August 19, 2016

Raging Seabird Party, or Bait Ball? Also, Chilling Sea Lions

Chilling Stellar Sea Lions

Whoa, Friday Harbor! Are we getting a heat wave or what? Nothing beats summer here in the Pacific Northwest. Dry heat, and out here on the San Juan Islands, it typically doesn't rise above 72 degrees during the day. But the winds have shifted for a few days, and we've been getting some beautiful warm air blowing down from the north, bringing the temps up to about 85! Needless to say, it was beautiful out on the water, with barely a need to put on a jacket out on the water! While we soaked up the sun, we were treated to several amazing wildlife sightings. Could this area get any more magical?

As M/V Sea Lion cruised out of the harbor and turned south, we started scanning the passing shoreline, waters, and sky for animals. Sure enough, within minutes, we spotted some playful harbor porpoises leaping and playing in the wake of our boat, something I don't typically see of these boat-shy critters. Their little dorsal fins poked up above the water, glistening in the heat wave. We enjoyed these guys for a couple of minutes before we turned our attention to the massive Stellar Sea Lions that were strewn out across Whale Rocks, sunning themselves. Seems like it's not just us humans who are enjoying the weather! And, fortunately, we weren't downwind this time, so we were able to get some stench-free views of these pinnipeds! 

As much as we love our sea lions, it was time to head out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca to search for some whales. The water was as calm as ever as we headed out into deeper waters, scanning the horizons for blows and dorsal fins. And...wait...what is that? A frenzy of sea birds was seen attacking the surface of the water near Hein Bank, and it wasn't a big seabird party, contrary to popular opinion. It's called a bait ball, which occurs when a large school of small fish is gathered into one area, driving the birds into a hungry frenzy. This was great news for us, because we often see minke whales gathering in these areas as well. They want in on those bait fish as well, since they are 30-foot baleen whales who adore small schooling fish in large quanitites. Sure enough, we had only to wait a few minutes before the shining, bullet-shaped body of a minke was seen darting above the surface. So cool! These whales are incredibly elusive, so it's always a treat to spot them. We watched this particular whale for the better part of half an hour.

With thoughts of minkes in our heads, we smiled the whole way back to the harbor as the warm northerly breeze blew across our bow. Another wonderful trip out there on the water!

Stellar Sea Lion