March 23, 2019

Southern Resident Killer Whales Spotted in the Salish Sea

J Pod heading North

[Sarah | 03/23/2019 | M/V Sea Lion | 12:00pm]

Today was spectacular… there is no other way to put it. Oftentimes today the waters of the Salish Sea were so calm that the islands and tiny puffy clouds were reflected perfectly in the surface. It feels like spring all through the islands, with flowers sprouting and baby animals running around on the slope of Spieden Island. We left Friday Harbor with an early morning report of orcas spotted on the west side of San Juan Island and the hopes of finding other wildlife along the way.

We elected to head north out of Friday Harbor, and quickly found a bald eagle up in a tree long the shore. Bald eagles are our most prominent bird of prey in the San Juan Islands, and this time of year they are out in force! For the most part bald eagles are not hunters, preferring to scavenge for carrion and steal prey from other birds and animals. The perch right on the water gave this individual the perfect vantage point to look for gulls with any tasty treats to steal. Heading further north we stopped at Spieden Island to check out the Steller’s sea lion haul-out on Green Point. The Steller’s sea lions, also know as northern sea lions, are seasonal visitors to the San Juan Islands, spending our fall, winter, and spring with us, and then heading up to Alaska for their breeding season in the summer. Also up on the slopes of Spieden we got to see several examples of the three non-native species of ungulates that were introduced to the island for the establishment of a big game hunting reserve in the 1960-1970’s. There were so many moufalon sheep lambs and we caught glimpses of the fallow and Sika deer who also call the island home. In the air, on the ground, and perched o the trees were so many bald eagles, both juveniles and adults! It was eagle-palooza! Perhaps the highlight of visit to Spieden Island, though, were the numerous harbor seals hauled out on its rocky shoreline.

As we moved on from the explosion of wildlife on Spieden, we started to see the distant dorsal fins and blows from a group of orcas. We found members of the critically-endangered Southern Resident killer whale population spread out and foraging for salmon in north Haro Strait, just west of Henry Island. The first two whales we got good looks at were J19 “Shachi” and J22 “Oreo.” These two adult females appear to be in leadership positions within J Pod these days, after the passing of J2 “Granny.” As we moved on we also got looks at L87 “Onyx,” an adult male born into L Pod who currently travels with the J17 matriline. As we watched the orcas started grouping up and socializing… spyhopping, tail lobbing, and snuggling at the surface. All of a sudden the whales started porpoising, or travelling at high speed across the surface of the water, towards another group that had formed. As we followed, we realized that there was another species of cetacean in the mix! Some zippy Dall’s porpoise started to harass some of the orcas… At one point a teenage male, J38 “Cookie,” surfaced right in the middle of the group of porpoises, sending them skittering across the surface gleefully. We continued to watch the whales as they continued to travel slowly north towards Stuart Island. As we started to peel away to head for home, the whales formed a resting group, all surfacing at the same time in a line, pectoral fin to pectoral fin.

It was amazing to share such an incredible encounter with such an empathetic and curious group of guests on our boat today. It is days like today that give me hope for the continued conservation work in the Salish Sea that can be enhanced simply by educating the public within meaningful experiences with wildlife.

Here’s to a future of habitat restoration, healthy salmon stocks, and fat, well-fed orcas.