March 20, 2018

¡Viva Las Residents! Great Encounter with J pod Southern Resident Killer Whales

Male Southern Resident Killer Whale

[Sunday, 3/18/18 – 12:00 – M/V Sea Lion – Naturalist Erick]

This Sunday started like most days this spring. It was a little cloudy, the water was super calm, and Captain Mike and I went looking for some whales and other amazing wildlife in the waters around San Juan Island. We headed north and pointed towards Boundary Pass which is the border between Canada and the U.S. As we approached Java Rocks and Saturna Island we started to see a few dorsal fins emerge above the surface. They were a group of orcas and as we slowed and looked around we started to see a lot more fins. Soon we realized that today was an extra special day in March because we were seeing J pod!

J pod is one of the three pods that make up the Southern Resident Killer Whale Community. These are the orcas that travel through the Salish Sea that only feed on fish. This Community is super special for several reasons. Residents travel in larger groups than the Transients. We call these groups pods and they are sort of like large extended families. So, that means that the members of J pod are more related to each other than they are to either K pod or L pod -  the other Southern Residents. We approached the nearest group and we soon identified them as the J11's. This family consists of three siblings that travel closely together along with the rest of J pod. The first one that we got to see closer up was Blackberry, J26, who swam right by us! J26 is an adult male and it was amazing to see his 6-foot tall dorsal fin rise slowly in and out of the water. The individuals that make up the Southern Residents are, in general, easier to identify than other types of orcas because they have ‘open’ saddle patches. This means that for many the grey patch just behind their fin has black markings mixed in. Blackberry, J26, has a pretty prominent one. As we waited there with the engine off his siblings J39, Mako, and J31, Tsuchi, swam by as well! We continued along and went further west to see more of J pod that was heading east at the time. We soon saw another unique orca pass by. It was Onyx, L87! This guy is actually from L pod but when his mom died early in his life he was eventually adopted by J pod! As he swam by we saw not too far behind him some breaching. Some of the orcas of J pod were jumping out of the water and crashing back into it. This is usually a social behavior that orcas do for fun, but since J pod was so spread out today, this could also be a way to share, through a loud sound, where individuals are in the murky waters of the Salish Sea.

As we watched these amazing creatures pass us we saw even more swimming in the distance, it looked like it could be all of J pod. We hope that we see these whales a lot more this year as well as hope they are finding plenty of their preferred food, Chinook Salmon. We eventually had to leave these great whales, but on the way back we got to stop and see a bunch of Harbor Seals resting on the intertidal rocks surrounding the Cactus Islands. After leaving those cute rock sausages we continued south and soon stopped and looked at one of the colonies of Steller Sea Lions that likes to rest on Green Point. These pinnipeds are about 5 times bigger than the little seals and are a lot louder. They always seem to be arguing over the best rocks to lie on and they are one of my favorite spectacles to see when we go out on our tours. It will be sad to see them start to leave in a few weeks when they start to swim north for the summer. Whale folks that’s it, after a fun whale and wildlife filled day we had to head back to Friday Harbor.


Until next time,

Naturalist Erick

San Juan Safaris