale watching in the San Juans this is the Holy Grail. Though it is not unheard of to see orcas this time of year we are outside of our peak season that runs Mid-June through Mid-September, making any orca sighting this time of year particularly special. We watched as the whales rolled and played in the surf, breaching, spyhopping and tail lobbing. It seemed as though the whales spent more time flying through the air than swimming in the water today! We spent about 45 minutes with the whales, and then headed around the south end of Lopez to find some bald eagles roosted on Long Island and some Steller’s sea lions on Whale Rocks. It was an absolutely incredible day on the water, certainly one of the best trips I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of!

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

Through the Eye of the Humpback-October 25th, 2015

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Today the ol’ Sea Lion had yet another whale of an adventure.

It was one of those days with no prior reports of whales out in the Salish Sea, but that certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. After loading the boat with excited passengers, bundled up against the Autumn chill and excited to see some wildlife, we took off and headed North out of Friday Harbor up through the San Juan Channel.

As we cruised up the channel we could see the tumult that was present as the flooding tide once more turned the narrow strip of water into a river, stirring up the abundant nutrients of the Salish Sea. Taking advatage of this were dozens of common murre, hundreds of seagulls as well as many seals who were all feeding on herring. As exciting as this was, it was not our main goal so we pushed on.

After rounding Battleship Island just outside Roche Harbor, we scanned the ripply Haro Strait for any sign of marine mammals of any size. We were looking for blows, rooster tails, dorsal fins or any combination. What did we see? Nada. All was quiet in the sometimes boisterous Haro. Nevertheless we scanned and cruised West and South for a bit to find only silence punctuated with the calls of various seabirds.

After enjoying the serenity for a while, we meandered North towards Stuart Island. As we approached Turn Point we found what we were looking for: A huge WHOOSH followed by an identical noise as two humpback whales surfaced one after the other. An enormous pair of blowholes surfaced then disappeared followed by a long sleek back adorned with nothing but a small dorsal fin. Finally, a huge pair of flukes emerged from the water as first one then the other dove beneath the waves. We were most likely watching the same pair of humpbacks from the day before, who appear to be two sub-adult traveling companions.

Captain Brian shut down the vessel and we drifted silently in the same direction in which the whales were traveling so that when they surfaced again, we knew it. Two deafening sounds as air escaped the whales’ lungs at an incredible three-hundred miles per hour, simply to avoid inhaling any seawater! As the pair of cetacea made their way South along the shoreline of Stuart Island they gave us great looks at their massive backs.

From afar, the dark backs appear smooth and sleek as they emerge covered in seawater. However, the ocean is full of organisms that consider whale-skin a substrate to latch onto or on which to feed, leading to countless pock-marks, scars, scratches, freckles and all sorts of imperfections. We also look for major scarring to determine if a large humpback is a male or female, as males will fight one another during the winter breeding season. The result is heavily scarred males and relatively unblemished females!

It was difficult to say whether these humpbacks were male or female having no calves or significant scarring to speak of, and neither were full grown. They were, however, just as curious about us as we were of them: We watched for a few more surfacings and then suddenly one of our whales brought its entire face (or “rostrum”) out of the water!

Other times I have seen humpback whale-rostrums involved an open mouth and some unlucky herring, but this whale’s mouth was closed and its basketball-sized eyeball was exposed, leading me to believe that it was having a look around, or spyhopping. Not only is it thought that humpbacks regularly spyhop to use landmarks in navigation, but they are also quite curious. At any rate, having a whale look right at you doesn’t happen every day!

After the exciting rostral display, first this whale then the other brought their flukes into the air and began a dive into the briny deep. We took this as our cue to begin heading towards home, but we did get to catch a final glimpse of them as they continued their path to the South.

On our own southern path, we cruised by the grassy hillside of Spieden island, where we could see enormous Eurasian Fallow deer and Asian Mouflan sheep grazing on the hillside as well as harbor seals on the shoreline. Now is rut-season! We witnessed a couple of excited male aheep butting heads to establish dominance. From here we continued our journey down San Juan Channel back into Friday Harbor, all significantly more full of wildlife experiences than when we began.

Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

October Wildlife Bonanza!-October 24th, 2015

Monday, October 26th, 2015

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

Young Humpback Antics-October 18th, 2015

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Today October was showing it’s true colors over the Salish Sea in the form of an incredibly serene mist that hung in the form of clouds over hilltops and muted all the normally seen colors. Not a breath of wind was felt on this classic Pacific Northwest morning in Friday Harbor, and Captain Mike and I were looking forward to taking our passengers out on the Sea Lion for this unique experience.

As we left the dock with a boat full of passengers ready to embrace the mystique of the misty island atmosphere and the wildlife that we might encounter, we headed East towards Shaw island. We immediately encountered first a bald eagle on the shore of Shaw and simultaneously a huge Stellar’s sea lion popped up behind the boat! Each distinctive breath the enormous animal took as it swam North was clearly audible in the still air.

We decided to explore off the beaten track a bit and headed East in between Lopez and Shaw islands and down to Thatcher Pass, between Decatur and Blakely islands. It was here we bagan our search, as we had heard reports of a humpback whale in the area.

It turned out the report was wrong. There were TWO humpbacks! In the distance we saw one enormous fluke rise into the air followed by a much smaller one as the mother and calf pair dove together.

The ol’ Sea Lion zipped over to get a closer look and suddenly we heard and saw a pair of blows erupting from the water as mom and her baby surfaced together. This baby will be less than a year old. We know this from observing humpback whales all over the world since the early 1970′s. Mothers will feed all summer long in northern climates like the coasts of Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. When fall comes, they will begin the twenty-five hundred mile migration to southern latitudes and tropical climates, where the water is warm enough to have one whale of a baby. The newborn calf will weigh in at about eight feet long and just under one ton, blubberless but ready to breathe and begin swimming. The first months of life will be spent nursing from very fatty milk that mom has produced, fueled by her rich diet while feeding in the north. This young whale will put on weight at an astounding rate, gaining several thousand pounds in the first months of life. Once spring rolls around and mother whale is ready to head north and begin eating again after her long fast, her calf will follow and learn the migration route. Once safely in the north, after potentially facing transient killer whales along the way, mom will begin to teach this youngster how to eat like she does: by engulfing huge amounts of water saturated with fish and straining it through their baleen.

After nursing and feeding together all summer long, this calf will be nearly independent.  All that remains is to learn the southern migration route back to tropical seas. However, after following mom back down south they will part ways. Mother whale may decide to get pregnant again, or may even deliver another baby! meanwhile her calf will be independent at this point and may journey back to the north to feed and feed and feed until it is ready to mate, at round eight or nine years old.

Knowing this cycle lead us to appreciate the short but intense relationship of this mother humpback to her calf as we watched them breathe at the surface and then dive, showing their flukes once more. After watching a few more rounds of their necessary trips to the surface to breath, we decided to explore the area a bit and see what other wonders were waiting in the mist.

To the north of Blakely Island lie a small group of islands that look, especially with the subtle greys, blues, greens and blacks of the misty day, like they ought to be off of the north coast of Scotland. These tiny islands with their high bluffs all around are known as the Cone islands, and they are a truly mythical sight to behold. Abundant kelp forests with local harbor seals, cormorants and seagulls surrounded these lonely peaks at which we were able to take a peek.

After sufficiently exploring, we made our way back to where we left our pair of humpbacks and after searching, and searching, and searching! we finally found them! the timing could not have been better, as the baby decided to begin rolling around playfully. We saw fins in the air as well as flukes as the youngster, who can’t yet hold its breath quite as long as mom can, waited for its mother to return to the surface. As she did, we saw a few bubbles emerge at the point on the water where, several seconds later, her massive blowholes emerged and released a billow of water vapor into the air. This literal column of steam hung in the air as if it was placed there while her and her baby arched their backs and showed us their flukes one last time as they dove together.

It was time for us to call that the Tail end of our show (Hardy har har) and begin making our way back west towards Friday harbor. Along the way we got some great looks at more of the seemingly omnipotent harbor seals as well as a myriad of different seabirds.

Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J
M/V Sea Lion
San Juan Safaris

Weekend Update: October 9-11

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Our legendary 2015 late season whale watching continues to impress, with this weekends sightings including resident killer whales, humpback whales, as well as transient killer whales.

On Friday the Sea Lion went out on a high seas adventure, looking to find some of our Southern Resident killer whales just to the south end of the San Juan. We marveled at some members of L Pod including L72 Racer and her son L105 Fluke as they surfed in the waves around our vessel. We also enjoyed views of some bald eagles as we made our way back to Friday Harbor.

On Saturday we headed north into the waters around Spieden Island searching for humpback whales, the fifth largest whale in the world, here in the North Pacific growing up to 50 feet long! These whales, members of a group known as the mysticetes (translates to “mustached whales”), have baleen in their mouths instead of teeth. Baleen is made out of keratin, the same stuff that our fingernails and hair is made out of. The whales use these baleen plates as filters, taking giant mouthfuls of water containing tiny fish and shrimp-like creatures called krill, and then, using their tongues, pressing the water out through their baleen leaving a giant mouthful of food. We enjoyed watching the humpback surfacing through the classic Pacific Northwest mist.

On Sunday we again headed north, but this time to the Strait of Georgia in search of some reported transient killer whales. These orcas are marine mammal eaters, hunting seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, and whales. Because their prey is incredibly aware of their surroundings, these whales tend to be very quiet at the surface and usually travel in small groups of about 5-6 animals. Never say usually with transients!! We were treated to watch a group of about 9 animals as they leisurely traveled south, playing in the currents and resting.

Another great weekend for the books, October continues to be just incredible!

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

October 7th: Transients Hunting Dall’s Porpoise

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

I feel like I end everyday on the water this season with, “Well, it couldn’t get better than today.” I am constantly proven wrong. Today was incredible, one of my top 5 lifetime trips, definitely in my top two trips spent with Transient killer whales.

Today was rainy, but beautiful! I love the way the mist hangs in the trees and blankets everything in wonderful gray. To answer the question on everyone’s minds: yes, the whales still come out in the rain! I have had excellent days watching whales n both the sun and in the rain…the whales really don’t care! We started the day with a lone transient male T049C just north of Stewart Island. He made one very subtle, underwater kill and we watched as gulls swooped in for scraps. We followed this bull for a while before heading off in search of some other wildlife. We rounded Turn Point on Stewart Island looking at some cormorants on the rock face, and admiring the orange bark of madrona trees on the shore. We were then fortunate enough to spot a peregrine falcon roosted on the top of a Douglas Fir. As we motored away from the peregrine, we started to notice some Dall’s porpoises in the area, but had gotten a report of some other Transient killer whales, so we continued around Stewart to meet up with none other than the T060 family once again! The family was traveling at a good clip in the direction we had just left… AND THEN THE HUNT WAS ON! We watched as the whales started to pursue some of the Dall’s porpoises in the area. The porpoises scattered, splashing away, and then WHAM! T060 launched herself, arching, out of the water with a Dall’s porpoise in her mouth! The whales continued to breach and make the kill. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Transients kill a Dall’s porpoise. It was truly an incredible encounter

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

The Mighty Fin Whale-October 5th, 2015

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Today, like most days, the Salish Sea was demonstrating the full potential of this incredibly unique ecosystem. Captain Mike, myself, and the excited passengers aboard the Sea Lion were fortunate enough to bear witness to some incredible activity that is a sure sign that Autumn is upon us.

We headed South out of Friday Harbor after leaving the dock on a hot tip that there were some large marine mammals spotted South of Lopez island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

On our way down the San Juan Channel, we stopped to admire some harbor seals hauled out on a few exposed rocks. These small pinnipeds were anything but restful as they rolled around in the surf and  splashed one another. Soon enough we took off and didn’t stop until we encountered a few hefty Stellar’s sea lions in Griffin Bay. There are some obvious differences between our Harbor Seals and these sea lions, first and foremost being size. While harbor seals max out around five or six feet long and around three hundred pounds, the largest Stellar’s can reach twelve feet long and weigh closer to twenty-five HUNDRED pounds!

