May 10, 2016

Orca Family Matters

J pod Orca Milling

It’s still our shoulder season here in the San Juan Islands. That just means a few things. First: there’s a higher chance of rain, but not to worry this past El Niño event with other meteorological factors has seemed to brought summer early to the islands with sunny, warm days, and second: the consortium of wildlife that we are apt to see is a little bit different… sometimes.

            Normally this time of year the Southern Resident Orcas are still out to sea, hunting salmon and other fish in the ocean, but every year is different and J pod has been spending a little more time in calm waters around the islands. We believe that this is because of their new calves, which may like it better in the calmer waters. Since the residents aren’t usually here we are more likely to see the Transients who are traveling through these waters year round looking for Harbor Seals and other marine mammals to prey on.

            But then again every day is a new adventure. We started out south and headed for the west side of San Juan Island along the Haro Strait. This area is locally called ‘whale country’ and is a prime spot to catch glimpses of any of the types of whales that travel through the islands. On our way down we stopped and watched the Harbor Seals and the Steller’s Sea Lions that were hauled out on the rocks. The seals have dog like faces and they’re probably the most adorable things that lives out here. The Steller’s are huge, the biggest Sea Lion species in the world and can be around 11 feet long. The Sea Lions were also swimming and splashing around in the water, shooting water out of their noses every time they surfaced for air. The Steller’s are another unusual thing here. They only stay through the winter and once summer come they will leave to go to their breeding grounds in Alaska. So it’s always a spring treat to see them playing in the rapids near the many rocks dotting the islands.

            Next we decided to stop by and check out a large gathering of birds above the water. This is usually an indication of underwater activity involving schools of fish and their predators pushing them up towards the surface. And sure enough “spish!, spish!” two Minke Whales lunged through the school of fish and flock of waterfowl. These Minke Whales are baleen whales and filter feed tiny fish and organisms from the water they fill their mouths with. They were lunging fast to catch everything they can, but we were soon distracted from these whales by more blows and fins in the distance.

            Orcas, and not just any orcas. The Southern Residents were here! Specifically it was the J16s. Pods are made up of multiple families and each family is named after their matriarch, the oldest female. J-16, aka Slick, is the matriarch of this one and has five progeny traveling with here. She has four children: Mike (J26), Alki (J36), Echo (J42), and Scarlet (J50), and Alki has one son, Sonic (J52) making Slick a grandmother! Since it was a single family we got to see a lot of the family dynamics that are overlooked when the whole pod is traveling together. Slick was traveling with her newborn daughter Scarlet and her next youngest Echo who was born in 2007. She was also letting her newborn, under a year old, travel a little out on her own as the whole family traveled and ate their way north. Maybe she’s feeling the confidence of a long time mother in looking after her fourth child.  Mike, the only adult male, is 24 years old and seemed to enjoy just hanging about by himself. Alki and her newborn, though stayed right next to each other the whole time. After eating for awhile there were some tail slaps and a few breaches by the calves in celebration.

            It was super spectacular to see this family so early in the spring, and on such a calm day where we could just float without the engine and watch them completely be themselves. Maybe this was a little bit better than normal days.

            Whale folks that all until next time. Have a San Juanderful Day


Naturalist Erick Dowell

M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris