February 21, 2018

Winter Wildlife: Enjoying Our Winter Pinnipeds and Feathered Friends

Steller Sea Lion Pups

[Monday 2/19/2018, M/V Sea Lion 12:00, Naturalist Erick]


It seems winter is here again and bringing with it some mildly cold weather. Luckily, though, when the mercury drops here it also brings bright sunny days. So, on this sunny Presidents’ Day Captain Mike and I took a small crew out to go find some spectacular wildlife in the Salish Sea. We headed south to go search through San Juan Channel and eventually the Strait of Juan de Fuca.


Our first stop was at Whale Rocks just inside Cattle Pass. Cattle Pass is a skinny pass that separates Lopez and San Juan Island. It has super strong currents that whip around the many rocky islets that poke out of the surf. All these daily currents churn up nutrients that feed dense kelp forests and the kelp forest in turn serves as a safe haven for fish and invertebrates alike. Out of the frothy water and on top of the rocks are giants. The biggest Sea Lions in the world come south and spend their winters on the rocky islands in the Salish Sea. These are the Steller Sea Lions. The adult males can be over 2,000 lbs. and over 10 ft. long. As we circled these rocks, floating with the current we could see, hear, and smell more than 20 of these gigantic animals. Not all of them were so big. In this group there were definitely some baby sea lions waddling around too. Even though they’re small most of them are completely on their own since sea lions have one of the shortest parental care times of any mammal. Along with the sun-bathing Sea Lions on these rocks there were also two Bald Eagles closely watching the comings and goings of all the Sea Lions and birds in this area. That’s how the Bald Eagles get their dinners most days, they wait and steal from another unsuspecting animal that was recently successful at a catch.


Next, we went out and searched in the large waters of Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait. We crossed the beautiful blue strait and arrived at Seabird. We checked out some more Steller Sea Lions this time rafting in the water around this Canadian island. Along with these swimming grizzly bears were a huge mass of sunning Pelagic Cormorants. These sleek, black birds kind of resemble batman out of the water when they spread their black wings to dry in the sun. In the water they look like tiny loch ness monsters since they float so low in the water and just show their long curvy necks and the tops of their backs. The cormorants are sometimes unassuming, but they are pretty amazing creatures. Using only their tiny webbed feet they can dive deeper than 100 ft. to catch small fish underneath the waves! So cool!


After our little Canadian diversion, we headed back towards home. When we were back close to San Juan Island once again we navigated through what we like to call seal alley between Lopez Island and Deadman Island. The pass is not much wider than our boat is long and on one side there are impressive rocky cliffs and on the other are a bunch of lazy Harbor Seals resting on rocks that are barely poking above the surface. These seals are related to the Sea Lions we saw earlier but they are much smaller, stay here year-round, and also can’t walk on land. So, they usually just stare back at you with their dark puppy-like eyes. Well, we lucked out with another sunny, blue-sky day and are excited to see how all the wildlife starts changing as the season does.


Until next time,

Naturalist Erick

San Juan Safaris

Harbor Seals