April 19, 2018

Four Species of Cetaceans Encountered! Whale Watching from Friday Harbor (04/18)

Transient Killer Whales in the Strait of Georgia

Sarah – 04/18/2018 – M/V Sea Lion – 12:00pm]


Wowza, what a day of whale watching! Pre-season is one of my favorite times to be on the water because we never know what we will find out on the water. Yesterday started out pretty normally for an April day with no reports of whales as we left the dock. Captain Brian and I decided to head north towards the Canadian Gulf Islands to try our luck finding whales and other wildlife. Here in the San Juans there is no “normal” spot to begin looking for whales, but based on whales’ movements from the prior week you can begin to make educated guesses as to where they might have traveled… with no reports from the prior days, we were trusting or experience and our guts!


Just south of Flattop Island we encountered a large group of harbor porpoises foraging in some substantial upwelling currents. These small cetaceans are some of the most common marine mammals that we find in the Salish Sea. We watched as the shy porpoises appeared through the slight chop, quickly disappearing below the surface.  Pushing further north to Spieden Island we took a peek at the well-established Steller’s sea lion haul-out on Green Point. In comparison to the tiny porpoises these sea lions are behemoths, at around 12 feet long and 2,400 pounds! While we were enjoying the antics of the sea lions, we were treated to a fly-by from a massive bald eagle right over M/V Sea Lion! Checking in with our network of other whale watch companies and shore-based spotters, no one had heard anything about any whales in the area.


Brian and I decided to keep pushing north towards the Canadian Gulf Islands, enjoying the beautiful scenery and clear weather after a week of rain. There were birds galore out on the water: Bonaparte’s gulls, long-tailed ducks, surf scoters, western grebes, pintail ducks… the list went on! Everywhere we looked across the flat water, a harbor seal was looking back at us. Our plan was to head to the Java Islets, before cruising further north into Plumper Sound between Saturna and South Pender Island, but that plan was derailed by a rumor, no a whisper, of potential whales in the area.

Bonaparte's Gull in Breeding Plumage
Bonaparte's Gull Sarah McCullagh

A land-based spotter, actually a whale watch Captain on his day off, was looking south from Point Roberts towards Patos Island, and had thought that he had seem a splash and a blow… but he was over 12 miles away… he couldn’t possibly have spotted whales from that far away? Or could he have? Another boat in the whale watch fleet scanned the area, and found a group of about eight orcas traveling together! Captain Brian and I quickly changed our plans to check out the orcas!


We found the T123 family traveling with the T036As in a playful mood just west of the Patos Island light. These two families are part of the Bigg’s killer whale, or marine mammal-eating, ecotype. Often referred to by the misnomer “transients” these whales can be found in our inland waters year-round feasting on our plentiful harbor seal populations. While we were with this active group we watched as some of the younger whales snapped at birds floating on the surface, refining their hunting skills that were then displayed by some of the older whales in the group as they killed and shared a harbor porpoise!

As we watched this first group of whales another call came over the radio, more orcas in our area! We elected to go see some more whales, so we about faced and headed into Boundary Pass towards Turn Point on Stuart Island. Once on scene we realized that we had the T049A family group, also of the population of Bigg’s killer whales. This family is partiuraly fun to watch right now because T049A just gave birth to her youngest calf T049A5 within the last few months! This little munchkin is such a peanut compared to its biggest brother, seventeen-year-old T049A1. This male is huge for his age, and up until the past week has been traveling by himself or with other dispersed males. It is really interesting to think about what makes these males leave their families for any stretch of time, and equally as interesting to think about what brings them back! How do they find one another in the vast Salish Sea?! Yet another mystery from these incredible whales…

After some great looks with the (second) family of orcas, we started to head back towards Friday Harbor, but got derailed by yet another whale report! This time for an uncommon sighting for our waters: a gray whale! We spotted the tell-tale heart-shaped blow hanging in the air as we made our approach. These whales are extraordinarily migratory, making a trip south along the coast to Baja for their mating and calving season. Right now these 40-foot long whales are just returning to their northern feeding grounds for the summer season. Here in the San Juan Islands we rarely encounter gray whales, because our water is much too deep and the bottoms of out waterways are much too rocky for their preferred feeding methods. Gray whales have a unique feeding behavior, sucking up sediment from the bottom and filtering out crustaceans and other creepy-crawly, delicious morsels to eat! No other whale feeds like this! Typically in the inland waters we expect to see gray whales further south towards Whidbey Island in Saratoga Passage, feeding on abundant ghost shrimp, this was a very rare sighting for our waters!

Again Captain Brian and I started to steer the boat for home, and we nearly made it back to Friday Harbor, before we spotted yet another species of whale… A minke whale! Considered a “small whale” at a length of 30 feet, these whales are still quite formidable critters! A member of the group of cetaceans known as mysticetes, minkes are filter feeders, with baleen in their mouths instead of teeth! In our waters these whales eat small baitfish and krill. Super cool to encounter one of these little guys so close to home!


It truly was a spectacular day cruising the Salish Sea! It truly goes to show you that you can’t anticipate a day’s outcome from the reports leaving the dock and that absolutely anything can happen!