March 17, 2018

Bigg's Orca Whales Hunt in front of Friday Harbor

Bigg's Orcas

[Friday, 3/16/18 - 12:00 – M/V Sea Lion – Naturalist Erick]

     We have been experiencing a long sunny break from our normal drizzly spring weather and it seems to be bringing out all the natural spring activities in full force. Flowers are blooming, there are little lambs running around everywhere, and the birds have started to migrate back north. On this lovely, sunny day Captain Mike and I took our small group of guests out to search for some fun wildlife. We headed north towards the outer islands of the San Juan archipelago and made our first stop near Green Point on Spieden Island to take a look around. One of our friends on another boat thought they saw something in our general area, so we paused to take a good look around. After looking for a while Captain Mike spotted some fins just a little further north! We headed towards them and saw that it was a group of Transient (Bigg’s) Orcas in Spieden Channel pretty close to Sentinel Island. As we got a closer look they decided to head south through San Juan Channel.

We quickly identified them as the T2C family. This is one of the families that we often see in the Salish Sea and definitely one we have been seeing a lot lately. They are a super special family because the second oldest offspring of the matriarch, T2C, has scoliosis. His family takes care of him and has kept him alive for thirteen years now. The first time we saw them today it appeared that they were going on long hunting dives to search for unsuspecting seals. These Bigg’s Orcas only eat marine mammals, and in these waters, their preferred food is the Harbor Seal, of which there is a lot. T2C2, Tumbo, the one with scoliosis, usually swims behind the rest because he cannot swim as quickly as the others due to his condition. Before their long dive Tumbo logged at the surface and took several long, deep breaths before they all went under. They popped up near O’Neal Island further south and they traced one of their more common routes around Reuben Tarte Park and in between O’Neal and San Juan Islands. 

Plethora of Pinnipeds 

     We went to looking for other exciting creatures around the outer islands. We stopped at Green Point on Spieden Island to watch an extra-large group of Steller Sea Lions. They were pretty sleepy today and taking naps all piled up on one another on the warm sunbaked rocks. We watched them for a little bit as they blinked and kept a lazy watch on us as we cruised around near them and they we headed along the southern coast of Spieden Island. This side of the island, due to its southern exposure, is an Garry oak-prairie landscape. Prairies are not what most people think about when they consider visiting the Pacific Northwest, but the microclimates created by the many mountains surrounding us create a vast topography of variable rainfall and wind conditions across a very small geographical area. In the islands there are many grassy plains on the southern sides since we get about half as much rainfall as Seattle and most of our sun and wind come from the south thus drying out all the southern exposures of the islands.

The Cutest

     On Spieden Island there are a few odd animals left over from an exotic game hunting ranch that was open a few decades ago. One of those species is the Mouflon Sheep and there are herds of these guys that graze all over the island. And now…since it is spring… there are so…many…lambs! They were all over the place and they were so tiny and cute. As we reached the western point of the island we saw a couple of great big Bald Eagles all chowing down on a dead, adult mouflon sheep. Super cool! We rounded this point and headed towards the Cactus Islands where we got to see a bunch of Harbor Seals sleeping on their own rocky outcrops right next to fast moving tidal flow next to their tiny channel.

Back to the Whales

     We then headed back down south to catch up to that family of orcas. We found them again this time near Point Caution on San Juan Island. Tumbo, T2C2, was lagging behind again while the rest of his family was on the hunt. They killed at least one Harbor Seal – maybe more – right outside Friday Harbor. Once they had killed it and were eating they got a little excited. The two young ones started playing and rolling over each other and the whole family waited for Tumbo to join them. Once he got there those two younger siblings of his started rolling around him and playing with him too! We left them as they started to move further south with Tumbo and his big brother leading, mom right behind, and the two younger ones taking up the rear. What another amazing day with the orcas!


Until next time,

Naturalist Erick,

San Juan Safaris