After admiring this enormous pinniped swimming upside down and rolling around in the quickly moving water we edged over to the shore to see a bald eagle  before continuing South through Cattle Pass. Now was the time to start scanning for larger wildlife as we cruised toward McArthur Bank.

The Salish Sea is an incredibly dynamic environment with an immense ammount of divsersity, and we were about to see just how the open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca differed from the water closer to the San Juan Islands. With no land but the Olympic peninsula in sight, we were able to scan for blows.

As we cruised through the open water it wasn’t just the blow that caught our eye, but a massive aggregation of seagulls, cormorants, murres, auklets, scoters and a myriad of other seabirds swirling above the water and diving below it. This phenomenon occurs over a large school of small fish under siege from a large marine predator as they are pushed toward the surface, known as a “baitball”. Suddenly the marine predator made itself known: a pair of humpback whales!!

Most humpbacks are traveling at this point in the season from their high-latitude feeding grounds in Alaska to warmer climates to mate and give birth. However, there is no place like the Salish Sea to stop and fill their bellies. We watched these behemoths blow off-beat from one another so it appeared that there was just one but as they dived, first one then the other lifted its massive flukes into the air to go deeper.

Just to the east there was another, even bigger baitball occurring so we decided to see who the culprit was this time: As the whale surfaced we first saw a pair of immense blowholes exhale and then submerge, then a dark-grey back which went on for a long time followed by a dorsal fin with a very prominent sharp tip. This was no humpback, it was the elusive fin whale that had been hanging around our waters!!

The fin whale is the second largest whale in the world, reaching lengths of seventy feet or more. This particular one was probably a sub-adult, being no more than forty feet long. Seeing a fin whale in these waters is not only special because of their immense size, but also because it marks a potential return of their population.

It is thought that there was once a healthy fin whale population in this area before they, along with humpbacks and blue whales, felt the full force of the whaling fleets in the 17th and 18th centuries. The last recorded regularly seen fin whales in the Salish Sea were seen in the 1930′s, making the appearance of our current finned friend a big deal. Hopefully this one juvenille fin whale marks the seed of a future population of the incredible creatures here in the Salish Sea.

We watched this immense creature, along with the two humpbacks, traveling between the largest baitballs that I have ever seen as the predators took advantage of the huge masses of baitfish: birds from above and whales from below. In the distance to the South we could see another huge swirling tornado of birds coupled with another humpback whale blowing.

One of the most incredible sights was to realize that the last herring of a particular baitball had been seized and as a result the thousands of birds could now relax. Gulls spread out on the water over about two square miles under the great looming presence of the outstandingly visible Mt. Baker to the Northeast. Another sign of the dissipation of the food was the steady movement of both the mighty fin whale and both humpbacks to the North towards yet another apparent baitball. Were the whales following the birds or the fish, the birds following the fish or the whales?

Either way watching this incredible demonstration of the ecosystem was to realize the importance (and misfortune) of the herring. They are hatched by the millions with what appears to be the sole purpose of being eaten, so they better reproduce while they can. Every animal that we are excited about seeing, from the common salmon (and everything that eats salmon) and harbor seals to the huge, elusive fin whales, depend directly or indirectly on these small fish. Seeing that all their predators are well fed indicates a vast herring stock. Here’s to their health!

Unfortunately our time with the great whales was coming to an end, so we wished them well in their feeding efforts and began to head North back towards Friday Harbor. Along the way we were able to stop at the Whale Rocks to see more massive, snarling yet loveable Stellar’s sea lions hauled out. We also encountered more seals, lots of common murre and even a harbor porpoise before we pulled into the dock.

Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris


Whales on Whales on Whales!-September 24, 2015

Friday, September 25th, 2015

Today was one of those days that comes maybe but once a summer here in the Salish Sea, and Captain Mike, myself and some lucky passengers were fortunate enough to see some incredible examples of our local wildlife.

We left the dock at exactly noon (despite a slightly tardy naturalist) on the trusty Sea Lion and headed South out of Frdiay Harbor through the San Juan Channel. As soon as we left the harbor, the show began with sightings of some harbor seals and about six playful harbor porpoises snagging some baitfish.

As we continued south, we had a friendly encounter with a Stellar’s sea lion as it checked out the boat sporting the same name and that was just a taste of the behemoth pinniped.

As we went through Cattle Pass, in between the southern tips of San Juan and Lopez Islands, we checked out the Whale Rocks and the surrounding turbulent water. Lounging like kings and queens on top of the barren rocks among cormorants and gulls were about thirty enormous Stellar’s sea lions. Reminiscent of aquatic grizzly bears, these cream-colored pinnipeds have recently migrated back south from their breeding grounds in Alaska. Here in the San Juans, they spend their time eating whatever they can catch and snarling at one another.

While we were watching the sea lions, we unexpectedly caught sight of a Minke whale! These, the smallest of the baleen whales, are notorious for surfacing once then going out of sight for some time. This one, however, allowed us great views of its characteristic curved dorsal fin as it surfaced every minute or so.

Eager for Orcas, we headed North up the Haro Strait and were rewarded by our forst orca sighting: Transients! This “ecotype” is characterized by having small pods (five whales in this one), silent hunting patterns, and of course a diet of marine mammals. As they were moving very calmly with no splashing, we assumed that they were on the hunt and continued north as not to diaturb their efforts.

Just a short boat ride away, however, was another ecotype: the Southern Resident Killer Whales! These orcas have a diet mainly consisting of Chinook Salmon, which determines their behavior of following the salmon runs to the same river each summer. We got some incredible looks at members of J Pod and K Pod, whom we can recognize using their dorsal fins and natural markings on their bodies.

Fortunately, the Sea Lion has an underwater hydrophone on board and we were able to listen to the long, eerie vocalizations and echolocation clicks present as pod members communicated with one another while they hunted salmon. Combined with the powerful WHOOSH noise present when they exhale air, these orcas make some of the world’s most beautiful natural sounds.

After observing whale after whale make their way by us, we unfortunately had to begin saying our goodbyes to the Southern Residents. However, the show was far from over! On our way back around Cattle Point, we caught up to the pod of Transients just as they were making a kill! These expert hunters were diving incredibly fast and surrounding one spot as if they were eating some poor seal. The presence of a NOAA research boat that was collecting sanoles of the animal remains confirmed our suspicions, as did the behavior of the orcas.

They began splashing, swimming upside down, even breaching as they tend to do when their bellies are full. After a bit of socializing and playing, it was back to business as they went back to stone-face hunting mode. We took that as our cue to begin our journey back to Friday Harbor, during which we saw a few more Harbor porpoise, harbor seals and the same curious sea lion. We returned to the dock with the full monty of experiences: harbor seals, harbor porpoises, sea lions, a minke whale, Transient orcas as well as residents. Wow.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Granny Makes a Splash!

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Spring ended with a glorious day out on the water. After the fog rolled out, the sun shined through the clouds as the M/V Sea Lion headed north out of Friday Harbor. Captained by Mike, Naturalist Sarah and I led a full boat on what would be a wonderful day towards Canadian waters following reports of wildlife in the area.

We didn’t need to travel far- as soon as we turned into San Juan Channel dozens of harbor porpoise appeared, playing in the swirling waters. Dorsal fin after dorsal fin rose out of the water as the large group traveled through the channel. We continued motoring north, when lo and behold we encountered three large Steller sea lions just off of Spieden Island.  These animals are massive with males growing up to weigh over 900 pounds! But we were determined to see an even larger marine mammal that day.

Finally, as we rounded the north side of Stuart Island at Turn Point we found the orca whale jackpot. We had found the entirety of K-pod, lazily swimming north towards Canada with other members of J-pod including the infamous Granny (J-2). Though they were spread out across the channel, guests got good looks of over 30 whales, some even tail slapping and breaching. Though Granny has been seen in the San Juan’s many times over the summer, I had yet to get a good glimpse of her in the recent months. Not one to disappoint a good reunion, the J-pod matriarch put on a spectacular display, and showed us that being 104 meant little as she propelled herself into the air for a fantastic breach.

Another fantastic day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Danna, M/V Sea Lion
San Juan Safaris