Posts Tagged ‘Orcas’

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

A Whale of a Homecoming-July 27th, 2015

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Today Captain Pete, Erick and I took out the Sea Lion full of excited passengers to have a beautiful evening out on the water and check out some wildlife. We had a pretty great whale report with a bit of history behind it. The Southern Residents had all left the Salish Sea the other day and we had spent a few days seeking other wildlife like humpback whales, minke whales and transient orcas. However, our report had some good news: they were back!

The Southern Resident Killer Whales come back to the same areas each summer to feed on Chinook salmon. Much of their time is spent around the San Juan Islands while they feed on fish returning to the Frasier river to spawn, but they will periodically head out to the Pacific coast to feed on salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers, among others.

Having them back in the area is great news for us, because we love seeing them of course! In our effort to see them, we left Friday Harbor and headed South through San Juan Channel. Usually when we reach Cattle Point, we begin heading North to the West side of San Juan Island, but today we headed West in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We spent a good chunk of time cruising west scanning for dorsal fins, and to our surprise saw a humpback whale fluke up for a dive in the distance! There is nothing like a surprise whale encounter. We were not ready to turn around just yet, however, so we continued on.

Just south of Victoria, BC we began to see fin after fin breaking the surface as K Pod came into view! Slowly cruising East toward the islands, they looked like they were coming home after a long journey. Upon reaching Haro Strait, they woke up a bit. We spent time with all of K Pod, especially the K12 and K13 matrilines. We got great looks at some of the large males of the group like K25 (Scoter), K26 (Lobo) and we even got to see K21 (Cappuccino)! They appeared to be happy to be back in the Salish Sea and celebrated by porpoising, spyhopping, tail slapping and even a full breach!

We enjoyed their company for a while as they escorted the Sea Lion back to San Juan Island before we decided to enjoy their homecoming in peace.

Under the setting sun that made the sky and the water come alive with color, we began to make our way back to Friday harbor. The tour wasn’t over yet, however; we came across a few harbor porpoise, and one was carrying a calf on its back! Good news for the once dwindling porpoise population in the Salish Sea.

Far too quickly, our journey came to an end as the sun dropped below the trees.

Another Whale of a Day on the Salsih Sea!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

A Murder most Transient… July 22nd, 2015

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Today Captain Gabe and I left the dock on the Kittiwake with a boat full of excited passengers, sun in the sky and reports of something a little different than our average tour: Transients (cue dramatic music)

Transients, unlike the Southern Resident Killer Whales who subsist mostly on King Salmon, spend their time actively hunting other marine mannals. Here in the Salish Sea, their favorite snack is Harbor seals.

As we left Friday Harbor we headed South through the San Juan Channel towards Salmon Bank, an under-water ridge off of Cattle Point. As we approached, we began to see black dorsal fins erupting from the waves as killer whales cruised NorthEast at modest speeds of about twelve miles per hour. When orcas are engaged in chases with other fast animals, they can reach speeds of up to thirty miles per hour or more!

Kittiwake raced along to keep up as we followed them towards Long Island, just South of Lopez Island, where they slowed down and began to do what they do best: hunt.

Now Harbor seals are very cute and win the hearts of most people while they are awkwardly resting on exposed reefs, but seeing a pod of four-to-six-ton apex predators chowing down usually evokes a similar reaponse to watching a train wreck: it’s horrible for the victims but you just cannot look away!

Harbor seals are quite abundant around the San Juans, in fact they are at what is known as “carrying capacity” this means that they are using all the recources that the ecosystem has to offer, and any more could be an issue. In this way, transient whales act as population control; as the seal population rises so will their main predator, resulting in an eventual decline in the seal population. This decline will also eventually affect the transient orca population. We see this boom-bust cycle in any specific predator/prey relationship including wolves and moose, lynx and snowshoe hare, cheetas and gazelles, and orcas and seals! These relationships allow adequate resources and keep the ecosystem balanced over time.

