October 15, 2019
Best Whale Watch of the Season. Humpback Whale Encounter
Sarah | 10/15/2019 | M/V Sea Lion | 12:00pm
We had a lovely October day out on the water, with a bit of Pacific Northwest liquid sunshine falling from the sky and amazing wildlife in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands, today was autumnal whale watching at its best.
Captain Erick and I left Friday Harbor with a group of wonderful guests. With no initial reports of whales in the area we had decided to leave the harbor and head south. We had no sooner started to pick up speed outside of the harbor when another boat called us over the radio. He had heard a third hand report that there might be some whales just to the north of San Juan Island. We decided that a third hand rumor was the best option we had, and we immediately changed course! While we were making that course-change we got some great looks at our smallest cetaceans in the Salish Sea, harbor porpoise. These small dolphin-like animals are usually around five feet long and weigh about 150 pounds.
As we made our way north we got some great looks at some sea birds, most notably common murre and marbled murrelets. As we reached Spieden Island we found a raft of Steller’s sea lions in the water around Green Point. We weren’t sure who was watching who as the sea lions peered out of the water raising their massive heads above the surface of the water to check out the humans on the boat! We continued along the shore of Spieden Island and got some great looks at some harbor seals and a couple bald eagles. We even got to see one of the eagles in flight and we all admired its six-foot wingspan.
As we were looking at the island off of one side of the boat, we had two humpback whales surface off of the other side! Humpback whales were hunted out of our waters by the late 1960’s to early 1970’s and have made a recent comeback to our inland waters here in Washington State and British Columbia. We can identify individual humpback whales by the markings on their tail flukes, just like we can identify individual humans by the patterns of our fingerprints. After they fluked up, bringing their tails to the surface, this particular pair of whales was identified as MMZ0004 “Zephyr” and her new 2019 calf! What followed was one of the most wonderful humpback whale encounters I have ever had.
We were first treated to two breaches, where first the calf jumped all the way out of the water, but then mom breached, fully clearing the surface of the water! Humpbacks are roughly the size of school busses, if that paints an accurate picture of just how massive Zephyr was as she launched out of the water! After their acrobatics, the two whales surfaced together and the calf seemed to be distracted by a huge mat of loose bull kelp floating. The baby whale rolled around and played in the kelp as its mother lazed just under the water. The little whale was having a ball… rolling through the kelp, draping it over its head and fins, opening its mouth while it was all wrapped up in the tube-like algae. As we watched the baby joyfully trumpeted at the surface, seemlingly enthralled by the mat of kelp. This calf is probably in the neighborhood of 8-10 months old and in the last few months of maternal care. As a fist time mom, Zephyr, born in 2011 to another well-known humpback whale BCX01057 “Divot,” seems to be taking her new-found responsibilities in stride and seems like an excellent mother. We had the pleasure of witnessing the little humpback’s playtime for around 45 minutes before Zephyr decided that they had bigger and better things to do other than playing with kelp, and two huge whales slowly cruised away.
We decide to make a loop around Stuart Island just to our north and west to look at some water that hadn’t been searched yet today. We had great views of the scenery up into the Canadian Gulf Islands and, of course, of the light station on Turn Point. We saw some other sea birds on the north side of Stuart Island, including a huge group of Pacific loons, Heerman’s gulls, and Bonaparte’s gulls. In and amongst all of the bird activity we caught a brief glimpse of a minke whale! These “small” baleen whales, or mysticetes, can reach lengths of up to thirty feet long! We watched as the minke spiraled through the plentiful birds, and probably fed on some small fish below the surface.
On our way back towards Friday Harbor we got a chance to briefly stop to see Zephyr and her calf once again. The whales hadn’t made it very far, it seemed like the silly little calf had gotten distracted by some kelp once again. We watched the whales for a few more moments before heading back to Friday Harbor.
Guests always ask me about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen or if there is a moment that truly stands out in all of the whale watches I’ve ever been out on. Most of the moments that stand out to me are the times when you can see the commonalities between humans and animals. Today, watching a mother and her toddler playing, exploring the world around them, and wandering through the calm waters around the San Juan Islands just made me smile. That mother was about as big as the boat we were watching her from, but the care that she showed her baby was tender and I felt it immensely as she circled her baby. She seemed just as enamered with her calf as her calf was enamered with the kelp. It made me think about all of the new mothers I know in my life and watching them grow from being strong women into strong mothers. In biology we are told to not anthropomorphize animal behavior, that we cannot just overlay human emotions on to the behavior we see from animals or make assumptions about their feelings. Days like today, I feel, blow these scientific recommendations out of the water. Today’s time spent with Zephyr and her baby will definitely go down as one of my top wildlife encounters I have ever had.