Posts Tagged ‘san juan island’

Orcas of the PNW

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Across all the worlds oceans there are at least 10 ecotypes of orcas, and possibly even more.  An ecotype is a distinct population of animals separated by diets, region, or social factors from the whole species.  Currently there is only one Orcinus Orca, but some argue that is it time to give separate species names to some of these ecotypes.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have what are known as resident orcas.   Resident orcas diverged genetically about 13,000 years ago.  This means that their genes are completely different from that of other orca ecotype!  In the wild, different ecotypes do not cross bread and often avoid each other.  Resident orcas are separated by diet, which consists of 90% salmon here in the San Juans, and family grouping.  Resident orcas travel is large family groups made up of matrilines.  These family groups, or pods, can consist more than 40 members!

Another ecotype often spotted in the San Juans, are transient orcas.  Transient orcas are marine mammal eaters and tend to travel in smaller groups.  Since their prey is harder to catch, it is advantageous to travel in a group of 3-6 animals, but sometimes transient orcas will travel solo or in groups of 15 or more!  Researchers think that we are starting to see the transient orca population become prey specific.  Since hunting is passed down from mother to offspring, if the mother does not know how to hunt a minke whale, then neither will the offspring.  It is possible that we will start seeing specialized hunting tactics by transient orcas, and only some will hunt minke whales, and others porpoises, and still other seals.

Offshore orcas also inhabit the waters of the PNW, but very little is know about this ecotype of orca.  Since they travel off shore, hence the name, they are hard to spot.  It is believed that this group feeds mostly on pelagic sharks and large schooling, fish such as tuna.

The more we are able to observe these creatures in the wild, the more we understand what makes each group different and unique.  Only time will tell if there are more ecotypes to be discovered!

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris

San Juan Island’s Rain Shadow

Friday, January 16th, 2015

The Pacific Northwest is known for its rainfall.  And we are not complaining.  The rainfall here means full rivers, green grass, and a wonderful temperate summer.   While places like the Olympic Peninsula get up to 60 inches of rain a year and Seattle close to 40 inches, San Juan Island receives as little as 15 inches of annual rain fall.  Why the difference?  San Juan Island is in a rain shadow, which acts as a kind of umbrella for the islands.  Here in the San Juans we are surrounded by mountains.  With the Cascades to the east, the Olympic Peninsula to the south, and Vancouver Island to the west, San Juan is protected from many storms.  Rain clouds are low and heavy, making it easy for them to get “stuck” on the surrounding mountains.  This phenomenon makes San Juan Island relatively dry in the winter.  There are plenty of gray days, and this year plenty of sunny ones too, here on San Juan Island, but it can be an escape for the down pours of the surrounding areas.

With a mild winter and an amazing summer, San Juan Island is a wonderful place to visit and call home.

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris

New Orca Calf is a Girl!

Friday, January 9th, 2015

There is a lot of mystery surrounding new baby orca J50, but one thing is now clear.  It’s a girl!  The telling photograph was snapped and everyone could not be happier with the results.  A healthy population needs females in order to continue matrilines and produce more offspring.  Currently the Southern Resident Killer Whale population has more breeding age males than females, which does not bode well for future offspring.  We can only hope that little J50 survives this first crucial year and then continues to grow and thrive into adulthood.  Females typically become sexually mature around 13 years of age and will typically have 4 calves in a lifetime.  Orcas travel in matrilines, which means that the group is defined by the mothers, so it is very exciting that the J16 matriline continues to grow.