The transient pod we were watching (identified as the T060 group) began to duck into rocks, crevices and kelp forests on the hunt for defenceless seals. As they found one they sped up, ocasionally slapped it senceless with their powerfull tails, grabbed it in their jaws and shared it amongst the pod members. The whales were ecstatic about this newfound smorgasbord and let us know by spyhopping, breaching and having a grand ol’ time with each new kill.

Possibly the most emotional moment was seeing all of the seals that were safely hauled out on shore watching with terror as their usual hangout spots were razed by twenty to thirty-foot predators. Definitely not a great day to be a seal.

For the passengers and naturalists, however, this was a very exciting and very uncommon look into the more brutal aspects of the natural world of the Pacific Northwest.

After we had seen enough carnage, we reluctantly made our way back to Friday Harbor.

A supreme Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Kittiwake

San Juan Safaris


Active Orcas

Monday, July 13th, 2015

There’s a few things you should know about orcas. First: they’re fast. They can get up to 30 knots on a good day. And you’re all, “But that’s not that fast, Erick” and then I’m all, “Well, imagine 8 tons of pure speed and salmon eating muscle traveling through heavy currents traveling at 35 mph (56kph for the rest of the world)” and now I’ll give you time to be impressed… Orcas are one of the fastest marine mammals alive and in groups they can travel around 100 miles (161 km) in a day. Second: They still take time to have fun. Today, Capt. Jim, all our wonderful guests, and I on the Kittiwake started out on a glorious sunny day with flat waters all around. A portion of the Southern Resident Killer Whales were reported to be headed north from Stuart Island – fast! The Kittiwake is pretty fast but by the time we got to see them we were in Canada. Canada folks! The Gulf Islands, situated just north of the San Juans, are one of my favorite boating spots just for the amazing scenery, but our appreciation was soon redirected as we scooted out of Active Pass and saw our first orcas. We had caught up with the cookie clan of J pod. With family members nick-named Doublestuff (J-34), Cookie (J-38), and Oreo (J-22) we can see why. Now, the Kittiwake is a quick and nimble boat but these orcas were pushing over 10 knots (11 mph) at points. So we were graced with wonderful looks of dorsal fins streaming through the water like never before, and I believed that this group was so focused on getting as far north as possible today that we would only see just a glimpse of each of their dorsal fins. SPLASH! I was wrong. Doublestuff launched into the air and sent water flying by landing on his side. That apparently signaled to the others to start breaching and tail slapping until their hearts or at least our hearts were content. After that emotional high it was good we had a healthy sailing back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. and Friday Harbor.


Stay good y’all from Capt. Jim and myself,


Naturalist Erick

M/V Kittiwake, San Juan Safaris

Flying Whales in Haro Strait!

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

Today was (as usual) a fantastic day! My co-natty Erik, captain Mike and myself had a boat full of excited passengers, sunny skies and great whale reports ahead of us. We left the dock and headed south out of Friday Harbor towards Cattle Point. On our way through San Juan Channel we stopped to check out some cormorants and some harbor seals enjoying the sunshine on some rocks. Its currently pupping season for harbor seals! We saw a few little ones learning “banana pose” from the adults.

Harbor Seals are at Carrying capacity in this area, meaning that the ecosystem cannot handle many more seals than already exist. As an unfortunate result, there is about a 50% mortality rate for young seals or “weeners” as they are affectionately called. The good news is that more seals means more happy Transient Orcas!

We were not on our way to see Transients. As we rounded Cattle Point into Haro strait, we began to see fins! We were looking at members of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, fish-eaters that follow salmon into the Salish Sea each summer. This summer is no different, we saw lots of big salmon jumping for joy out of the water, which is a clue as to what the whales were doing as we were watching them.

