Posts Tagged ‘Harbor Seal’

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

Excited Transients in Boundary Pass!

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

What a trip! Today the Sea Lion left the dock crewed by Captain Mike and Naturalists Mike and Alex. Despite a few clouds, our full boat of passengers was super excited to see some wildlife! Fortunately for everyone on board, a group of Transient Orcas was spotted up north in Canadian waters. Eager to see them, we sped north! Along the way we saw a few harbor seals watching our progress as well as a bald eagle flying overhead, but we only slowed down when we began looking for a Humpback whale (Big Mama) that was also reported in the area. With no luck on the Mysticete (Baleen Whales) front, we continued on to our very evident pod of Transients.

Transients, unlike their fish-eating cousins the Resident killer whales, spend their time actively hunting marine mammals including seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins and even large whales like Minke’s and Humpbacks. Because these animals have exceptional hearing underwater, Transients need to be very sneaky and quiet while they are hunting in order to surprise their prey. To this end, pods will be made up of small numbers and they will travel very close together without vocalizing. Instead of actively using echolocation (sending out a beam of sound and listening for an echo in order to perceive their environment) like other dolphins, Transients typically use “Passive Sonar”, or listening for key sounds like splashing and breathing in the water to locate their prey.

As we approached the exceptionally large group of 9 Orcas, including the T065 and T125 matrilines, just after they had eaten because they were being anything but sneaky! Everybody on the boat was beside themselves as we witnessed T127, a large male with a badly scarred dorsal fin, repeatedly slapping the water with his flukes (“tailslapping”) and repeated breaches, tail lobs, spy hops, and headstands by all of the pod members. One male even alerted everyone watching to his particular level of excitement by showing off a certain piece of anatomy that is usually tucked away in order to maintain a hydrodynamic body shape. And if you didn’t think Killer Whales were cool before; this 6 to 8 foot appendage is actually prehensile in order to make mating a bit easier for these animals that can weigh up to 12,000 pounds!

Aaaanyway, another notable member of this pod was a mother with a new calf, who was trying its best to mimic all the behaviors that it’s mom was demonstrating including tail slapping, porpoising and breaching. It is great to see this example of how mothers and other pod members teach the new calves everything from hunting techniques to socializing behavior. In this way, each population of Orcas around the globe is unique in it’s learned behavior, which is dictated by available resources and passed down over generations. In humans we call this culture, and we refer to the Orcas’ unique behaviors in this way as well.

After watching this spectacle for a while longer, we decided to say goodbye to the transients and cruise along John’s Pass and the Cacrus Isles where we saw more bald eagles, including one that was busy eating a fish, and lots of harbor seals who were safely hauled out on the rocks. We also got to see some Fallow Deer and Mouflan Sheep grazing on Spieden island; the feral result of a game farm that previously existed on the island.

Upon returning to Friday Harbor, we were all still giddy from seeing all the incredible wildlife. We had another Whale of a day in the Salish Sea!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Humpbacks in Boundary Pass

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Today the Sea Lion ventured north under a sunny sky full of happy people and some happy naturalists: Mike and Tyler. We had some reports of Humpback whales up in Canadian waters so that is where we headed! Just outside the harbor we saw our first bald eagle fly overhead along with some rhinoceros auklets in the water. We headed towards White Rock, on which there were upwards of 20 harbor seals hauled out. Our harbor seals come in many colors: from white to black and all combinations of colors in between. After watching these yoga masters performing “Banana Pose” for a bit, we continued our journey to Java Rocks where we encountered a pair of young humpbacks blowing before showing off their sleek black backs.

These animals spend all summer long in the Pacific North West feeding on small fish like herring, capelin and sandlance by engorging their accordion-like mouths full of several thousand gallons of seawater and fish, then straining the seawater out through comb-like plates called baleen. This baleen, acting like a big strainer, allows the seawater to flow out of the mouth while the fish are retained. Humpback whales have been using this feeding method for so long that they are only able to swallow small fish as their throat is about the size of a grapefruit!

We observed these mighty yet gentle creatures as they swam west, dove, and surfaced several hundred yards to the east and repeated this pattern. This might have indicated a feeding technique that includes doing a loop under the water through a large school of fish. What a life to live!

After watching for a while, we began to meander back to Friday Harbor. We took the scenic route through the Cactus Isles and along the east side of Spiden Island to see some more harbor seals and watch an eagle circling right over the Sea Lion!

we returned to port not only with the same number of passengers as when we left, but a very happy group.

Another beautiful day full of wildlife in the San Juans!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Humpback in Canada

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Today we left Friday Harbor with a report of a humpback near East Point.  On our way to the humpback whale we spotted a Stellar sea lion feeding in San Juan Channel.  We then headed through President channel towards the humpback which was slowly heading North towards Vancouver.  We got a little North of East Point, located in the Strait of Georgia, when we came across the humpback whale.  The whale we were watching was the female known as “Big Mama”, a whale that frequents these waters during the early summer season.  We watched her sporadically surfacing to breath while traveling slowly North.  Humpback whales can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes but generally surface every 5-17 minutes.  We were also lucky enough to see some surface behavior including a cartwheel and a few lunges!  We then started to head back towards Friday Harbor.  On our way we saw some harbor seals hauled out on the rocks soaking up the wonderful sunshine we had today.  We also saw a bald eagle on one of the rock islands and got to see it take off in flight.  We had a wonderful day out on the water today enjoying the wildlife of the San Juan Islands.

