June 26, 2017

[6/25/17 - M/V Sea Lion] Applying for Residency - Southern Resident Orcas Return!

[6/25/17 - M/V Sea Lion - 1:30PM] The Residents are back! Parts of J pod and L pod were both spotted and heard (on the hydrophones) this morning. This is exciting! The San Juan Islands are best known for the salmon eating Southern Residents and it’s great to hear that they are back at least if only for a little while. Captain Gabe, Rachel, and I set out with a great crew to go find them. When they are around they usually have a few distinct paths that they like as they search for the largest schools of salmon swimming towards their natal streams. They usually pass Sooke then Victoria on Vancouver Island, cross Haro Strait to the west side of San Juan Island. Then they usually cover the west side of San Juan as they head north towards the Fraser River up near Vancouver, Canada.

            We were hoping to meet them just around the north end of San Juan Island. On our way we stopped by Spieden Island to see a Bald Eagle perched on the grassy slopes. Spieden island is have covered in grass and has steep slopes so Bald Eagles like to perch on the ground there to scan for potential prey items. After seeing that eagle for awhile then soar off into a tree, we made another short stop at Sentinel Rocks to look at the adorable Harbor Seals hauled out there. These are our most common marine mammals in the are with some estimates being of their numbers being in the 200,000 range. Even though it was pretty hot for us here yesterday (around 80˚F) there were still many seals drying and warming themselves on the exposed rocks at low tide. We continued on and soon rounded the northern most side of San Juan and Henry Islands and there they were, a large group of Southern Resident Orcas just outside of Mosquito Pass. When we first arrived on scene they were divided up into a few family groups (matrilines) and swimming north. It was super exciting. A few started pec slapping the water, then a few others started tail lobbing as they all turned around 180˚ at the same time. Then one of the males did a cartwheel! That’s when they take their tail a swing it quickly from one side to the other of the water, making a huge splash. We thing it is used for communication or to herd fish in a certain direction. Then a few spyhopped which is when they stick their heads straight out of the water to take a quick peak at the world above the water’s surface. We identified a few of the families. The J16s were there with Slick, Alki, Echo, Mike, Sonic, and Scarlett. The K14s were also there as well.

This summer so far we have mostly seen Transient (the marine mammal eating) orcas no these Southern Residents. Each year we continue to see more and more Transients in the inland waters, probably because we do have a a bounty of their main food – Harbor Seals, but we hope to see more of the Southern Residents as the summer continues and the summer and fall runs of Chinook salmon eventually start returning. In this very low salmon year we are hoping that they are finding enough fish and continue to stick around! Whale, until next time.