February 25, 2018

Magical Winter Whale Watching - Orcas in the San Juan Islands

T124C, T124A2, T87

[Naturalist Sarah – 02/24/2018 – M/V Sea Lion – 12:00pm]

Yesterday was not what I would call an average trip in the Salish Sea… Definitely not normal mid-February, not even a normal for our peak season! The trip started out average enough, with no reports of wildlife as we left the dock. This time of year we rarely receive early reports from our spotting network, as the wildlife and boats are fewer and farther between. Captain Mike decided to steer the M/V Sea Lion east from Friday Harbor into Upright Channel on our own search for wildlife.

We cruised through the snow-dusted islands in crystal clear winter sunlight, catching glimpses of bald eagles swooping over the chilly water. by this point, through our sighting network, Captain Mike had head a rumor of orcas in Rosario Strait. We committed to heading south into the wide eastern strait, and as we cruised out into the open water we spotted dorsal fins and blows: Orcas!

We came across a group of five Bigg’s killer whales: T087, T124C, and T124A2 with her two small calves. We watched the orcas circling in the tidal rips, potentially looking for their next meal! Bigg’s killer whales, also known as the transient ecotype, are marine mammal eaters, favoring the plentiful harbor seals that call our waters home. We got amazing looks at the huge males T087 and T124C, and the female with her two kiddos.

After a great encounter with the group of killer whales Captain Mike steered the M/V Sea Lion around the south end of Lopez Island, cutting between Church Rock and the southern cliffs of the island. Around the rocky shores harbor seals peered at us as we floated past their perches. We continued on to Long Island where we found over a dozen bald eagles spread out on the rocks. We loved getting to see adult eagles right next to juveniles to really compare their plumages. Adult bald eagles have that classic white head and tail feathers with a chocolate brown body, while juvenile eagles are mottled brown all over their bodies. We left the eagles and headed for Whale Rocks to find a pile of Steller’s sea lions hauled out and growling all over the small islets.

Continuing north through Cattle Pass and into San Juan Channel we found a second group of orcas! Swimming along the shore of Lopez island we found more of the T124 matriline of Bigg’s killer whales. We caught some last looks with the whales before traveling back to Friday Harbor. It was an absolutely incredible day out on the water!!