February 23, 2019

Wildlife Winter Wonderland: J pod Orcas spotted in Haro Strait!

Southern Resident Orcas of J pod

Erick | February 23, 2019 | M/V Sea Lion | Noon

As the short month of February approaches its end we do our last weekend-only trips from Friday Harbor. Once March starts we will be starting daily trips aboard M/V Sea Lion departing from Friday Harbor at noon. This Saturday, Captain Mike and I had a wonderful trip with a very small group of passengers. I think folks were afraid of the cold so it ended up being only two hardy folks aboard wanting to go out and see what was out there in the Salish Sea. (Folks shouldn't be worried because we do have an inside heated cabin aboard M/V Sea Lion.) We left and headed north. We made our first stop shortly after exiting the harbor at Point Caution. There was a pair of adult Bald Eagles hanging out in a Douglas Fir right on the point. These birds are one of our more common raptors in the area and the late winter/early springtime is one of the best times to spot them as they are rekindling their long-lasting affections for each other (Bald Eagles usually mate for life). They are finding their mate and getting ready to lay another clutch of eggs and raise more eaglets. Next, we headed further north through San Juan Channel then on to New Channel on the north side of Spieden Island. We made a stop at the rocky reef that skirts the south side of the Cactus Islands. This is a popular place for Harbor Seals to haul out and we weren't disappointed. There was a  bunch of them both hauled out and swimming around in the swirly currents. This place gets especially packed when the wind blows out of the south as it was yesterday because it is protoected from almost every direction. 

We slipped through the small channel that divides the Cactus Islands and continued on our way north. We passed Lover's Leap, the enormous cliff on Stewart Island, as well as the Turn Point Lighthouse and headed into Boundary Pass. This is one of the waterways that serves as the border between the U.S.A. and Canada. We searched along the imposing sandstone cliffs that form the southern shores of South Pender and Saturna Islands. Passing these islands is always amazing because as you look up at them towering above, you usually get the chance to spy Bald Eagles soaring, Peregrine Falcons perched in the small alcoves nestled among the rocks, and feral goats frolicking up and down the seemingly impossible steep hillsides. As we came around the easternmost point of Saturna Island (aptly named East Point) we stopped and looked at the massive colony of Steller's Sea Lions hauled out. These winter visitors are related to the Harbor Seals, but are around 7 times larger, look like Grizzly Bears, and are eared seals not true seals. The major difference between these two groups is that eared seals' (sea lions and fur seals) skeletons allow them to use their flippers to walk around on land, while true seals can only scootch because they are unable to rotate their rear flippers and their front flippers are too short. We watched these giant Steller's Sea Lions growl and posture for their favorite spots among the sunbaked rocks. As they bared their well-equipped maws spewing foggy, heated breath we circled the tiny islet that they covered and marveled at their massive size. This group mainly consisted of adult males who regularly weigh over a ton (2,000 lbs ~ 900 kgs) and are around 11 ft (~ 3 m) long. Here, we also saw another large group of Harbor Seals resting and many fun over-wintering birds including: Surf Scoters, Black Scoters, Bonaparte's Gulls, Common Mergansers, and Long-tailed Ducks! We are always excited to see the Steller's and these overwintering birds since they are only winter visitors and most folks do not get the chance to see them here when humans come in the summer months. We continued our search around Patos Island, looking at the lighthouse there for a bit, and started our way down Presidents Channel. Here, we spied a small group of Harbor Porpoises that were traveling the opposite way. There were a few adults and a young one in this group. These cetaceans are the smallest here only getting to about 5 ft (~1.5 m) and they are quite shy since they exist pretty low on the food chain. We got a few good looks, but we didn't stick around very long to make sure we didn't make them too nervous. Just around when we were heading back towards Friday Harbor one of our friends heard some Orca calls getting picked up on the hydrophone located at Lime Kiln Lighthouse located on the west side of San Juan Island. We quickly turned around and journeyed over the north end of San Juan Island. Just as we reached the southern end of Mitchell Bay Captain Mike saw some blows right along the shoreline. We soon saw that they were Orcas! It was a small family and they were resting and swimming pretty slowly and taking long dives as they travelled north. We got some great looks at this family group of three Orcas. It was two adult females and a young juvenile orca. On a few of the surfacings I was able to identify them using their unique saddlepatch and dorsal fin combinations and I figured out that they were the J19s! As you might be able to tell the J indicates that they ae part of J Pod! This is one of the three pods that make up the Southern Resident Orca Community. This is the ecotype of Orca that lives along the mid-North American west coast and feed predominantly on salmon. We usually don't see them during the winter months since the largest salmon runs occur in the summer and fall months here. This family, the J19s, is one of the matrilineal groups that make up J pod which is sort of like a big extended family. The three members are J19, the matriarch, her daughter J41, and J41's son, J51, who was born in 2015. In Southern Resident Orcas it is normal to see multiple generations traveling together and it is easy to see similarities in between human family structures and orcas'. We watched this family until they reached Kellett Bluffs and turned around, and it sounded like a good portion of the rest of J pod was also spread out further south in Haro Strait as we left. 

Well, what an amazing day! It seems like we saw it all! As we move into March and start daily trips we hope to have the opportunity to show more of you folks all the wonderful sights and creatures of the Salish Sea!

Whale folks, that's all for now!

Capt. Erick

San Juan Safaris & San Juan Outfitters

Southern Resident Orcas of J pod
Erick Dowell