Today Captain Jim and I left the dock with a boat full of excited passengers, no wind, sun in the sky and several whale reports. We decided to head to the West side to check out J Pod who was in town feeding on Chinook salmon.
As we headed South out of Friday Harbor into San Juan Channel we were greeted by a flock of rhinoceros auklets, small black, diving puffin-like birds with a horny protrusion on their bill, plunging into the water to distance themselves from the boat. These “Rhinauks” will dive up to fifty feet to catch their favorite meal: herring! We will occasionally see then suddenly appear from underwater wearing what looks like a collection of silver moustaches, but is actually two or three herring hanging from their bills.
As we continued South the passengers learned a bit more about the Southern Resident Killer Whales (what/who they are, what they eat, how they behave, if they are at all in danger, etc.) In preparation for meeting them face to face. Nobody was nervous for this interview, however. We were all excited.
After rounding Cattle Point at the Southern tip of San Juan Island we headed North and offshore a bit into the Haro Strait to began to scan for signs of life. The first thing we saw was a Pink, or Humpy, salmon jumping out of the water again and again and again! This is a common sight this time of year as pinks prepare to run up the Frasier River to spawn. When they began this odd behavior in late June, they had all the characteristics of a salt-water ocean fish including silver coloring and not entirely impressive jumps. Their bodies have been changing to adapt to the impending freshwater march to their one opportunity to spawn and their inevitable doom (they will die moments after they spawn). Some changes that we can see are that their bodies are turning green, males are developing large humps on their backs and sharper, more formidable teeth, and they can jump higher, perhaps three or four feet into the air! I am sure they are all just as excited as a salmon can be, they definitely appear to be ready.
As mesmerized as we were by the salmon, we soon became fully aware of the huge, six foot dorsal fin that appeared above the water. It was Blackberry! J27, or Blackberry, is one of the most distinctive males in the Southern Resident community. He has a massive dorsal fin and a very unique saddle patch with a line of black separating the white blotch. He was soon joined by his sister J31, or Tsuchi, and we were able to watch them zig and zag as they fished together for Chinook salmon.
We also got great looks at the J22s, or the Cookie clan. This family is made up of J22 (Oreo), J34 (Doublestuff) and J38 (Cookie). While they were feeding they got a bit playful and we even saw a breach!
Watching Orcas during any activity is always a huge joy, and it is always over far too soon. This experience was no different. We decided to let them eat their whaley hearts out while we meandered back home.
Along the way we stopped at Whale Rocks, some exposed reefs that are usually covered in Harbor seals. Today along with a plethora of the awkward seals coating the shoreline, we were able to catch a glimpse of a group (or “raft”) of Stellar Sea lions in the water!
Stellars are massive creatures. The largest of the sea lions, males can meaaure twelve feet long and weigh in at a hefty 2500lbs! Mid summer is their breeding time, and most adults head north to give birth and mate. Their duries done, this group at least decided to head back through the incredible waters of the Salish Sea.
Adter spending some time oggling our otariid friends, we made our way back to Friday Harbor. Whenever wildlife is involved, it is a good day. With our encounter with birds, salmon, whales, seals AND sea lions, I’d call this a Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J
San Juan Safaris