May 14, 2016

The Boys are Back in Town: J and K pod Orcas around Salmon Bank

J pod orcas

Even though May is here in full force and it has felt like summer the past few weeks, it definitely isn’t summer yet. The salmon still haven’t starting running full force through the Salish Sea so it is still unusual to spot the Southern Resident Killer Whale pods. The J-16s have been seen from time to time with other members of J pod, but we believe that this is so they can keep their young calves safe in the more protected waters here. So in this time of the year we usually see more Transient Orcas and other cetaceans. But you know what they say nothing is normal in an El Niño year.

They don’t actually say that, but today was definitely not like any other spring day here. Captain Pete and I set out south toward Cattle Pass and eventually the west side. It was an incredibly clear day with beautiful views of Mt. Baker to the east and the Olympic Mountains to the south. We made some stops to admire the huge Steller’s Sea Lions and Harbor Seals Hauled out on the rocks. The Steller’s were fighting over plenty of rock space and the Harbor Seals were just napping. Not too far from these pinnipeds were two Bald Eagles sitting atop the rocks, most likely waiting for an easy meal momentarily dropped by a clumsy Sea Lion. Next further southward! As San Juan Island ends at its southern tip it continues under water as an underwater mound named Salmon Bank. This is a favorite place for Salmon fisherman, local native tribes, and orcas to catch salmon. The salmon follow the mound up closer to the surface and have less space to escape, making it a little bit easier to be caught. This is where we would search for them today. As we approached the end of the bank, we started to see those beautiful dark fins. Then we saw more…and more…and more! The most orcas I’ve seen in one spot this year! First we saw our buddies the J-16s with their two calves swim past in a tight family group. Fins galore. Before we knew it we were surrounded! Orcas on all sides were tail slapping back and forth. Soon we got closer and another family group was closer to us. The K-13s! My favorite family! K-13, Skagit, is the matriarch with four children K-20 (Spock), K-25 (Scoter), K-27 (Deadhead), K-34 (Cali) and two grandchildren K-38 (Comet) and K-44 (Ripple). It was spectacular to watch this older family maneuver and catch fish as well as tail slap some more in front on us.

We spent minutes with everything off and just floating along in the deep blue as the whales swam and played and ate all around us just being themselves. Just beautiful. Then breaching! The J-16s had snuck up on our stern, and one of the new calves Sonic was breaching over and over again testing out his new moves! We left with those splashes still rippling in our hearts.

            Looks like more and more whales are coming back for the summer!


Naturalist Erick Dowell

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris