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