April 21, 2016

A roller coaster of a whale watch in the San Juan Islands!

J17 Princess Angeline the orca surfaces

Yesterday we had a rollercoaster of a trip: there were ups, there were downs, and sometimes it even felt like we were flip turned upside down. Let me elaborate…

We left Friday harbor with killer whales reported everywhere around us, we had a few groups of killer whales reported to the south moving away from Friday Harbor, some whales out West by Victoria heading west, and we had a group of whales who reportedly were moving towards us up North near Prevost Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands. Captain Mike and I made a judgment call and decided to head to the whales who were moving towards us, and headed North.

On a beautiful, clear, sunny day that felt more like mid-July than end of April, we cruised under a cloudless blue sky through one of my favorite stretches of open water, Boundary Pass. Listening to our member-companies within the Pacific Whale Watch Association spotting network the orcas were still around Prevost Island. As we rounded Mouat Point on North Pender Island and started looking North to Prevost we got word that the orcas, as they often do, had disappeared. Mike and I looked at each other frantically; we needed to find those whales. 

I called all hands on deck to our 11 guests onboard, we all spread out to scan the water for any sign of the elusive mammals. The other boats on scene also spread out… no signs of whales. Captain Mike, surveying the situation decided to check out adjacent Navy Channel, between Maynes Island and North Pender Island. At the same moment something caught our eyes… two large gray bodies gliding effortlessly through the cold waters… humpback whales! We were the only boat on scene with the pair of 45-foot giants for about ten minutes after we called other boats to report the whales. It was just awesome to hear the giant whales breathing and to get to encounter some of the largest creatures who have ever lived.  

A pair of humpback whales in British Columbia
The humpback whales spotted in Navy Channel Sarah McCullagh

As we sat with the humpbacks, Captain Mike got a very exciting phone call: Orcas, and lots of them, just on the other side of Maynes Island in the Belle Chain Islets. We took our last looks at the gorgeous humpbacks and headed out! We got to traverse some of the prettiest water that the area has to offer in Georgeson Pass, between Samuel Island and Mayne Island. This narrow channel can be as shallow as 10-15 feet, and is definitely area that puts a Captain’s technical skills to the test. Captain Mike was in his element casually steering us through rocks and reefs and narrow passages.

We popped out into the Strait of Georgia and were almost immediately surrounded by orcas… but not just any orcas… members of J Pod! J Pod is one of our three Southern Resident pods, who are exclusively salmon eaters. This time of year we do not expect to see the Southern Residents very frequently as we usually do not have the abundance of salmon that they require this time of year. 

J47 Notch
J17 with her daughter J53

We were delighted to spend time with J35 “Talequah” and her son J47 “Notch” who were travelling with family matriarch J17 “Princess Angeline” and her two youngest kiddos J44 “Moby” and daughter J53 who was born in October of 2015. As we looked across the Strait it soon be came clear that we had the entire pod present. We particularily enjoyed our encounters with the J22 family group led by J22 “Oreo” and our encounters with the two adult bulls J27 “Blackberry” and L87 “Onyx” as they travelled together.

J27 Blackberry traveling with L87 Onyx
J27 Blackberry traveling with L87 Onyx Sarah McCullagh