July 29, 2022

Breaching Orcas in Salmon Bank!


MV Kestrel




Our morning adventure tour on MV Kestrel left the sunny harbor eager for all the Salish Sea has to offer. As we are one of the first boats on the water each morning, our main focus is scanning broadly, making sure to not miss any blows or dorsal fins along shorelines! We headed south down San Juan Channel towards Cattle Pass. With views of beautiful Cattle Point Lighthouse off of our starboard side, our first stop was Whale Rocks. These small rocky islands south of Lopez Island are fantastic spots to observe some of the pinnipeds that call the Salish Sea home. 


On this bright morning we took in that potent Steller Sea Lion smell as we watched them thermoregulate on the higher points of Whale Rocks. Closer to the waterline we spotted some Harbor Seals as well! We chatted about the main differences between these two species, most visibly notable their difference in mobility on the shore. Harbor seals have a fused pelvis and are unable to travel as high on the rocks, whereas Sea Lions do not and can utilize this with their front flippers to move upwards on shore. 


Our next stop was a very special one. We received reports of some Southern Resident Killer Whales traveling near Salmon Bank a few miles away. The Southern Resident ecotype of orca that eats primarily on chinook salmon is currently critically endangered and there are only 74 individuals left in the entire world. As with all viewing of wildlife per the Pacific Whale Watch Association as well as state and federal guidelines, we always maintain responsible distance and speed around cetaceans during our tours. For Southern Residents this means maintaining a distance of at least ½ nautical mile and keeping a speed of 7 knots or below within this radius. From about ¾ of a nautical mile away, we observed in awe members of the L Pod as they traveled west along South Beach on San Juan Island. With the shoreline behind them, these fantastic whales breached and tail slapped as we discussed this ecotype’s critical status and efforts to support the rebound of the population happening right here out of Friday Harbor and the greater San Juan Islands. As promised I wanted to share one documentary, “Dammed to Extinction” that I think is a great resource to learn more about the Southern Residents and salmon conservation efforts. 


It was a very emotional morning personally as this was my first encounter with the L Pod. It was these Southern Residents Killer Whales that brought me to this beautiful ecosystem in the first place and first fostered my love for whales as a kid. It has been a season full of unforgettable days and this was surely no exception!