October 17, 2017

A Fall Visit from Southern Resident Killer Whales

Southern Resident Killer Whale

[Naturalist Sarah – 10/15/2017 – M/V Sea Lion – 12:00pm]

This time of year leaving the dock we don’t often have reports of whales or other wildlife when we leave the dock. Sunday was not one of those days! Just as we untied the boat, we received a report of killer whales on the west side of San Juan Island! We quickly transited north and around the north end of San Juan, and then down along the west side of the island.

We encountered the orcas just off of County Park. Usually during the fall we expect to see mostly Bigg’s (transient) killer whales, but we were pleasantly surprised to find members of J Pod, some of our Southern Resident killer whales, spread out and foraging along the Westside of San Juan Island. Southern Resident killer whales are a unique population of orcas, both genetically and behaviorally distinct from all other orcas. These orcas are salmon-eaters, with Chinook salmon making up about 80% of their diets. This time of year, according to researchers, the whales take advantage of the abundant chum salmon run. This fall run of chum salmon are the second most fatty salmon in our waters. This makes the fish jam-packed with calories for the whales.

I was delighted to see the J16 family (J16 “Slick,” J26 “Mike,” J36 “Alki,” J42 “Echo,” and J50 “Scarlet”) as well as the J19 family (J19 “Shachi,” J41 “Eclipse,” and J51 “Nova”). The unique dorsal fin shapes and saddle patch markings identify all orcas, just like humans’ fingerprints or zebra stripes. The whales were incredibly social, rolling around and snuggling, even surface vocalizing! Highlights of the day included a close encounter L87 “Onyx,” and a very exciting salmon chase with J38 “Cookie” and J47 “Notch.”

On the way back towards Friday Harbor we stopped through Spieden Island to check out some of the exotic animals on its shores.

Please enjoy some photos from the day!