August 31, 2020

Bigg's Killer Whales Hunt Near Some Bait Balls South of SJI!

Bigg's killer whales

Laura | M/V Sea Lion | 8/31/2020 | 1:30pm

Even though it is the end of August and fall is right around the corner, we had the most beautiful summer day out on the water on M/V Sea Lion!  Morale was high among passengers as Captain Erick explained at the dock that our plan was to head south today to follow a morning report of Bigg’s killer whales!  The whales had been seen by the RA buoy east of Hein Bank and were trending southeast at 5-6 knots.  With a quick calculation, we aimed to arrive a little west of Smith Island right around the same time as these orcas!  It was a most beautiful voyage through San Juan Channel and out into the Haro Strait.  Visibility was vast today and we had glorious views of the Olympic Peninsula, Mount Rainer, Mount Baker, and Victora poised on the horizon.

As we traveled through Middle Channel passengers pointed out harbor porpoises as they popped out of the calm water around us.  Birds covered the seascape, including common murres, pigeon guillemots, cormorants, rhinoceros auklets, and gulls.  Clearly, small schooling fish were in abundance today and bait balls were all over.  As we came to our destination, passengers waited in anticipation to see the first exhalation of a killer whale.  Several passengers had never seen an orca in the wild before, so we were at the brink of completing a life’s dream for many.  All at once the T37As surfaced at our eleven o’clock in synchrony.  Excitement filled the air as we watched this orca family cruise through the surface as a unit.  Over the next several surfacings their behavior altered, and they spread out in groups of 2-3 about ½ mile away from one another.  It appeared they were on the hunt or starting to search for an upcoming meal.  In 2017 there was a first-time sighting of a minke whale kill in this area by one of our Bigg’s killer whale families, and sense hearing that I always wonder if/when it will happen again.  Today, there was a minke whale report in the same area so these two species could easily find one another.  One of the younger animals in the group turned on his/her back and started tail slapping!  It was so cute and exciting to watch!  There is a new calf by T37A, born in 2019!  He/she was positioned right next to mom and is the 5th offspring of T37A.  This mom has quite the growing family and is only 36 years old!  We had a great whale watch today with the T37As and greatly appreciated them for giving us a glimpse of their lives in the Salish Sea.

As we headed back towards San Juan Island, passengers got a kick out of the Steller Sea Lions vocalizing on Whale Rocks!  There was plenty of commotion on these rocks, with hundreds of birds flying overhead and calling out on the rocks.  Some of the sea lions were basking in the sun while others scratched themselves and yawned.  We watched a female clamor out of the water and hoist herself onto a rock, which started a quickly dissipated fight with a larger male.  These charismatic furry creatures created a perfect ending to our wildlife tour!  Thank you all for coming out on the water today, it was a most memorable and fun day!