Today the ol’ Sea Lion had yet another whale of an adventure.
It was one of those days with no prior reports of whales out in the Salish Sea, but that certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. After loading the boat with excited passengers, bundled up against the Autumn chill and excited to see some wildlife, we took off and headed North out of Friday Harbor up through the San Juan Channel.
As we cruised up the channel we could see the tumult that was present as the flooding tide once more turned the narrow strip of water into a river, stirring up the abundant nutrients of the Salish Sea. Taking advatage of this were dozens of common murre, hundreds of seagulls as well as many seals who were all feeding on herring. As exciting as this was, it was not our main goal so we pushed on.
After rounding Battleship Island just outside Roche Harbor, we scanned the ripply Haro Strait for any sign of marine mammals of any size. We were looking for blows, rooster tails, dorsal fins or any combination. What did we see? Nada. All was quiet in the sometimes boisterous Haro. Nevertheless we scanned and cruised West and South for a bit to find only silence punctuated with the calls of various seabirds.
After enjoying the serenity for a while, we meandered North towards Stuart Island. As we approached Turn Point we found what we were looking for: A huge WHOOSH followed by an identical noise as two humpback whales surfaced one after the other. An enormous pair of blowholes surfaced then disappeared followed by a long sleek back adorned with nothing but a small dorsal fin. Finally, a huge pair of flukes emerged from the water as first one then the other dove beneath the waves. We were most likely watching the same pair of humpbacks from the day before, who appear to be two sub-adult traveling companions.
Captain Brian shut down the vessel and we drifted silently in the same direction in which the whales were traveling so that when they surfaced again, we knew it. Two deafening sounds as air escaped the whales’ lungs at an incredible three-hundred miles per hour, simply to avoid inhaling any seawater! As the pair of cetacea made their way South along the shoreline of Stuart Island they gave us great looks at their massive backs.
From afar, the dark backs appear smooth and sleek as they emerge covered in seawater. However, the ocean is full of organisms that consider whale-skin a substrate to latch onto or on which to feed, leading to countless pock-marks, scars, scratches, freckles and all sorts of imperfections. We also look for major scarring to determine if a large humpback is a male or female, as males will fight one another during the winter breeding season. The result is heavily scarred males and relatively unblemished females!
It was difficult to say whether these humpbacks were male or female having no calves or significant scarring to speak of, and neither were full grown. They were, however, just as curious about us as we were of them: We watched for a few more surfacings and then suddenly one of our whales brought its entire face (or “rostrum”) out of the water!
Other times I have seen humpback whale-rostrums involved an open mouth and some unlucky herring, but this whale’s mouth was closed and its basketball-sized eyeball was exposed, leading me to believe that it was having a look around, or spyhopping. Not only is it thought that humpbacks regularly spyhop to use landmarks in navigation, but they are also quite curious. At any rate, having a whale look right at you doesn’t happen every day!
After the exciting rostral display, first this whale then the other brought their flukes into the air and began a dive into the briny deep. We took this as our cue to begin heading towards home, but we did get to catch a final glimpse of them as they continued their path to the South.
On our own southern path, we cruised by the grassy hillside of Spieden island, where we could see enormous Eurasian Fallow deer and Asian Mouflan sheep grazing on the hillside as well as harbor seals on the shoreline. Now is rut-season! We witnessed a couple of excited male aheep butting heads to establish dominance. From here we continued our journey down San Juan Channel back into Friday Harbor, all significantly more full of wildlife experiences than when we began.
Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J
M/V Sea Lion
San Juan Safaris