Posts Tagged ‘Orcas’

Orcas’ Last Gleaming – August 20

Friday, August 21st, 2015

There are stories surrounding orcas that say if we visit them in their natural realm, the sea, we’ll see them as humans since they will be home and we will be the visitor. I don’t know what that means the human will then look like, but I like to think of humans with permanently grinning orca faces.

Unless you don a drysuit and some air tanks there is no one to see if this little myth is true but I believe it’s good to think of orcas in a more human way, to connect with them emotional, and maybe guess at what their thinking.

We headed out on Thursday even with a slight breeze and calm waters. We headed towards Alden Bank near Patos and Sucia Islands and had a beautiful trip skirting along the north side of the islands watching Murres and Cormorants, our daring cliff dwelling birds, fly past steep island coastlines. When we arrived, we soon spotted a lot of dorsal fins. It was a large group of K pod! The sunlight was at such an angle that the dorsal fins looked jet black on the front and aflame in the back as these two families milled for Salmon in the orange light given by the end of the day. Tika (K-33) appeared directly behind us startling me with his loud breath and impressing everyone with his tall dorsal fin. Tika is a Chinook word meaning swift and he is definitely that. We watched him go in and out of salmon schools and soon started to see the rest of his family in the K-12′s swim closer. Sequim (K-12) is the matriarch and her three children we all there: Sekiu (K-22), Rainshadow (K-37), and Saturna (K-43). Saturna even popped up in front of her namesake island of Saturna in the distance! Sekiu (K-22) is the mother of Tika, and it was amazing to see three generations to pass by.

We saw some splashing in the distance and decided to go investigate. It was the K-13′s! My favorite family with Skagit (K-13) as the matriarch and leading the group. Skagit has a large family with her children: Spock (K-20), Scoter (K-25), Deadhead (K-27), and Cali (K-34) and her grandchildren: Comet (K-38) and Ripple (K-34). I personally got distracted by either Skagit or Cali breaching in the distance that I didn’t even notice Spock (k-20) and her child Comet (K-38) swim past on the other side of the boat! Those too are my favorite, and Spock is interesting because researchers thought that she was male for awhile because of her male looking dorsal fin…until she had a calf. Whoops.

Spock and Comet swimming right next to each other, now that’s something. This mother-son pair swam calmly by and it’s interesting to compare their relationship and behavior with other mother-child pairs. Especially when Comet started jumping over and over in front of his mom with his mom responding with tail slap after tail slap on the water.

As we thought about each whale and how differently they behave kind of like how different humans act we watched them swim by one last time through the golden stream of sunlight brought by one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve seen over Vancouver Island. It’s certainly a feeling I don’t think any of us will lose for a very long, long time.


Whale folks until next time,

Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, 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

“Watch this you salmon eating weirdos” – Transient Orcas everywhere

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Yesterday Capt. Mike, Brendan, and I set out on one of the calmest evenings we’ve had on the water. We were looking for some of the local Transient Orcas. There are three main communities of Transient Orcas that live on the west coast of North America. They all belong to the same ecotype but form different communities that usually remain in one general area, but each small pod can travel from Baja California up to Alaska. The community here is called the Washington – British Columbia community and guess what they live off the coast of Washington and British Columbia!! These Transients separated from our more well known Resident Orcas around 10,000 – 13,000 years ago. So although they look very similar they are genetically distinct and have two very different cultures. The transients usually travel in smaller pods, have a looser social structure, and hunt marine mammals! Yes, everything that looks cute and cuddly in the ocean, they are going to nom on them.

We headed north to some of the outer islands of the San Juans. We had our first sightings of the trip right of the east side of Johns Island. We saw their blows unbelievably close to shore as we approached, and sure enough they were in hunt mode. Do get excited, this is sort of what the folks at the Discovery Channel live for, but usually from the top of water their is little to no blood floating in the currents. It seems that orcas are not as messy of eaters as we believe them to be. They also drown their prey so little is done in the way of killing above the surface. We continued to see them as they moved south along Johns Island. Transients always offer surprises since they do a lot of direction changes underneath the water where you can’t see them, so they can pop up…anywhere. When we got to the south end of Johns Island they skirted through a very narrow channel and started to check around a few massive kelp beds – where many of their prey like to hide.

Now things were starting to get even cooler they kept popping up all around us, looking like they were hunting something else. We were in a small channel now surrounded by islands, kelp, and now…silent orcas. As a Bald Eagle swooped by the orcas showed us a profile and we could tell there were 5 of them and by their markings they looked like the T36A’s along with a few family friends we were unable to identify. This family has two really young orcas who were extremely playful. As they went in between the Wasp Islands we respectfully followed and they disappeared again. Only to reappear in full force as a synchronous breath and then back under again, then one of the calves did a perfect backflip to nosedive combo! This was finished off with the mother and the other adult female bursting out of the water and doing two body slams!


That. was. amazing! Maybe they did that to have fun or maybe to show up those fish eating Resident Orcas, because I have never seen a full back flip from an orca before. They continued to play as they ate more and more (probably Harbor Porpoises). We watched for a few more moments as they happily played in the road of shimmering light cast by the sunsetting over Spieden Island, then bid farewell once more.

Whale folks until next time,

Naturlist Erick

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


The K Pod Channel – August 10

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Days are shortening here as they are everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, and sometimes you can feel a cool, fall breeze as evening approaches. This is good since our summer here has been pretty warm and dry. Since the orcas live in the water, they experience a little bit different than we do. The water of the Salish Sea though has been experiencing weird temperatures as well. Weather reports are pointing to this being an El Niño year and we also faced what scientists call “The Warm Blob” which is a warm mass of water moving about, and it sometimes makes us wonder how the wether is down there where the orcas live.

We set off on a beautiful, cool, and sunny day over glassy waters with Capt. Pete, Mike, and myself. We headed east which isn’t a usual thing and ended up just a little west of Eastsound off of Orcas Island. It was K pod! Well most of K pod and it looked like they were checking out Harney Channel and the waters in between the islands, which isn’t an sight we often see. They seemed to choose this time to socialize. Orcas are extremely social and have tight knit family groups. A part of their day is spent in socializing where they just simply play with each other. This involves a lot of spirals in the water, going belly up, and splashing about with their flukes and pectoral fins. We watched two families socialize together for an amazingly long while and we managed to follow then east a little bit more with all the islands on either side of us. We eventually had to head out but had an amazing view of the sunset over San Juan Island.


Whale folks until next time,


Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Salmon, Cetaceans and Sea Lions, Oh My!-July 30th 2015

Friday, July 31st, 2015

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

M/V Kittiwake

San Juan Safaris

The J way

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Today was another typical summer Friday in Friday Harbor – sunny skies, cool breezes, and smooth waters. Capt. Mike, Brendan, and I headed north! to see if we could meet up with our Southern Resident Killer Whales heading south from Canada. We sailed through some beautiful waters and stopped to look at a bait ball that gulls, rhinoceros auklets, and some common murres had found when, splash! a wild Steller Sea Lion appeared! These hunks of furry blubber are heading back to the Salish Sea from their rookeries that they were just at in the far north. They are the largest species of sea lions in the world and they do sometimes through their weight around. It is good to see them again, but it’s also a sure sign of summer quickly closing. After watching him for awhile as he also feasted on the bait ball, a harbor seal popped up, and… and a harbor porpoise. These cuties have flat faces and are super speedy! As we moved northward we passed into Canada and around Eastpoint. The waters around here are amazing causing the currents to go wild, crisscross, and upwell, making it live up to its name – Boiling Reef. It’s one of my favorite places on the water and it soon got better as two families of J pod came past us. The J-2′s  – Granny’s family – swam by with their adopted son Onyx and the new calf. The Cookie Clan was also there too! They approached Eastpoint with us as the roiling waters ran like a white water river around the point. They stopped spyhopped a bunch to get a good eye on the situation, and whooossh they powered around the point and straight into the current. They pretty whale despite the hard swim and handled it like champs. The skirted the shore of some glacially pitted coastline during the hardest part and eventually spread back out as the current slowed down. It seemed like they were happy about their recent sprint swim, and they celebrated with breach after breach after cartwheel and then unexpectedly they were cartwheeling on both sides of the boat! Those final great moments made the necessity of heading back home not so hard.


Whale folks that’s all for today,

until next time

Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

K pod Kartwheels – July 30, 2015

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Thursday was a great day. Sunny, calm, and we headed east which usually doesn’t happen. towards the east side of Orcas Island. When we hit the rips off of Obstruction Pass you could see the clear green-tinted water of the Salish Sea churning as currents collided and looking downward you could actually see some Chinook Salmon! And where there are Chinook is the best place to search for Southern Resident Killer Whales. K pod appeared! We first spotted Scoter (K-25) with his very wide dorsal fin and some other members of the family of K-13, Skagit. They were indeed hunting some of those Chinook Salmon we had seen earlier and they were getting into it turning left and right and making deep dives to catch their favorite food – this activity is called ‘milling’. It’s amazing to see them work together and separately as they can be so maneuverable and in sync while being so close to each other. This groups headed north a little bit and we and they eventually met up with another K pod family the K-14′s, Lea’s family. They seemed to have just caught a bunch of salmon because boy were they having fun. Tail slaps and pec slaps galore sent water flying this way and that. They seemed even a little extra curious today as many of them started spyhopping to sea what was the fuss on the surface. Then…then the cartwheels started! Cartwheeling is probably one of my favorite surface behaviors and it is when the orcas take their back half of their body and sling it to the side out of the water. This move makes a huge arch with their flukes and a gigantic splash. We were having almost as much fun as they were that soon enough we had to start heading back to home base. As one kid on the boat said, “Woooooooo!”


Whale that’s all folks,

Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Steller Whale Day

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Some folks call these groups of islands the “Banana Belt” because they do exist in a rain shadow and they get about half the amount of rain that Seattle is famous for. The Olympic Mountains and the peaks along Vancouver Island block a lot of the incoming rains from the Pacific Ocean. So days here, especially in the summer are usually sunny and calm and there’s many a time where one can look in every direction to see rain clouds, but the islands are in their own little hole of sunshine. Tuesday was one of those beautiful days full of sun and glassy waters, and also let us not forget about the whales! Capt. Mike and I took eleven wonderful people out on the speedy M/V Kittiwake to the west side of the San Juan Island. Then Onyx popped up! Onyx (L-87) has a cool story. His mother died early on which is rough for anyone but for male orcas that spend their entire lives with their mothers it’s especially hard. He travelled with K pod for awhile but now has found a new home with J pod swimming with the J-2′s – Granny’s family. We spent some time with this wonderful guy then moved offshore and met up with some K-podders! The family of K-13, Skagit, was traveling up and down hunting those delicious Chinook salmon that make the PNW famous for both humans and orcas alike. Watching this family with Spock (K-20), Deadhead (K-25), Cali (K-34), Ripple (K-44), and Comet (K-38) do what they are so good at in wild brought a lot of peace to everyone on the boat. I don’t think anyone cannot be amazed hearing the sound of these creatures glide through the water and their massive exhales.

We soon had to bid adieu and start our trip back to Friday Harbor but the fun was not over yet. We stopped at Whale Rocks to see some adorable adult and baby Harbor Seals and also saw a huge but very tired Steller Sea Lion looking like he could not be more comfortable than he was on those sharp rocks. These Sea Lions usually are in Alaska right now breeding but this one probably wasn’t old enough so he stayed here! These Sea Lions are the biggest in the world! We soon had to leave him as well putting a beautiful day full of great views and feelings to a close.


Whale folks that’s all

Naturalist Erick

M/V Kittiwake, San Juan Safaris

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