July 11, 2020

Bigg's killer whales & Southern Residents too!

Southern Resident killer whales (2017)

Sarah | 07/11/2020 | M/V Kestrel | 2:00pm


We left the Friday Harbor under gray skies with a slight threat of rain showers eager to see some whales! Luckily we had a couple reports from earlier in the day to choose from. We elected to head east, interisland, to start out.

As we reached Rosario Strait on the eastern side of the San Juan Islands we came across the T036s, a family of Bigg’s killer whales. Bigg’s killer whales are marine mammal eaters, drawn into the Salish Sea by our plentiful harbor seal and harbor porpoise population. We got great looks at T036 and her daughter T036B as well as T036B’s three offspring. T036B is the second calf of T036, her first calf, T036A, travels separately with her own calves from her mother and sister. After a great encounter with the Bigg’s killer whales we decided to head south in search of some other wildlife.

At the South end of Lopez Island we stopped to check out some hauled-out harbor seals. Right now in the San Juan Islands we are in the midst of pupping season. While we were watching the seals, we got a chance to see some of the newborns with their moms. We even got to hear a burpy, gravelly vocalization!

We decided to push even further south and west because we heard that there might be some other orcas in the area. As we cruised we got great looks at rhinoceros auklets and pigeon guillemots foraging in the nutrient dense seawater. As we neared Salmon Bank at the south end of San Juan Island we started to see some big black fins slicing through the water… more orcas! And not just any orcas, these whales happened to be Southern Resident killer whales (SRKWs).  SRKWs are a critically endangered population of only 72 animals, and they rely on an increasingly scarce prey population: Chinook salmon. We got to see members of J-pod, a 22 member strong pod, spread out and foraging as they cruised back to the San Juan Island shoreline. We got great views of J27 “Blackberry,” a full grown adult male in the population, as well as some of the J16 family group including J16 “Slick” and her two kiddos J26 “Mike,” and J42 Echo. It is always a special day when we can share these amazing whales with our guests, and be able to tell their stories to inspire conservation action.

After leaving the SRKWs we headed up San Juan Channel back towards Friday Harbor enjoying fleeting glimpses of harbor porpoise all around us.