Speaking of J16, researchers are now unclear if she is indeed the mother or grandmother.  J50 has rake marks on her dorsal fin, and researches think that another orca helped with the birth of the new orca calf.  Orcas are very social and intelligent creatures, making an orca midwife not too far fetched.  J36, J16′s daughter, is another possible candidate for being J50′s mother. J16, at 43 years of age, would be the oldest known orca to give birth to a healthy calf.  At 16 years of age, J36, has yet to have a calf and everyone has been eagerly awaiting the day.  J16 was not on scene with the rest of her family when J50 was first observed and it is possible she was recovering from a tough delivery and letting grandma do a little baby sitting.  J50 has been observed leaving J16′s side, which leads some to believe that she is not the mother, as typically calves never leave mom’s side.  Through further encounters and observation, we hope to figure out the mystery surrounding J50′s birth.  For now, we are just happy that the little orca seems happy, healthy, and playful!

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris Whale Watching

A New Baby for a New Year!

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

Well, it’s official!  A new calf has been confirmed in the Southern Resident Killer Whales, bringing their numbers to 78 animals.  It is believed that J16 gave birth to the new calf just a few days ago as the calf was first spotted near San Juan Island today.  42 year old J16, or Slick, is a seasoned mother, having already raised 5 other calves.  We hope that with her knowledge the newest member of J Pod survives the first crucial year of life.  The sex of the baby orca will take time to determine, as we have to wait for the little one to breach and a perfectly timed photo to happen.  Often, whales are not sexed for the first year or so of life.

The birth of J50 comes at a crucial time having just lost J32 due to complications during pregnancy and L120 just a month after being born.  A new SRKW is a high note to end 2014 and hopefully signals many more wonderful things to come in 2015!

Congrats to J16 and welcome to the Salish Sea J50!

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris

Happy Winter Solstice!

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Well Folks, the shortest day of the year has arrived are we are ready for the sun to stay up past 4:15! These cold northwest nights have us dreaming of kayaking on blue bird days and enjoying campfire cooking.  With 2015 just around the corner, it is an excellent time to start looking ahead to summer vacation plans.  Overnight Kayak Tours are an excellent way to spend a weekend – or even a week! We run full service tours that provide all the gear and food so all you need to do is bring clothes and be ready for a trip you won’t soon forget!  Overnight Kayak Tours are great for all ages and can be customized to fit your group’s needs.  Doing a multi day tour also means that your chances of seeing orcas from a kayak increase!

Speaking of orcas, Southern Resident Killer Whales and Transient Killer Whales have been spotted in the Salish Sea throughout December.  Today there are reports of a large group of orcas, which sound like our SRKWs! During the winter months, resident orcas will travel as far south as Monterey Bay, California and up the West Coast of Vancouver Island in search of salmon.  J Pod tends to hang out in the Salish Sea more often than either K or L pod and is periodically spotted during these winter months.  While the resident orcas are fishing out at sea, transient orcas will be seen more regularly as there is a very healthy supply of their favorite meal: harbor seal.

We hope everyone is enjoying a nice cup of tea around a fire!

Naturalist Emily

Awesome Killer Whale Watching Season!

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

With November right around the corner, we cannot believe how fast this season went!  Not only was it a wonderful summer full of sun, but we had record high orca whale sightings!  This past season we had ample time to enjoy J,K, and L pod in their summer hunting grounds in the Salish Sea.  Many of these days were spent on the west side of San Juan Island, a favorite spot for the salmon eating Southern Resident Killer Whales.  On days that the SRKWs (Southern Resident Killer Whales) were out fishing in the Pacific Ocean, we were greeted with Transient Orcas.  These marine mammal eating orcas were seen with even more regularity this summer, which made for some exciting trips!

Not only were the orcas out and about almost every day this season, but Pacific White Sided Dolphins were seen often and in huge groups and humpbacks have been spotted with more regularity too.  Pacific White Sided Dolphins like to engage boats in bow and wake riding.  Guests were lucky enough to experience over 200 of these playful dolphins one day right outside Friday Harbor!  Humpbacks have been seen more and more over the past few years and we hope that this means the return of these gentle giants.  At 60ft long, a Humpback Whale is quite the sight!

Looking back, it has been a truly wonderful season and we can only hope 2015 sets even more records for wildlife sightings!

