February 27, 2018

A Steller Day: Putting Wild into Wildlife around the San Juan Islands

Steller Sea Lions

[Sunday, 2/25/2018, 12:00, M/V Sea Lion, Naturalist Erick]

  The Steller Sweet Life       

      This Sunday, Captain Mike and I headed out to search for some amazing wildlife on another sunny day in the Salish Sea. It was pretty blustery on the west side of the islands, but we managed to stay in the sheltered waters in the middle and northern side of our little archipelago. We headed first to Green Point on Spieden Island and spotted a little bit of splashing around one of the rocky outcroppings. It was a large, male Steller Sea Lion splashing around in the waves! We then spotted a bunch of his friends rafting not too far from him. The currents around this rocky point are formidable but stir up crucial nutrients for the kelp forest that grows here. This kelp forest serves as a nursery and buffet for fish and invertebrates that these sea lions depend on for food. The sea lions, being intelligent albeit lazy creatures, choose to spend their time as close as possible to a good food source thereby conserving their energy. These Steller Sea Lions also know a little trick. When they just want to go for a good old-fashioned float with their buddies they find a nice eddy to work with. Green Point, one of their favorite haul-out points, happens to make a great sustained eddy as the tide moves in and out throughout the day. These sea lions pile into the water and let the current float them in a slow easy spiral just a dozen yards away from shore. No swimming, no fuss, and right next to food makes for some easy living.

Preparing for their new summer diet of....nothing

And during this time of year, the sweet life is what these sea lions are all about. During the summer months the Steller Sea Lions disappear from the waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea and head north to beaches and rocky shores in Alaska to mate and have their pups. During mating season sea lions drop a lot of weight. First, they have a few hundred to a few thousand-mile migration. Then the males spend all their time protecting their beaches and harems from competitors and no time catching food all the while having their testosterone levels spike to four times their normal amount. The females after mating also lose weight dramatically after mating, because they will soon bear the pups from last year’s mating season and nurse them until they have enough blubber to survive in Alaska’s frigid waters. As breeding season wanes they migrate south to warmer and more protected waters and winter becomes a time for relaxation and eating to recover and fatten up in preparation for next summer.


We watched these amazing pinnipeds splash around in the water, stare back at us, and flip around in the constant currents. We enjoyed watching a few of them thermoregulate by sticking one of their fore flippers up into the air. To me it looks like they are trying to fool us into thinking that they are actually sharks, but it is more akin to when you stick one foot or arm outside the covers while in bed and keep the rest of your body under them. It stabilizes their internal body temperature and they don’t have to spend that much energy doing it, perfect strategy for our sea lion friends.

Why is that one called Dirty Island?

            We left those giants and continued along the shore of Spieden Island and through Johns Pass. Through this pass we saw calm waters and a few gulls and eagles soaring high in the air above us. We pointed towards Skipjack Island and the other outer islands that lie beyond while continuing our search for native wildlife. We sailed past big groups of Western Grebes, young Bonaparte’s Gulls, and both Surf Scoters and White-winged Scoters as we slid in between Patos and Sucia Islands. If you have any knowledge of the Spanish language you may recognize some of these words. Many areas in this area bear Spanish names because one of the first Western mapping expeditions here was led by a Spaniard named Francisco de Eliza. Patos means ‘ducks’ and Sucia means ‘dirty’. Sucia Island received its name due to its high sandstone cliffs that are filled with cobblestones and other debris, making the rocks look ‘dirty’. This debris, it turns out, sometimes contains fossils since many of these outer islands are the remains of a massive petrified river delta that used to drain most of what is now western North America. Sucia Island is actually where Washington State’s only dinosaur bone was discovered. You can read more about our state’s first dino here.

Growls not Barks

            At the very tip of one of Sucia Island’s arms we encountered another large group of Steller Sea Lions all hauled out of the water this time. This group was mainly females in contrast to the other largely male group. This group was a lot more vocal as we passed them, and we got to hear their distinctive bear-like calls. Most folks associate sea lion calls with the Steller Sea Lions’ close cousins, the California Sea Lions, who make the famous barking sound we all loved Idris Elba do as a California Sea Lion in Finding Dory, but the Stellers growl and instead sound very bear-like. After our final view of them we took a lovely winding tour through the tall closely packed cliffs of Sucia Island and soon had to head back to Friday Harbor! What another lovely wildlife packed day here!


Just a reminder we start daily tours in just a few days on March 1st! So, we hope to see you all as spring starts to come into full swing here in the San Juan Islands!


Until next time folks,

Naturalist Erick

San Juan Safaris

Steller Sea Lion