Posts Tagged ‘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

Orcas’ Last Gleaming – August 20

Friday, August 21st, 2015

There are stories surrounding orcas that say if we visit them in their natural realm, the sea, we’ll see them as humans since they will be home and we will be the visitor. I don’t know what that means the human will then look like, but I like to think of humans with permanently grinning orca faces.

Unless you don a drysuit and some air tanks there is no one to see if this little myth is true but I believe it’s good to think of orcas in a more human way, to connect with them emotional, and maybe guess at what their thinking.

We headed out on Thursday even with a slight breeze and calm waters. We headed towards Alden Bank near Patos and Sucia Islands and had a beautiful trip skirting along the north side of the islands watching Murres and Cormorants, our daring cliff dwelling birds, fly past steep island coastlines. When we arrived, we soon spotted a lot of dorsal fins. It was a large group of K pod! The sunlight was at such an angle that the dorsal fins looked jet black on the front and aflame in the back as these two families milled for Salmon in the orange light given by the end of the day. Tika (K-33) appeared directly behind us startling me with his loud breath and impressing everyone with his tall dorsal fin. Tika is a Chinook word meaning swift and he is definitely that. We watched him go in and out of salmon schools and soon started to see the rest of his family in the K-12′s swim closer. Sequim (K-12) is the matriarch and her three children we all there: Sekiu (K-22), Rainshadow (K-37), and Saturna (K-43). Saturna even popped up in front of her namesake island of Saturna in the distance! Sekiu (K-22) is the mother of Tika, and it was amazing to see three generations to pass by.

We saw some splashing in the distance and decided to go investigate. It was the K-13′s! My favorite family with Skagit (K-13) as the matriarch and leading the group. Skagit has a large family with her children: Spock (K-20), Scoter (K-25), Deadhead (K-27), and Cali (K-34) and her grandchildren: Comet (K-38) and Ripple (K-34). I personally got distracted by either Skagit or Cali breaching in the distance that I didn’t even notice Spock (k-20) and her child Comet (K-38) swim past on the other side of the boat! Those too are my favorite, and Spock is interesting because researchers thought that she was male for awhile because of her male looking dorsal fin…until she had a calf. Whoops.

Spock and Comet swimming right next to each other, now that’s something. This mother-son pair swam calmly by and it’s interesting to compare their relationship and behavior with other mother-child pairs. Especially when Comet started jumping over and over in front of his mom with his mom responding with tail slap after tail slap on the water.

As we thought about each whale and how differently they behave kind of like how different humans act we watched them swim by one last time through the golden stream of sunlight brought by one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve seen over Vancouver Island. It’s certainly a feeling I don’t think any of us will lose for a very long, long time.


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

JK….. They’re headed North!

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

We spent a blissful day on the water with members of both J and K pods as they were traveling north past Stewart Island. We first arrived on scene greeted by some members of the J19 Matriline (J19 Shachi, J41 Eclipse, J51). J51 is the first calf of J41 Eclipse, and he is just as cute as a button! When orcas are born their white patches tend to look orangey because they do not have significant fat stores. As they grow and put on weight, the orange patches turn to their classic white hue. Right now little J51 is really starting to look like a “big kid,” and it has been a pleasure to watch him grow! We followed the whales as they made their way up the shoreline of Stewart Island, breaching and tail slapping all they way to Turn Point Lighthouse. The J19s met up with some other members of their pod, most notably the J2s, Granny’s clan as well as some members of K Pod (K14 Matriline)! Enjoy these photos from our day on the water!

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

J51 First son of J41 Eclipse

J19s and Friends!

J41 Ecipse Breach

Js and Ks round Turn Point

J2 Granny with a big tail slap


K’ in Canada!

Saturday, August 8th, 2015

Yesterday we headed up North towards a report of K pod in Canadian waters.  It was a beautiful sunny day and on our transit to the whale reports we saw many harbor seals and harbor porpoise.  We made it up to Point Roberts and met up with the K12′s and the K13′s.  The K13′s consist of seven individual whales and the K12′s consist of 5 whales, including a sprouter named Tika.  You can tell the sex of the whale based on the dorsal fin size but up until sexual maturity all of the whales have small fins and look like females.  Once they hit sexual maturity, usually between the ages of 10 and 12, the males will then begin to grow their big 6 foot tall dorsal fin.  Usually by the time the males are 17 they will have their full sized dorsal fin. Tika was born in 2001 so he is still working on his full sized dorsal fin.  The whales were grouped up in their families surfacing together and displaying a variety of social communication behaviors including tail slapping and pectoral slapping.  After watching the whales we headed back towards Friday Harbor with a beautiful whale watch checked off the list.  All of the guests seemed to enjoy the transit to and from the whales allowing them to see a large portion of the beautiful San Juan Islands.

Naturalist Rachel

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Krazy Ks on the West Side!

