September 6, 2019

Orcas, Humpback, and PUFFINS close to San Juan Island

killer whales in the San Juan Islands

Sarah | Friday, September 6, 2019 | M/V Kestrel | 11:00 AM

Wowza, what a day we had on M/V Kestrel! After a summer behind the helm on the Salish Sea it was so much fun to spend time on deck interpreting the intricacies of the marine ecosystem for our group of guests aboard our Adventure departure. Captain Gabe and I shoved off the dock in Friday Harbor without a firm report of whales in the area, but as we motored out the reports came rolling in!

Gabe and I elected to head north towards a nearby report of orcas to start off our trip. As we arrived on scene we quickly realized that we had a large group of Bigg’s killer whales. These large-bodied orcas are marine mammal eaters, and in our waters feast on plentiful harbor seals and harbor porpoise. By looking at the dorsal fins and the saddle patch markings of each whale we were able to identify them as the T60 family group traveling with two associated females, T59 and T02B. Probably the highlight of this group is the presence of the youngest calf within our population, T60G, who is less than a month old. Compared to the rest of its family this little one looks tiny, but at birth killer whale calves are about 6-8 feet long and can weigh 300-400 pounds. We watched as the whales spread briefly into a hunting formation, before grouping up and pushing their way south into San Juan Channel.

After a great encounter with the orcas, Captain Gabe and I decided to go look for some other wildlife to the south of San Juan Island. In Griffin Bay we stopped to check out some harbor seals and birds feeding on a school of bait fish. Commonly referred to as a baitball, these aggregations of predators are typically common in the fall. Bird-wise feeding on the baitball we got great looks at common murres, rhinoceros auklets, Heerman’s gulls, and glaucous-winged gulls among other species. Gabe steered the boat further south out into the southern section of Haro Strait and towards some of the shallow banks in the confluence of Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca… we were on the search for other whales!

We made it out to Hein Bank and didn’t see any blows, so we decided to push further south and east towards McArthur Bank. We started to see tons of seabirds on the surface and then……. POOF! The exhale of a massive humpback whale! We saw the wale lift its flukes high into the air and take a dive as we approached. Typically, humpback whales will take a longer deeper dive of about 5-7 minutes between breath-sets at the surface, but it is possible for these massive whales to hold their breath for up to an hour! We waited for the whale to show back up, and four minutes later the massive whale lunged through a school of fish, sending all of the feeding birds on the surface squawking away. We had a great encounter with the humpback whale.

Since all of the companies in the area share wildlife information out on the water, we had called another boat call us as they made their way over to the humpback that we found, they had two tufted puffins near their boat! we got great looks at these rare to our area seabirds before needing to head back towards San Juan Island. On our way back into San Juan Channel we stopped to check out some Steller’s sea lions hauled out on Whale Rocks in Cattle Pass.

It was a spectacular trip showcasing the true diversity of the Salish Sea marine ecosystem, and so much fun to be able to share so much amazing wildlife with our guests! Bring on the rest of September!

Filed by:

Captain, Lead Naturalist & Vessel Coordinator

Sarah M.


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