April 20, 2021

Bigg's Killer Whales by Spieden Island and a Gray Whale Encounter!

Bigg's Killer Whales by Spieden Island

Laura | M/V Sea Lion | 4/21/2021 | 1:00PM

It was a typical Tuesday in April as we headed out of Friday Harbor without a known whale report.  This is very common as most vessels head out of the marina around the same time and we all start communicating our charted plan for the day.  As soon as M/V Sea Lion headed out of Friday Harbor, there was a bald eagle resting perfectly perched near the Friday Harbor Marine Lab trails.  We took a quick look and then headed through Upright Channel and Thatcher Pass and into the Rosario Strait. 

It was a beautiful, sunny, calm day out on the water and everyone was thoroughly enjoying our vast ocean surroundings.  Once we got into the Rosario Strait it wasn’t long before we spotted a blow from a gray whale!  It was a little northwest of Fidalgo Head and taking short dive times and fluking!  Gray whales are one of my favorite animals to see, as they are so slow moving and large, you can get an idea of their whole body length, and instantly understand why they are on the list of “great” whales.  This was the same gray whale seen earlier in the week around Cattle Pass.  This animal seems to be spending a lot of time in the San Juans this spring!  Captain Sarah put a call out on the radio to the oncoming ferry vessel traffic to let them know that a gray whale was traveling in their ferry lane. 

Gray whales are very slow moving marine mammals, averaging only 2-3 miles per hour.  As a baleen whale, they do not use echolocation to communicate or have the ability to visualize that two-dimensional image as they lack that entire organ called the melon.  Therefore ship strikes are a major cause of death to all baleen whales, including gray whales.  The San Juan Islands are a beautiful area filled with diverse wildlife, but humans have also over inhabited the area and have created large shipping lanes in critical whale habitat zones.  These traffic lanes are important to our economy as they connect major cities on a global scale, granting access to ports all around the world. In doing so, we have inadvertently created a huge threat to all marine life, and have seen the increasing repercussions of expanding cities and industrialization over several decades.  I must say I get a sinking feeling whenever I see baleen whales in this general area, especially near ferry lanes or harbors.  Vessels in this area are used to seeing predominantly toothed whales like porpoises and killer whales.  These toothed whales, or odontocetes, use echolocation and can travel at burst speeds or take large dives to avoid oncoming vessel traffic.  Baleen whales cannot.  I fear that as we see a wider distribution of humpback whales utilizing the Salish Sea as summer feeding grounds and gray whales shifting their feeding areas according to prey availability and abundance, we may end up seeing more lethal ship strikes within these populations in the very near future. Luckily, the ferries were aware of this gray whale today, and hopefully this whale will make their way out of the ferry lane with daylight hours to spare.

After everyone got awesome looks at this gray, we heard a report on the radio of Bigg’s killer whales near the Wasp Islands, heading north at a fast pace.  We saw one last surface of this animal to make sure we were far enough away, and then immediately picked up speed to hopefully get to these orcas in time!  We went through the beautiful Peavine Pass and Harney Channel.  By the time we made our journey over these orcas were near Spieden Island!  There are plenty of Steller sea lions hauled out and feeding on the south side of Spieden this time of year.   Harbor seals can also be readily seen near Sentinal Island and seems like a great hunting area for these Bigg’s killer whales!  Passengers were so excited to see their first looks at the blows and dorsal fins of these beautiful black and white whales!  This family was identified as the T90s and T49A3, a young male born in 2011.  The T90s have been seen in the San Juans over the past couple weeks and include a family of four.  The female was born in 1990 and has three offspring, a male from 2006, a female from 2010, and a calf born in 2017.  We didn’t see any clear hunting action at the time, but it would not surprise me if they took down a sea lion or three while they traveled through this area.  Some bald eagles could be seen on Spieden Island as we watched these beautiful orcas surface around us, and Steller’s were seen in abundance both in the water and hauled out by Green Point.  It was a most exciting day to be out on the water, soaking up sunshine and being among whales!