Posts Tagged ‘san juan island’

November Wildlife at its Finest!

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Yesterday the M/V Sea Lion headed out on the water for a private charter. I love being a part of hosting these private events, as we can totally taylor the trip for whatever the groups are most interested in. Yesterday our group wanted to find as much wildlife as we possibly could, and wildlife we found! We left Friday Harbor and motored north. At Spieden Island we encountered a lively group of Steller’s sea lions, and a number of bald eagles. As we headed further north up and around Stewart Island, we were treated to sweeping views of the landscape as well as to a visit by some Dall’s porpoise bow riding! These porpoises are right around 7 feet long and can weigh up to 450lbs… I call them fat oreos due to their black and white coloration. After spending sometime with the porpoises we sped off in search of some humpback whales. We stubled upon two whales traveling together and lunge feeding: lifting their enormous heads out of the water, mouths wide open! We stayed with the humpbacks for a couple of dives, when we received word from a land-based spotter within our network of communication that he was looking at killer whales near Orcas Island! We quickly left the humpbacks in search of the orcas. This time of year killer whales are fairly hit or miss, and normally we are looking for transient, or marine mammal eating, killer whales, who tend to be a little bit wily and hard to predict. It was all hands on deck as we sought out these whales! Luckily we had Captain Brian “The Whalemaster” Goodremont at the helm and he skillfully found the needle in the haystack yet again. Arriving on scene it was immediately clear that we were looking at transients, and more specifically the T049A and the T123 family groups. We were the only boat on scene and enjoyed some quality time watching these beautiful whales romping around Skipjack Island just to the northwest of Orcas Island.

Naturalist Sarah, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris


Ringing in November Right! Orcas!

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

Today was one of the best trips I had all season. Captain Brian, Naturalist Mike and I set out from the dock without a single report determined to find some wildlife we set out North towards Spieden Island. When we reached the Wasp Islands just west of Orcas and Shaw Islands we received a report of a large group of orcas moving south through Rosario Strait on the other side of Orcas Island, so of course we had to go check it out. Though there was a bit of wind and some significant rain, spirits were high! We braved some serious choppy water as we left Lopez Channel and made our way our into Rosario. Though we had a positive report, we were going to be the only boat even looking for these whales, so it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack! We were very fortunate to have been in contact with a friend watching the whales from land, so we had somewhat of an idea where to look, but it was certainly challenging! We ended up meeting up with 40+ Southern Residents near Lawson Reef, for November whale watching in the San Juans this is the Holy Grail. Though it is not unheard of to see orcas this time of year we are outside of our peak season that runs Mid-June through Mid-September, making any orca sighting this time of year particularly special. We watched as the whales rolled and played in the surf, breaching, spyhopping and tail lobbing. It seemed as though the whales spent more time flying through the air than swimming in the water today! We spent about 45 minutes with the whales, and then headed around the south end of Lopez to find some bald eagles roosted on Long Island and some Steller’s sea lions on Whale Rocks. It was an absolutely incredible day on the water, certainly one of the best trips I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of!

Naturalist Sarah, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Through the Eye of the Humpback-October 25th, 2015

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

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

Weekend Update: October 16-18

Monday, October 19th, 2015

What a crazy end of season we have had! The wildlife lately has been amazing, everything from the migrating birds to the gorgeous cetaceans we have been seeing.

This weekend was humpback whale-filled. We had the distinct pleasure of spending time with three different humpback whales on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Humpback whales are well known for their fluke-up dives, raising their enormous tails out of the water. Each humpback has a unique black and white pattern on the underneath of their tails that researchers use to identify individuals. In addition to raising their tails out of the water humpback whales are also well known for being some of the most acrobatic of the large whale species, breaching out of the water and slapping the surface of the water with their tails and pectoral fins. On Friday we had the opportunity to see one of these magnificent mammals pec-slapping, raising its 15-foot-long fin out of the water and then slapping it down on the surface of the water.

In addition to the humpbacks in the area we have also been enjoying sightings of porpoises and  bald eagles in the recent days!

Naturalist Sarah, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Weekend Update: October 9-11

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Our legendary 2015 late season whale watching continues to impress, with this weekends sightings including resident killer whales, humpback whales, as well as transient killer whales.

On Friday the Sea Lion went out on a high seas adventure, looking to find some of our Southern Resident killer whales just to the south end of the San Juan. We marveled at some members of L Pod including L72 Racer and her son L105 Fluke as they surfed in the waves around our vessel. We also enjoyed views of some bald eagles as we made our way back to Friday Harbor.

On Saturday we headed north into the waters around Spieden Island searching for humpback whales, the fifth largest whale in the world, here in the North Pacific growing up to 50 feet long! These whales, members of a group known as the mysticetes (translates to “mustached whales”), have baleen in their mouths instead of teeth. Baleen is made out of keratin, the same stuff that our fingernails and hair is made out of. The whales use these baleen plates as filters, taking giant mouthfuls of water containing tiny fish and shrimp-like creatures called krill, and then, using their tongues, pressing the water out through their baleen leaving a giant mouthful of food. We enjoyed watching the humpback surfacing through the classic Pacific Northwest mist.

On Sunday we again headed north, but this time to the Strait of Georgia in search of some reported transient killer whales. These orcas are marine mammal eaters, hunting seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, and whales. Because their prey is incredibly aware of their surroundings, these whales tend to be very quiet at the surface and usually travel in small groups of about 5-6 animals. Never say usually with transients!! We were treated to watch a group of about 9 animals as they leisurely traveled south, playing in the currents and resting.

Another great weekend for the books, October continues to be just incredible!

Naturalist Sarah, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

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