September 27, 2019

Humpback Whales and Bigg's Orcas (T19's) both find food in the Salish Sea

Bigg's Orcas Hunt

M/V Kestrel | Sunday, September 8, 2019 | Naturalist Erick | 11:00AM


Sunday morning started out feeling super fall with a slight breeze out of the south. Captain Gabe and I headed out a long with a few other boats to go search for fun wildlife in the crisp and sometimes foggy morning. I personally love mornings like this. Most folks visit the islands in the summer when it is always summer with days that feel like they last forever but never get too hot. As we move into fall, we get to see what the islands look like for most of the year. All the tall hillsides rising from the placid, dark-blue sea turn emerald green again and autumn winds push fog banks through the wide straits and narrow channels like ghost ships of centuries past. As Capt. Gabe and I took a full crew of passengers out towards the north we began looking for all the cool creatures that we could find. We made an initial stop by White Rock to look at a bunch of Harbor Seals trying to warm up in the grey morning. Our Harbor Seals are special here. You can find them up and down the west coast of North America, but the ones that live here have been separated from the rest for a few millennia, so they are genetically distinct, and they also display the full spectrum of possible harbor seal fur coats.

                Next, we continued our way up north, passing many tiny Harbor Porpoises and even a Parasitic Jaeger (a large sea bird that steals food from gulls)! We wrapped around Blunden Island and got a really good look at a small group of Harbor Porpoises close to boat. They seemed to be fishing in a small back eddy and were distracted enough to not notice us. These porpoises are small (around 5-6 ft) and very shy so getting good views of them is rare! We next headed towards Skipjack Island, and soon after passing it we saw a large blow above the water! It was a Humpback Whale! He was doing large circles around a high current area stuck in between a few shallow reefs. They eat many of the same things that the porpoises do like small fish squid and other critters caught in the currents. Their major differences-besides their size – are their teeth. Porpoises have rectangular, spatulated teeth while Humpback whales have no teeth and instead have baleen which is a fibrous material made of keratin that allows them to filter food out of the water. We watched this whale circle and feed and fluke up showing its tail a quite a few times! It was so amazing to see this amazing leviathan so close to the San Juan Islands. Humpback Whales have only recently returned to the islands after whaling ended a few decades back and every year we see more and more! We did evenutally figure out that this whale was MMX0007 who we hilariously call Bond!

                Next, we went searching for more wildlife! We traveled around Turn Pt and headed towards Henry Island. We soon heard from a friend that an orca had been spotted earlier heading up the San Juan Island coast and then another friend said they found it near Battleship Island! We went over and saw it. This orca is a pretty goofy one. Its number designation is T49A3. He is a nine-year-old male that for the past two years has spent a few weeks by himself or only with one sibling away from his family. He is a Bigg’s Killer Whale which are the ones that live in this area and feed only on marine mammals. IT was great to watch this spunky orca travel through a couple of kelp forests and along the Stewart Island shoreline. After getting a few great looks we started heading back home! What another amazing day out on the Salish Sea!

Hope to see you here soon as we get into my favorite time of year – fall!


Naturalist Erick

San Juan Safaris