September 1, 2020

A Once in A Lifetime Southern Resident Killer Whale Surprise

P/C. Sarah McCullagh

Olivia | M/V Sea Lion | September 1st, 2020 | 13:30

Every day and every trip in the San Juan Islands are completely unique. With such a strong diversity in the most productive waters in the world, we never truly know what is going to grace our presence. Today solidified that theory. Captain Sarah and I received word through the PWWA of Southern Resident Killer Whales in Haro Strait on the west side of San Juan Island. This was a big surprise since this ecotype of Killer Whales are critically endangered. They earned the name “resident” because historically they foraged in these waters abundantly and were here nearly every day. Since they are going way out of their historical distribution range trying to find salmon, specifically Chinook [King] Salmon, we only see them here a handful of times in a year. In fact, this August was the first August on record they did not visit our waters.

Therefore, while we see Bigg’s Killer Whales in our waters abundantly, specifically during the summer months feeding on Harbor Seals, the beloved Southern Residents [with only 72 individuals left in the wild divided between the J, K, and L Pods] are not an ecotype we ever expect to see. With no reports of transient orca in our region, we started heading south in hopes of witnessing this rare experience, and with a bit of luck, give our guests the opportunity of a lifetime.

On our way to the west side, we passed a Steller’s Sea Lion swimming in the cold waters, as well as some Harbor Porpoise milling outside of Salmon Bank. A bit north of Lime Kiln Lighthouse, we spotted two large, male dorsal fins on both our port and starboard side. This was a breathtaking first encounter. We slowly continued north watching as more Southern Resident Killer Whales join up after being all spread out. Eventually, with the engines off, we just watched from between 300 and 400 yards away as they came to the surface for a breath, the sound of the air from their lungs hitting the external air is a sound we will never tire of. Before we knew it, J Pod was cartwheeling, breaching, lobtailing, spy hopping, and most importantly, foraging all along the western side of San Juan Island!

As we started to split away, we had a research vessel with Dr. Giles and their conservation dog on board stop by to show us whale poop they collected for data, assumed to be from J38 [not many folks know it is a pink/white color!], as well as surprise Dall’s Porpoise [a big welcome back to the fastest cetaceans] bow riding as we moved closer to Henry Island.

While this whale watch was a trip folks always except to have, the reality is that this was actually quite rare. I cannot stress enough how unique of an opportunity this was for our guests. Not only were there no other Killer Whales of either type reported in the area, this was the most endearing to our hearts. The sad reality is that most people will go their entire lives without seeing this ecotype- the ones that first made us realize the love and empathy of orca, the ones that deemed the Pacific Northwest iconic for seeing orca offshore, and the ones that provided breakthrough science for orca across the globe. Join us on a trip, check our website, or email us to learn what you can do to help!