We identified a group as the K12 matriline and watched K22 (Seiku) and her son K33 (Tika) lazily feeding for a while. We then decided to head to another group further north near Lime Kiln Lighthouse where we ran into the K13 matriline! K13 (Skagit), her four children and 2 grandchildren were beinf particularly active and we got some great looks of K20 (Spock) and her son K38 (Comet). The whole pod spent time tailslapping, pec clapping and even cartwheeling (throwing tails up in the air) but the crown jewel was when Skagit breached! The first one was exciting enough, but then she breached again, and again! Hard to miss that shot. Watching a 9,000 pound carnivore propelling itself into the air is a spectacle that seems to happen in slow motion (when you arefortunate enough to not miss it) and is over far too quickly.

After watching the K13′s play around a bit more, we headed south to visit with the K12′s once more before embarking on the journey home. On our way back we crossed paths with a few more harbor seals in the water as well as a great blue heron fishing in a kelp bed. After that amazing whale experience it was like waking up from a dream as we came back to the dock in Friday Harbor.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

The Dorchestra

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

We left on the M/V Sea Lion for one of our spectacular sunset tours. Earlier that day we had seen a mixture of J and K pod heading north on the west side of San Juan Island. So, we headed north to see if we could meet up with them on the north side of the island. We first met up with a large group of J and K pod traveling really close to each other close to shore along Henry Island. We got some great looks as they calmly cruised northward. We soon broke off of this group and went to go see a smaller group of K pod a little bit more northward. Three orcas were circling in one area and probably hunting some salmon, and we even saw of medium sized salmon jumping as the sun was getting lower in the sky. One of these orcas was Cappuccino (K-21) a very big male in K pod who are a little bit easier to identify due to their large 6-foot tall dorsal fins. These three eventually met up with the other group and we got an amazing final view as the boat got quite and all surfaced one after the other and we could hear each one of them breathe loudly as the sunset gleamed on their black dorsal fins.


Until next time,


Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Oh, Orcas Celebrate Canada Day

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

First of all Happy Canada Day Everyone! Woo and what a Canada Day it has been. Capt. Mike, Brendan, and I left Friday Harbor with a super fun group and a very sunny day. There were some reports of Killer Whales a little south of Discovery Island, which is just off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. So despite what people tell you it the temperature doesn’t immediately drop ten degrees when we cross into Canadian waters, but I so try to start saying units in  metric though. We soon caught up with a group of J pod and K pod that were spreading out pretty wide and showing a variety of behaviours. The first family group we looked at was the J-2′s, we saw J-2, Granny, along with Onyx, L-87. Both of these individuals have fantastic stories. Granny is the oldest living orca on record at 104 years old this year! Onyx’s (L-87) mother died and so has been traveling with other pods it looks like he’s been adopted into J pod. This group had about 8 swimming together and was in a pretty tight swimming pattern. It was so amazing to see all of their dorsal fins rise and fall in the water in sync. Next we went a little bit further south and saw the J-16 family group with Slick, J-16, and the two new members of J pod J-50 and J-52. These two aren’t even a year old yet and we saw one of the young ones practice porpoising (where they swim really fast at the water’s surface to get an extra kick of speed). We then moved south and watched an adult male, Blackberry (J-27), swim for awhile with his hug dorsal fin! The male orcas start to develop their tall dorsal fins when they are around 12-15 years old. At full height this dorsal fin can reach 6 feet tall! We once again bid farewell to our Southern Resident Killer Whales friends and started to make our way back to Friday Harbor, but little did we know that our awesome Canada Day was far from over! Close to Cattle Point we came across three Minke Whales! These are about the same size as an orca but are the resident baleen whales! Where orcas have teeth, Minkes have baleen with are keratin strands that they use to filter out all the small fish they feed on. One of the Minkes looked pretty young and it was very peaceful to watch these relatives to the Blue Whale surface and dive for awhile. After that we caught a glimpse of a Bald Eagle swooping to attack a floating and unsuspecting seabird! Last,but certainly not least we saw a mother Harbor Seal swimming with her new pup off of San Juan Island. Woah, that was a fun and exhausting day, but I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Canada Day than with orcas in Canadian waters, eh?


Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris