April 1, 2022

“Lucky” looks at Bigg’s Killer Whales and a surprise Sea Otter!

Lauren | M/V Sea Lion | 4.1.2022 | 12:30 PM 

On Thursday, March 31st the single day record of Bigg’s killer whale sightings was broken in the Salish Sea. A whopping 72 Bigg’s killer whales were sighted! Needless to say, Captain Eric and I had high expectations going into Friday's trip. Killer whales can swim over 100 miles in a day, and just because they are in the San Juans one day does not mean they will be the next. Knowing these facts, we were still optimistic that we would get to see some killer whales. 

As we left Friday Harbor, we were greeted by two bald eagles perched next to each other on the same tree branch. Nesting pairs perhaps? Bald eagle pairs will mate for life and return to the same nest each year. We saw some swimming Steller’s sea lions and went on our way. 

In the past few weeks there have been countless reports of Bigg's near Saturna Island, so we decided to head north. We continued on our adventure, scanning the open water and coastlines hoping one of the 72 Bigg’s killer whales would pop up. With no luck, Captain Eric made the executive decision to change course and head towards Victoria, where a gray whale has been hanging out the past several weeks. 

We made the lengthy journey down the Haro Strait from Sidney to Victoria to be in the presence of not only one, but two gray whales! After a few surfacings, and even a couple flukes, Captain Eric came out of the wheelhouse with some unexpected news… Nine Bigg’s killer whales had been picked up off the south end of Lopez Island heading towards Cattle Point. Getting close on time, we said goodbye to the gray whales and pulled off. 

As we slowly approached the scene, we were in for yet another surprise… a swimming sea otter! Nothing usually distracts me from those shiny black dorsal fins, but a sea otter in the Salish Sea!? That’s not something you see everyday. 

San Juan Safaris is part of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and we have to follow strict guidelines while viewing wildlife. NOAA mandates that you must stay 200 yards away from Bigg’s killer whales and travel under 7kts in speed within a half nautical mile. Nothing means more to us than the marine life we share our home with, so we happily respect these guidelines and remain advocates out on the water to speak for the whales. This means we fly a “Be Whale Wise” flag and alert every other vessel in the area of their presence so they, too, remain out of the 200 yard range and travel at appropriate speeds. 

We couldn’t have asked for a better encounter as we watched nine killer whales make their way up San Juan Channel towards Friday Harbor, our final destination. The whales in this group were the T123’s, T30B’s, T117B and T172. The T123’s are one of my favorite Bigg’s killer whale families. Made up of mom T123 Sidney, her eldest T123A Stanley, T123C Lucky and T123D Darcy. 

As our trip was coming to an end, we noticed that this group of whales started to change their direction and were heading right towards us. Captain Eric cut the engine as these nine whales made their way closer and closer. Whales are free willed and move about their environment as they please, and when they unexpectedly approach our vessel, we work hard to respond in the most respectful way to protect them and act as a stable, non-moving platform. “Lucky” and the crew showed us just how curious killer whales can be by swimming right underneath our vessel. Seeing a killer whale at the surface is breathtaking enough, but seeing their full body figure just inches under the surface gliding by is truly unbelievable. This one is going to be hard to beat!