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Naturalist Rachel, Captain Pete and I were very excited for our day on the M/V Sea Lion. The sun was shining, our guests were chipper, and we had positive whale reports leaving the dock! A positive whale report leaving the dock does not necessarily guarantee whale sightings, but it always gives you that lucky feeling in the pit of your stomach.

We cruised south this afternoon through San Juan Channel and around Cattle Point Lighthouse at the southern tip of San Juan Island. We were treated to great views of the surrounding mountain ranges, including 14,409 foot tall Mt. Rainier a whopping 110 miles away! The water was glassy this afternoon, which made for a smooth trip up the West Side of San Juan, but I was certainly grateful to be wrapped in my fleece while we traveling at full speed.

True to our report (Man, I love it when that happens!), we ended up meeting a group of Southern Resident killer whales right outside of False Bay. Much to our delight, Rachel and I realized that we were looking at some of K Pod, one of our three Resident, fish-eating, pods in the area. K Pod is currently the smallest of the three Resident pods, made up of 19 whales in three different matrilines, or family units. To identify the whales we look at their dorsal fins (the fins on their backs) and the gray marking right behind that fin, called the saddle patch. These are as unique to the individual whales as our fingerprints are to us! We identified members of the K14 matriline as well as the K13 matriline, some of our very favorite families.

K26 Lobo surfacing

Mother-Son Pair K20 Spock and K38 Comet

K25 Scoter of the K13 matriline

After spending about and hour watching the whales fishing and traveling down island we peeled away to go have a look for some sea lions and bald eagles. We found a lone Steller’s sea lion lounging on a rock, soaking up some rays. These formidable animals can grow up to about 12 feet long and can weigh right around 2,500 pounds! We were also able to track down a bald eagle just inside of Cattle Pass on San Juan Island. They are easiest to spot when you keep an eye out for their white heads and tail feathers against the green of the evergreen trees lining the islands. We pulled back into Friday Harbor feeling giddy about the quality of wildlife viewing we had experienced. What an incredible afternoon on the water!

Naturalist Sarah

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

Residents in San Juan Channel

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Today we left the dock with reports of resident orcas out on the West side of San Juan Island.  It was a beautiful sunny day here in Friday Harbor so our trip out to the whales was filled with sunshine.  We met up with the K14′s on the South side of Stuart Island.  We first spotted K26 (Lobo), an adult male with a 6 foot dorsal fin, feeding in the area.  We also got a great look at K42 (Kelp), the youngest member of the K14′s.  The whales then started moving towards the Cactus islands, which are located behind Spieden Island.  It was very odd to seem them travel in this area because they generally stick to the outer straits of the San Juan Islands.  This was actually the first time in 20 years that the whales were seen traveling in that area.  We then watched the K14′s meet up with the J2′s (Granny and her family)  as well as the J19′s, including the new calf J51.  We watched the whales travel around the area and display different social behaviors including tail slapping and even a breach.  It was an unusual and interesting day out on the water but a memorable trip for all on board.

Naturalist Rachel

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris

J16s in Boundary Pass

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Today Captain Brian, Naturalist Rachel and I headed North towards Canadian waters, with reports of part of one of our Resident, salmon-eating pods, J Pod traveling along Saturna Island’s shore. As we arrived on scene, Captain Brian did a wonderful job maneuvering so that we were not only saying the legal limit away from the whales (100 meters in Canadian waters), but also getting the best looks possible. We quickly realized that we were looking at one of the current famous families in the Southern Resident population, the J16 matriline! This family is one of the more charasmatic, and has made news in the past months after J16 Slick gave birth to her forth calf J50, and that J16′s daughter J36 Alki gave birth to her first calf J52. Both calves were present today and we got excellent looks at each of them! The water was calm, the sky was a bit cloudy, and we had an incredible time out on the water!

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

Welcome back J Pod!

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

All three Resident Orca pods were away from the islands for a few days but returned to the area yesterday evening! This afternoon we met up with part of J pod, the J-16s, off of Henry Island. Slick (J-16) is the matriarch of this family and she was hunting with her adult son, Mike (J-26), her adult daughters, Alki (J-36) and Echo (J-42). There are two brand new members to this family as well! The new members are Slick’s daughter, J-50 who was born in December and Alki’s calf, J-52, who was born this March. These two were especially fun to watch as they almost fully come out of the water when they are breathing since they still have not fully mastered surfacing and breathing. This was a great family to watch as they moved together for a while and then separated to continue hunting. As Mike surfaced with his 6-foot tall dorsal fin one child on the boat exclaimed, “This is the best day ever!” and I have to say that I completely agree. After hanging with the J-16s we stopped by Gooch Island to look at some Harbor Seals and a wide array of our local sea bird population and a solitary bald eagle. We even got to stop by the J-16s again and they seemed to be having as much fun as we were when they started to porpoise a little (that’s when they swim really fast and gain speed by coming right to surface of the water to gain some lift as they travel at more than 20 mph!)

Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion, San Juan Safaris