Posts Tagged ‘san juan island’

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

Whales on Whales on Whales!-September 24, 2015

Friday, September 25th, 2015

Today was one of those days that comes maybe but once a summer here in the Salish Sea, and Captain Mike, myself and some lucky passengers were fortunate enough to see some incredible examples of our local wildlife.

We left the dock at exactly noon (despite a slightly tardy naturalist) on the trusty Sea Lion and headed South out of Frdiay Harbor through the San Juan Channel. As soon as we left the harbor, the show began with sightings of some harbor seals and about six playful harbor porpoises snagging some baitfish.

As we continued south, we had a friendly encounter with a Stellar’s sea lion as it checked out the boat sporting the same name and that was just a taste of the behemoth pinniped.

As we went through Cattle Pass, in between the southern tips of San Juan and Lopez Islands, we checked out the Whale Rocks and the surrounding turbulent water. Lounging like kings and queens on top of the barren rocks among cormorants and gulls were about thirty enormous Stellar’s sea lions. Reminiscent of aquatic grizzly bears, these cream-colored pinnipeds have recently migrated back south from their breeding grounds in Alaska. Here in the San Juans, they spend their time eating whatever they can catch and snarling at one another.

While we were watching the sea lions, we unexpectedly caught sight of a Minke whale! These, the smallest of the baleen whales, are notorious for surfacing once then going out of sight for some time. This one, however, allowed us great views of its characteristic curved dorsal fin as it surfaced every minute or so.

Eager for Orcas, we headed North up the Haro Strait and were rewarded by our forst orca sighting: Transients! This “ecotype” is characterized by having small pods (five whales in this one), silent hunting patterns, and of course a diet of marine mammals. As they were moving very calmly with no splashing, we assumed that they were on the hunt and continued north as not to diaturb their efforts.

Just a short boat ride away, however, was another ecotype: the Southern Resident Killer Whales! These orcas have a diet mainly consisting of Chinook Salmon, which determines their behavior of following the salmon runs to the same river each summer. We got some incredible looks at members of J Pod and K Pod, whom we can recognize using their dorsal fins and natural markings on their bodies.

Fortunately, the Sea Lion has an underwater hydrophone on board and we were able to listen to the long, eerie vocalizations and echolocation clicks present as pod members communicated with one another while they hunted salmon. Combined with the powerful WHOOSH noise present when they exhale air, these orcas make some of the world’s most beautiful natural sounds.

After observing whale after whale make their way by us, we unfortunately had to begin saying our goodbyes to the Southern Residents. However, the show was far from over! On our way back around Cattle Point, we caught up to the pod of Transients just as they were making a kill! These expert hunters were diving incredibly fast and surrounding one spot as if they were eating some poor seal. The presence of a NOAA research boat that was collecting sanoles of the animal remains confirmed our suspicions, as did the behavior of the orcas.

They began splashing, swimming upside down, even breaching as they tend to do when their bellies are full. After a bit of socializing and playing, it was back to business as they went back to stone-face hunting mode. We took that as our cue to begin our journey back to Friday Harbor, during which we saw a few more Harbor porpoise, harbor seals and the same curious sea lion. We returned to the dock with the full monty of experiences: harbor seals, harbor porpoises, sea lions, a minke whale, Transient orcas as well as residents. Wow.

Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Mike J

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Granny Makes a Splash!

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Spring ended with a glorious day out on the water. After the fog rolled out, the sun shined through the clouds as the M/V Sea Lion headed north out of Friday Harbor. Captained by Mike, Naturalist Sarah and I led a full boat on what would be a wonderful day towards Canadian waters following reports of wildlife in the area.

We didn’t need to travel far- as soon as we turned into San Juan Channel dozens of harbor porpoise appeared, playing in the swirling waters. Dorsal fin after dorsal fin rose out of the water as the large group traveled through the channel. We continued motoring north, when lo and behold we encountered three large Steller sea lions just off of Spieden Island.  These animals are massive with males growing up to weigh over 900 pounds! But we were determined to see an even larger marine mammal that day.

Finally, as we rounded the north side of Stuart Island at Turn Point we found the orca whale jackpot. We had found the entirety of K-pod, lazily swimming north towards Canada with other members of J-pod including the infamous Granny (J-2). Though they were spread out across the channel, guests got good looks of over 30 whales, some even tail slapping and breaching. Though Granny has been seen in the San Juan’s many times over the summer, I had yet to get a good glimpse of her in the recent months. Not one to disappoint a good reunion, the J-pod matriarch put on a spectacular display, and showed us that being 104 meant little as she propelled herself into the air for a fantastic breach.

Another fantastic day in the San Juan Islands!

Naturalist Danna, 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

JK-ing but not about the whales – Sunday 8/30

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Sunday, served up another San Juanderful day.

