Posts Tagged ‘Orca whale’

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

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

A tale of two ecotypes! Weekend of October 3rd & 4th

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

We have had an absolutely incredible season here in the San Juan Islands. Whenever naturalists or captains run into each other around town all we can do is laugh and shake our heads… the frequency of whale sightings has just been out of this world this season. October has been no different.

On Saturday we headed out of Friday Harbor with reports of Resident orcas spread out from the northern reaches of the San Juan Islands all the way to the southern end of Lopez Island. We ended up meeting up with the L54 matriline just off of Iceberg Point, and enjoyed the antics of L54 Ino, her two kiddos L108 Coho & L117 Keta, as well as the two males who travel with her L84 Nyssa and L88 Wavewalker. Both L84 and L88 are the last remaining members of their matrilines, meaning they have no remaining close family. For these orcas, who are so committed to their families, being orphaned, even as an adult, can be devastating. It’s not unusual to see these orphaned adult males traveling with an associated family. After spending some time with the L54s as they fished and travelled north, we received a report of a humpback just to the southwest of our location. We stayed with the humpback for a few surfacing, before leaving to check out a GIANT bait ball and a minke whale. Bait balls are gatherings of small bait fish which attract seabirds, seals, sea lions, porpoises, and the occasional minke or humpback whale. Both humpbacks and minke whales have baleen in their mouths instead of teeth, which they use to filter small fish and shrimp, called krill, from the water. After spending some time with the bait ball we returned to the orcas for some last looks before heading for home.

On Sunday we left the harbor with reports of Transient killer whales to the north.  We have two distinct populations of killer whales here in the Salish Sea, known as ecotypes. These ecotypes are not only genetically separate from one another (they don’t interbreed), but they are also culturally distinct! This means that they behave very differently, eat different things and even speak different languages. Residents eat primarily salmon, while Transients are marine mammal eaters… hunting anything cute and cuddly which lives in the ocean. Around here 60% of their diet is comprised of harbor seals. We caught up with the T060 family group (T060 and her four kiddos ranging in age from fourteen to three years of age) just north of the Sidney Ferry Terminal in British Columbia. We followed them south as they hunted and made a number of kills. We were delighted as they celebrated these kills by spyhopping (sticking the front third of their bodies out of the water to have a look around), tail slapping, and porpoising (zooming as fast as they can bringing their entire bodies out of the water parallel to the surface). We enjoyed beautiful, sunny, weather and very playful whales!

Lots of people ask what the best time is to come visit the San Juans for a whale and wildlife watch… It totally depends on what you’re after out here…. Orcas? Historically, it’s a bit hit or miss come September or October, but this fall we have had orcas on all save for two or three trips (and even then we had humpback whales!). Some people are turned off by that fact, but in all honesty fall is my absolute favorite time out here on the water. The light is incredible, the wildlife is off the charts, and there are fewer boats out on the water. Hope to see you out there soon!

Naturalist Sarah McCullagh, 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

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!

Kittiwake Goes International

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Today Captain Jim and I left Friday Harbor on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to head north to a report of some of our Southern Resident killer whales rounding Saturna Island, British Columbia. The day was beautiful: sparkling water and blue skies. Boundary Pass was gorgeous: This body of water separates the US and Canada and is one of the widest expanses of water that we spend time in on our trips. As we crossed we started spotting dorsal fins and blows tucked in right next to shore. We had the pleasure of traveling with members of K Pod as they rounded East Point up into the Strait of Georgia. As the whales went up the Strait they began to spread out and go on longer down times as they started to fish. Killer whales are capable of holding their breath for up to 30 minutes, but around here it would be very rare to see a dive time exceeding 5 minutes. We watched that behavior for a while and then decided to go see a second group of whales slowly and socially moving in our direction from South Pender Island. We met up with that group at Java Rocks and, boy, were we treated to a breachfest! Whale after whale took flight and splashed down! We also witnessed many inverted tail slaps (whales lying on their backs splashing with their tails) and spyhops as well! Because of our small group size (11 people) everyone got amazing views and photographs. Another amazing day on the M/V Kittiwake!

Naturalist Sarah, M/V Kittiwake, San Juan Safaris

Birds and Whales and Sunset OH MY!

Friday, August 21st, 2015

As August winds down, our evening tours become more and more precious. The sun is setting earlier, which means better light for us throughout the duration of our tour. The M/V Sea Lion picked up our 26 guests, left the harbor, and headed south through San Juan channel. As we made our way through Cattle Pass, Haro Strait opened in front of us revealing almost glass-like water in the golden light. We made our way North along the West side of San Juan catching glimpses of some of the wonderful bird life that we have in the area. We started to see members of our Southern Resident killer whale population right off of False Bay, and, man, they were active!! We witnessed several full breaches, several spyhops, and inverted tail slaps. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was when we dropped our hydrophone over the side of the boat. These underwater microphones let you hear, in real time, what is going on underneath the water. The vocals were out of this world: clicks, whistles, squeaks… you name it we heard it. After spending nearly an hour and 45 minutes with the whales lazily playing around us we started to head back to Friday Harbor. Looking back across the Strait the sun began to set and really paint the sky. It was a fittingly beautiful way to end the experience!

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

JK….. They’re headed North!

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

We spent a blissful day on the water with members of both J and K pods as they were traveling north past Stewart Island. We first arrived on scene greeted by some members of the J19 Matriline (J19 Shachi, J41 Eclipse, J51). J51 is the first calf of J41 Eclipse, and he is just as cute as a button! When orcas are born their white patches tend to look orangey because they do not have significant fat stores. As they grow and put on weight, the orange patches turn to their classic white hue. Right now little J51 is really starting to look like a “big kid,” and it has been a pleasure to watch him grow! We followed the whales as they made their way up the shoreline of Stewart Island, breaching and tail slapping all they way to Turn Point Lighthouse. The J19s met up with some other members of their pod, most notably the J2s, Granny’s clan as well as some members of K Pod (K14 Matriline)! Enjoy these photos from our day on the water!

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

J51 First son of J41 Eclipse

J19s and Friends!

J41 Ecipse Breach

Js and Ks round Turn Point

J2 Granny with a big tail slap


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