Naturalist Emily

San Juan Safaris

Humpback and Orcas! 2 Whale Delight!

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

Captain Mike, Owner/Naturalist Brian, guests, and I left Friday Harbor headed north in the hopes of finding whales.  Even though we started the morning with no reports, we remained hopeful as we motored along Orcas Island.  And then puff it’s a humpback and her calf!  Guests aboard the M/V Sea Lion were lucky enough to be the ones to spot the pair of humpback whales!  Over the past few years, we have been encountering more and more humpbacks, and we hope this marks the start of their return to the area.

After spending some quality time with the humpbacks,  we got a call about transient orcas in Canadian waters!  The T37s were traveling south from Saturna Island and we even got to see some foraging behavior!  With a youngster of only 2 years in the group, these transient orcas are always a treat to see.

After our fill of whales, we headed towards Friday Harbor with smiles and great photos.  These days can always brighten a rainy day!


Naturalist, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris Whale Watching


A Trifecta of Whales- Orcas, Humpbacks, and Minkes!

Friday, September 26th, 2014

A trifecta of whales today for the ‘ol M/V Sea Lion. Guests that stuck with us through the rain and the spray from the waves were rewarded with incredible views of not just our resident orcas, but also TWO humpbacks, AND a minke whale! Oh and did I forget to mention the 7-10 Dahl’s porpoise that decided to ride the wake of our boat for up to 15 minutes? Yes, that also happened! It was a great day on the water and the wildlife was out in droves. Never a dull moment for the M/V Sea Lion. Here’s hoping the next few days will be just as exciting.



Naturalist, M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Fun (and whale) filled day!

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Today Captain Mike, Caitlin and I had a very eventful day on the water. Though we left with no reports of orcas, we felt hopeful that some might turn up around the islands. We first stopped to see some Northern sea lions just south of San Juan, before catching up with a pod of right around 100 Pacific white-sided dolphins! We enjoyed their antics as they surfed in the M/V Sea Lion’s wake and bow rode at the front of the vessel. It is always fun to see these very athletic visitors to the San Juan Islands. We left the dolphins and headed north in Haro Strait….. AND WE FOUND J AND K PODS! We enjoyed watching the whales breach, travel and fish. We left the orcas just near Lime Kiln State Park, and continued north to find some humpback whales! Overall, it was an amazing day on the water!

Sarah, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris Whale Watching

Cetacean Madness!!!!!

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Today Captain Mike, Naturalist Caitlin and I had a trip that we all agreed was the highlight of our season. We left Friday Harbor at 12:00pm and immediately stumbled across some harbor seals hauled out on some rocks. The seals need to lay in the sun to warm up as they have a very minimal layer of insulating fat known as blubber. With another stop to check out some nesting double-crested cormorants and some gulls, we headed out to find a minke whale on a glassy Haro Strait. We caught up with a minke whale while it was feeding and enjoyed watching it surface a few times in beautiful golden light. After about 20 minutes we left the minke to catch up with some orcas! We were delighted to have a report of southern residents (the salmon-eating whales) this late in the season. Though we see transient orcas all year round, the residents are usually here only when the salmon are running June through August. With that being said, we are having an excellent September for whale watching! We were delighted to see L72 Racer and her son L105 Fluke, as well as J28 and her son J46 Star. We enjoyed many breaches and great underwater vocalizations broadcasted from our on-board hydrophone. We had some excellent looks of whale sin both L and J pods. After leaving the orcas in Haro Strait we started to meander our way back to Friday Harbor, finding some northern sea lions and a bald eagle. As we rounded a corner, nearly back to the harbor,  the water around the M/V Sea Lion started to boil with over 150 Pacific white-sided dolphins. The dolphins played in our wake, bow rode, and lept out of the water. We were all so entranced that we ended up extending our trip by about 40 minutes! Today was the most incredible day on the water I have had the pleasure of witnessing. I will be dreaming of dolphins tonight.

Sarah, M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris Whale Watching