Capt. Pete, Alex, and I headed toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This is the major channel that connects the island to the North Pacific Ocean and all its glory. Lucky for us it was a calm day as we approached Middle Bank. This a shallower area in the strait where schools of fish love to gather due to the swirling currents that concentrate food in one place which is probably why when we got near we started to see some delightful dorsal fins slicing the waves. As we approached we saw that a group of J pod and K pod from the Southern Resident Killer Whales milling about a fishing! We ended up paralleling them for awhile and got to see the J-2′s with Granny (J-2) and T’ilem I’nges (J-49) traveling close with each other again. It’s been interesting to see these two the past few days travel with each other especially since J-49 is in the fourth generation of Granny’s family! The K-14′s also gave us some great looks as they scooted by. Soon though we had to scoot on home, but we stopped and saw some Steller Sea lions on the way and gawked at their 2500 lb of fur, fat, and flippers hauled out on the rocks.

Whale folks until next time.

Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

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!

L is for looks – August 27

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Thursday was a beautiful day filled with typical San Juan calm waters and cool breezes, and we went typically went looking for Killer Whales. Capt. Mike, Brendan, and I headed to the west side of San Juan Island and soon saw an unmistakable giant, dark dorsal fin slicing through the still waters. Orcas… But who is this one specifically? Orcas, like many mammals, have distinctive markings that allow us to tell one from another. In orcas we mainly use the shape of their dorsal fins and the pattern of a whitish-grey marking directly behind their dorsal fins. We call this their saddle-patch.

First this whale was big, really big, and definitely an adult male due to his very straight and tall dorsal fin. As he passed us we could see his pretty solid saddle patch and two notches in his dorsal fin. It was L-41! aka Mega! He cruised pass with the awesome ease that one only sees while watching giants.

MEga is in L pod and we haven’t see a lot of L pod this summer. Since we know that orcas usually travel in their family groups, more of L pod must be around.

We were right and our efforts bore fruits! or whales.

More L pod!

Looking at saddle patches and dorsal fins we recognized Matia (L-77), Calypso (L-94), Calypso’s daughter Cousteau (L-119). It was wonderful to find them when we did, because it quickly turned into socialization time. This group kept swimming tight circles around each other and pushing the young Cousteau around. They love spinning underwater and rubbing up against each other, and it was so beautiful to see them playing as one big happy family.

As these whales played around and drifted by more of L pod could be heard in the distance surfacing and breathing. And before we had to head back around towards Friday Harbor, another adult male, Crewser (L-92) passed by giving us a great view of his sprouting dorsal fin which has an extra curve right at the top.


But that’s not all! We passed by Whale rocks near Cattle Point and saw a slew of Steller Sea Lions hauled out on the rocks. They just returned from their rookeries in Alaska and they are so much fun to look at as they stick their heads straight up in the air and look suspiciously back at you. But don’t get too close these can weigh up to 2,500 lbs. and they are the largest Sea Lion in the world! It’s great to see them laying next to all the Harbor Seal too just to get the great size difference! We watched them slugging around and swimming around in the kelp forests for a little bit then onward until… two Bald Eagles Appeared on a rock! ONe had just caught a fish and they were having a mid afternoon snack! We thought our excitement was over until in the middle of Griffen Bay on our way back we saw two Humpback Whales. Now these are the the creatures that bring about images of stories of leviathans. They are as long as our boat – around 50 ft. – and can weigh around 50 tons. The stop here on their migration to rest and fuel up on tiny plankton. so they were up and down a lot showing their massive flukes as they dove deep to scoop up krill and fish.


Well I don’t know how the day could get any better.

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

San Juanderful – August 16

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

On Sunday, we had a great group on the Kittiwake and weather to match them. Capt. Jim and I took them to the west side of San Juan Island in search for the Southern Resident Killer Whales. We headed north and soon found most of K pod near the County Park. We saw Tika (K-33), Lobo (K-26), and Cappuccino (K-21) right off the bat. They were easy to spot because of their huge, adult, male dorsal fins or almost huge in the case of Tika – he’s still growing. We stayed with K pod for awhile paralleling them as they moved north and were starting to leave to look for some other fun wildlife near the Cactus Islands when, Splash! Two of the males breached in the distance as we were motoring away. So of course we turned around and watched as they started to wake up and feel feisty. The younger members started to breach and tail slap too and then it was a K pod party with all breaching and slapping and spyhopping near shore! We followed the whole K pod crew until Henry Island and then again tried to tear ourselves away from the excitement and headed to some of the outer islands. Around the north side of Spieden Island we took a moment and Capt. Jim had us appreciate the view of all the different islands and ridges we could see at that one point on the water. We could see Orcas, San Juan, Lopez, Shaw, most of the outer islands like Stuart, Johns, Waldron, Sucia, and could also see the Olympics, Mt. Baker, and all the way up into the Canadian Gulf Islands. What a beautiful sight. We skirted around the Cactus Islands and the north side of Spieden and saw a bunch of Harbor Seals playing in the Kelp beds and a few families of the exotic Mouflon Sheep prancing along the coastline. Soon though it was time to travel back down south to Friday Harbor. Another beautiful, sunny day on the water.


Whale folks until next time,

Naturalist Erick

M/V Kittiwake, San Juan Safaris