Posts Tagged ‘friday harbor’

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

M/V Sea Lion meets L122!

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Tonight we had a great encounter with some of our Southern Resident killer whales. After a great afternoon trip spent with the L54 matriline (L54 Ino, L108 Coho, L117 Keta, L84 Nyssa, and L88 Wavewalker) we were overjoyed to hear that a Superpod, or a gathering of all three of our Resident pods, was headed towards San Juan Island. Captain Brian and I left the dock for a two hour sunset charter with whales on the mind. We shot south out of Friday Harbor, meeting up with the whales just off the west side of the island. We were overjoyed to realize that we were in the presence of the newest member of the community, two and a half week old L122, calf of L91 Muncher! The sunset was beautiful and we enjoyed a wonderful evening with the whales!

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

The Boys are Back in Town: J and K pod Playing in the Chop-September 13th, 2015

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Today was another Mike & Mike adventure on the Sea Lion! Captain Mike and I loaded up the boat with an awesome group of passengers eager to see wildlife. We were no less excited about getting out on the water, so we left Friday Harbor headed South through San Juan Channel. As we had both an incoming tide and a stiff southern wind, we were in for a bit of an adventure further South.

As we made our way through Cattle Pass, the narrow opening of the San Juan Channel between the southern tips of San Juan and Lopez Island, we found the current being squeezed, and thus accelerated, through this narrow passage. The water was alive with upwelling zones that look like smooth glassy patches, small whirlpools forming, birds eagerly waiting on rip lines to snack on some fish, and of course the choppy waters characteristic of this area. This was nothing the Sea Lion couldn’t handle of course, so we headed on to the Whale Rocks at the mouth of the pass to see some Stellar’s sea lions!

There were perhaps twenty immense sea lions, looking very much like grizzly bears with their tan fur, humped back and snarly attitudes, either lounging or patrolling this rocky outcrop. This group of female and juvenile male pinnipeds chose an excellent location for their rocky kingdom, as the turbid waters surrounding the rocks are rich with nutrients. For the sea lions, this translates into food. Lots of fish, crabs, octopus and the odd baby harbor seal or seabird are found right nearby, but a Stellar’s is certainly not above munching a salmon off a fisherman’s line given the chance.

After admiring the sights (and smells!) of these incredible animals, we headed West and North up into the Haro Strait toward our reports of Southern Resident Killer Whales! The wind coming out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca was piling up a few whitecaps which rocked the boat just a bit. Luckily everyone aboard had already taken their Dramamine and we were good to go! When the waters of the Haro Strait are riled up, so are the whales! as we approached Eagle Point, we began to see black dorsal fins erupting out of the water followed by the massive shape of an orca every which way we looked. We were fortunate enough to be hanging out with members of both J and K Pods who were currently having a blast. The way the animals were spread out, it was clear that there was some fishing for their favorite food, Chinook salmon, going on. However, every so often a whale would slap it’s tail on the surface while another would jump clear out of the white-capped waves! We also were able to witness some surfing going on, where one of these enormous dolphins would ride a wave for fifty yards or so before submerging completely.

During this time, we got some great looks at some of the most distinctive males in the group. The choppy waters makes it somewhat difficult to get great looks at the saddle patch, the white markings on an orca’s side that allow us to identify them. However, the raucous, playful behavior of the males combined with their large conspicuous dorsal fins gave some of them away. We got great looks at K21 (Cappuccino), K26 (Lobo), K25 (Scoter)and even L87 (Onyx) who travels quite exclusively with J Pod. These huge animals continued to play, breach, slap and splash throughout the entire time we spent watching them, enjoying the playground of water that the wind provided. Boys will be boys, I suppose.

After getting some great photos and even better memories, we decided that it was time to leave J Pod and K Pod to their devices and begin our journey back to Friday Harbor. Along the way we got some great looks at some of our abundant seabirds like Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets along with some harbor seals bobbing on the water’s surface. While the array of wildlife and surface phenomena that we are able to see is incredible, it is just a tiny fragment of the ecosystem that exists in the Salish Sea. The interface between air and waters in itself is a big part of this system, as gasses and nutrients are passed from air to water in the forms of bird guano, fir needles and all sorts of fur and feathers entering the water and vice versa as fish and invertebrates are brought out of the water by birds, humans and other mammals. This represents but one way the world continues to amaze.

After a bit of this deep, existential contemplation, we were back at the dock with awesome stories to tell.

Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

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

Ks & Ls in Haro!

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Today under grey skies the M/V Sea Lion left Friday Harbor with positive reports of our local celebrities: the Southern Resident killer whales! Traveling south we encountered a number of very playful harbor seals and enjoyed the presence of some of our numerous seabirds. We also took a few minutes to stop at Whale Rocks in Cattle Pass to look at about a dozen Steller’s sea lions sprawled on the rocks. These large pinnipeds are about the color of a perfectly roasted marshmallow and can weigh upwards of 2500 pond, while achieving a length of 12 feet. THEY ARE MASSIVE! We moved on from the sea lions, heading north up the west side of San Juan Island. We met up with the K12 matriline just off of False Bay. K33 Tika was foraging with his younger Aunt K43 Saturna, and we got awesome looks at both of them! We peeled off off the K12s to head offshore to a group of incoming L pod whales. We saw breach after breach, tail slap after tail slap as the whales  joyfully made their way towards San Juan Island. We were delighted to see members of the L4 matriline, L54 matriline, as well as crowd favorites L92 Crewser and his Aunt L90 Ballena. We got some awesome looks at these beautiful whales today, despite the cloudy skies. Yet another great day to whale watch in the San Juan Islands!

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

J’s and K’s Headed North!-August 24th, 2015

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Today the Sea Lion went on yet another grand adventure! Captain Mike, Sarah and I were just as excited as our boat-load of passengers to get out into the Salish Sea on this beautiful day and look for wildlife.

As we left the dock in Friday Harbor we headed North towards Canada! We heard reports that part of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population was headed that way so we went ahead to investigate.

The area known as the Salish Sea, in which these particular orcas spend the majority of their summer feeding on salmon, has ties to both the United States and Canada. We regularly cross the border into Canadian waters, and the Coast Guard hasn’t caught us yet! Actually, as long as we do not make contact with land (make port, anchor, or touch another boat) then there is no need for passports and we can continue our whale watch unhindered!

As we passed Spieden Island and the Cactus Islands we were scanning the water for those big black dorsal fins that we love to see. Finally, at the northern end of Boundary Pass, we saw dorsal fins rising from the water. It was J Pod!

We watched as the massive fin of J27 (Blackberry) rose from the water. In the same motion, his sister J31 (Tsuchi) and his brother J39 (Mako) also surfaced with a loud WHOOSH as they exhaled before slipping back under the water. The rest of the J19 matriline was not far behind, and we got some great looks at these stunning cetaceans.

Usually we see the Southern Residents traveling in discreet family groups, and today was no different. After the J19s passed us by, we got a visit from K Pod! It is always very cool to see two pods traveling and interacting together. The K12 and K13 matrilines, complete with huge fin of K25 (Scoter) and the slightly crooked fin of K33 (Tikka) and the distinct markings of K20 (Spock), gave us some stellar looks as they passed us by on their way to better fishing grounds.

After spending some more time watching these whales do their thing, we began to head back down south, but the adventure was far from over. As we were passing Stuart Island, we caught sight of yet another colossal dorsal fin! It was J26 (Mike) and the rest of the J16 matriline!

Complete with a full grown male and two fresh young calves, this group is unmistakable. They typically travel apart from the rest of J Pod, and we were able to see grandma J16 (Slick) babysitting the two calves while the new mother J36 (Alki) had some alone time.

After this surprise whale encounter (the best kind) we began to meander our way back to Friday harbor. Our return trip showed us a few harbor seals and plenty of jumping salmon, and of course we were back in the slip far too soon.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

San Juanderful – August 16

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

On Sunday, we had a great group on the Kittiwake and weather to match them. Capt. Jim and I took them to the west side of San Juan Island in search for the Southern Resident Killer Whales. We headed north and soon found most of K pod near the County Park. We saw Tika (K-33), Lobo (K-26), and Cappuccino (K-21) right off the bat. They were easy to spot because of their huge, adult, male dorsal fins or almost huge in the case of Tika – he’s still growing. We stayed with K pod for awhile paralleling them as they moved north and were starting to leave to look for some other fun wildlife near the Cactus Islands when, Splash! Two of the males breached in the distance as we were motoring away. So of course we turned around and watched as they started to wake up and feel feisty. The younger members started to breach and tail slap too and then it was a K pod party with all breaching and slapping and spyhopping near shore! We followed the whole K pod crew until Henry Island and then again tried to tear ourselves away from the excitement and headed to some of the outer islands. Around the north side of Spieden Island we took a moment and Capt. Jim had us appreciate the view of all the different islands and ridges we could see at that one point on the water. We could see Orcas, San Juan, Lopez, Shaw, most of the outer islands like Stuart, Johns, Waldron, Sucia, and could also see the Olympics, Mt. Baker, and all the way up into the Canadian Gulf Islands. What a beautiful sight. We skirted around the Cactus Islands and the north side of Spieden and saw a bunch of Harbor Seals playing in the Kelp beds and a few families of the exotic Mouflon Sheep prancing along the coastline. Soon though it was time to travel back down south to Friday Harbor. Another beautiful, sunny day on the water.


Whale folks until next time,

Naturalist Erick

M/V Kittiwake, San Juan Safaris