What an incredible day out on the water! Today was Captain Pete’s last day driving for us, and the Salish Sea made sure it was a special trip.
We loaded up the Sea Lion with excited passengers ready to see some of the unique wildlife and headed North out of Friday Harbor under a clear sky. We had heard some reports of orcas up in the Canadian Gulf islands and were excited to get up into whale country!
Along the way we checked out the islands and scenery of the San Juan Channel along with the odd murre or auklet, but our first big surprise came in the middle of Spieden channel: an enormous Stellar’s sea lion surfacing to take a few breaths! Also known as Northern sea lions, these huge pinnipeds can weigh in at over a ton and are the bane of fishermen all over the Pacific Northwest. Along with pre-caught salmon, they are also fans of different kinds of crab, halibut, ling cod and other rockfish. As this sub-adult male rolled his tan back to dive back into the murky depths, we continued West towards Moresby island in Canada stopping briefly to admire an exposed reef draped with plump grey harbor seals.
Nearing the island, we could see some commotion and as we inched closer we saw the sight that never ever gets old: black dorsal fins slicing through the water as the mist of a recent exhalation drifts over the water. It was Killer Whales!!!
This small group was a pod of Transient, or mammal-eating, orcas. Transient orcas are famous for earning the name “Killer Whale” as their diet consists of warm blooded marine mammals like seals, sea lions and porpoises with the occasional larger whale or dolphin on the menu as well. This pod, identified as the T65A matriline, was in the middle of lunch as we showed up. Typically when we see transients, they are travelling or hunting which means they are attempting to maintain silence in the water. This way, they can listen to any telltale sounds of prey swimming about.
These whales, however, were celebrating a successful hunt by slapping their tails on the water and breaching into the air!! This excited (and exciting!) behavior was interspersed with orcas diving to retrieve slices of seal, as well as a unique behavior termed “moonwalking”, where an orca propels itself backwards through the water. Possibly they are big Michael Jackson fans, more likely they are using that momentum to rip apart bits of food. After a few more minutes of feeding and jumping, playtime was over and they were back in hunting formation, spread out as they crossed the channel.
Unfortunately, that was our cue to turn around and wish them happy hunting, but our adventure was far from over. As we made our way South and East back to San Juan channel, we saw something we don’t see every day: the enormous spout of a Humpback whale! There was no mistaking this twenty-foot plume of steam that can be seen for miles. As we approached a bit closer we were able to see the huge back arching into the characteristic hump as it lifted its massive flukes into the air for a terminal dive. This moment, when the flukes are in the air with water streaming off the trailing edge, makes for both a great photo and identification opportunity. These humpbacks have unique patterns of black, white, scratches and barnacle marks that make it possible to distinguish individual whales from one another and see who’s who. We stayed with this whale and got some amazing looks for a few more dive cycles before we decided to begin making our way home but we were not done yet!
As we cruised South in the San Juan channel, we looked behind us to see a bald eagle soaring and dipping in the Southern wind follwed closely by some gulls eagerly awaiting a scavenging opportunity. This eagle dipped and dived and circled low on the water perhaps trying to locate a tricky fish, perhaps attempting to evade the ever-watchful gulls. We watched fpr an action-packed ten minutes or so before the huge bird decided to take off and try again later.
After a trip full of Stellar sea lions, snoozing deals, breaching transient orcas, fluking humpbacks and diving eagles, we finally pulled back into the slip in Friday Harbor with lots of stories to tell.
Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J
M/V Sea Lion
San Juan Safaris