Naturalist Rachel

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Transients and Dall’s and hybrids, Oh my!

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

We started this trip with smiles on our faces because of the warm weather, and ended it the same way because of the spectacular wildlife we encountered. With no orca reports when we left the dock, we headed North to try our luck. On the way, we spotted an abundance of harbor porpoises, their tiny dorsal fins rolling at the surface as an indication of their presence.

Much to our delight, we soon received notice of two transient orcas between Saturna and South Pender island near the Java islets. There, everyone on board was able to get a great look at the individuals. Remember that transient orcas are mammal eaters, and we suspect that some of the erratic, sudden movements that we observed today may have been them making a kill! Based on their distinct dorsal fins, we were able to ID them as T077A and T124C, two unrelated males. This was a great example of the more fluid social structure that transient orcas are known to have, as compared to residents which stay in their maternal family group throughout life. It would be very unlikely to see two unrelated resident males both without their mother. However, we have no doubt that these boys that were hanging out today will eventually regroup with their more immediate family.

As if everyone on the boat wasn’t excited enough to have seen the transients, we then came across some Dall’s porpoises off of Stuart Island. These porpoises can swim up to 36 miles per hour, thanks to their streamlined shape and incredibly powerful peduncle muscles. They also move so fast and breath so powerfully, that they barely break the surface to breath, and therefore create what’s called a “rooster tail,” which is a big spout of water and air (that resembles the extravagant tail of a rooster). AND as if THAT wasn’t enough, Captain Mike spotted and pointed out a hybrid porpoise–the offspring of a Dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoise. It has the shape of a Dall’s, but coloration that more resembles harbor porpoises. This is a fairly new discovery in the scientific community, so the fact that everyone got a good look at one had me almost in tears!

We also got a great look at some harbor seals, a Stellar sea lion, and even some mating Bald Eagles–which are known for mating in very synchronous flight. All of this combined with the great weather made for an awesome day on the Sea Lion.


Naturalist Alex

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

J Pod on the West Side

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Today the M/V Sea Lion left the dock with Captain Mike, naturalists Mike and Tyler, and a boat full of excited passengers. We had reports of Orcas traveling up the west side of San Juan Island so despite a few clouds, we were all smiling. On our way around the south end of the island, we stopped at Whale Rocks off of Cattle Point to check out some pinniped action! We were able to see harbor seals and Stellar’s sea lions hauled out on the rocks while a bald eagle perched on top. It is always nice to see both the diminutive harbor seal and the impressive Stellar’s Sea lion in the same area because we are able to point out some of the differences between seals and sea lions. In addition to sheer size (harbor seals weigh in at around 300lbs while Stellar’s sea lions take the cake at a whopping 2,500lbs!), Sea lions have external ear flaps and are able to bring their hind flippers underneath their bodies in order to “walk” on land. Seals, after evolving to life in the water, lost those ear flaps in favor of a hydrodynamic body form and use their hind flippers only while swimming. Seeing both of these animals at the same time usually helps avoid confusion!

After taking a look at our flippered friends, we began heading north on the west side towards False Bay, where we got our first looks at huge black dorsal fins slicing through the water. After counting about 14 whales spread out in discreet groups, we determined that we were watching members of J pod including the matriline of J2 or Granny. Granny, at an estimated 104 years old, is the oldest known killer whale in the world! Her pod was very active while swimming along the coast, gracing us with awesome views of tail lobbing, spy hops, and even a few breaches! We also got some fantastic looks at J27, Blackberry, as he slowly raised his massive dorsal fin and showed off his distinct saddle patch.

After watching mesmerized for what seemed like forever, but was really far too short a time, we said goodbye to J pod and began our journey back to Friday Harbor. We stopped to witness a large pod of harbor porpoise feeding on a school of fish along with some seals and a lone sea lion before making our way home. All in all a great trip full of incredible wildlife!

Naturalist Mike

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris


Transient Fun!

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

Today Captain Pete, Tyler and I headed out for a blustery day on Haro Strait. We headed North around San Juan Island and met up with a beautiful group of transient killer whales in the middle of the strait right on the US/Canadian border. Transients eat marine mammals (basically anything that we think is cute and cuddly) with harbor seals making up about 60% of their diet. Today we were fortunate enough to see the T37s and the T137As. We can identify individuals whales by looking at the markings and scars around their dorsal fins. Transients, because they eat animals that fight back, tend to be more scarred than the resident killer whales, who just eat salmon. We finished the trip with a good look at a bald eagle and some harbor seals around Spieden Island. It was another amazing day on the Salish Sea!

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

Travels to Canada for Transients

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Today we had a gorgeous day on the M/V Kittiwake travelling up into Canadian waters to find a pod of transient orcas. These whales eat marine mammals, with harbor seals making up the majority of their diet. A male killer whale can eat over 400 pounds of food a day! We enjoyed watching a group of five individuals meandering up near Active Pass. Not only a great day with no fog, but also a great group on the boat!

Sarah, M/V Kittiwake, San Juan Safaris Whale Watching