Erin | M/V Sea Hawk | 2:00 PM | Monday, August 19, 2019

What an incredible afternoon in the Salish Sea! Words can barely describe the experiences that we had, but I will attempt to document it! We left out of the north entrance of Roche Harbor and the sun was shining brightly! We were all excited for the potential of seeing some killer whales. Captain Sarah received word that there were some orcas south of us, so we headed east out of the harbor into Spieden Channel. While we were in Spieden Channel, we were seeing some upwelling happening around us. Upwelling occurs because of the extreme tidal currents we have in the Salish Sea, which run into underwater features. Water is then forced up to the surface, with nutrients packed inside of it. Throughout our whole trip, we could see salmon jumping out of the water all around us. It wasn't happening constantly, but every so often you could see one leap out! The ocean was coming alive around us. We made our way toward Friday Harbor and eventually we spotted some blows and dorsal fins in the distance!

When we came on scene with the killer whales that we had seen in the distance, they were heading into the San Juan Channel. We stopped our boat and waited to see which direction the orcas were heading in. They ended up heading right toward us, so we got some incredible looks of the whole pod, which consisted of 6 whales. We even got to see the large male killer whale fairly up close. He was incredibly massive! It was an amazing start to our orca encounter. The whales passed by us and continued to head up the San Juan Channel. When we were first started to watch them, they were travelling along the shoreline. When they crossed San Juan Channel, they continued to travel along the shoreline of Shaw Island. They were most likely in search of a harbor seal resting or foraging in the kelp beds that grow along shorelines here. It was awesome to see their behaviors so coordinated with one another. They were travelling closely and all diving and surfacing at the same time. 

The pod was identified as the T49A's, which are Bigg's killer whales. The mother, who is T49A, is 33 years old. Her eldest son was the only noticeable male in the group, because of his 6 foot tall dorsal fin. He is 18 years old, so he will probably get even larger than he already is! Males reach physical maturity in their early 20's. The other 5 whales were all juveniles. Three of them are males, and the other one is a female. The small female in the pod is only 2 years old, so she is still very small. She slapped her tail around on the surface of the water a few times as we watched the pod. It was awesome to see her so active! We soon had to leave the T49A's in the hopes of seeing another group of killer whales. 

We headed back north up San Juan Channel, past Spieden Island, past Johns Island, and to a place called Turn Point. Turn Point is the most northwestern point in the contiguous United States. It has a lovely lighthouse on it. We stayed put at Turn Point, and soon we saw many blows and dorsal fins spread out in front of us. We were in the presence of the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales! They tend to travel and hunt more spread out than the Bigg's killer whales do. We knew that we were watching J pod, which is one of 3 pods in the population. J pod currently has 22 whales in it. Not all 22 of them were believed to be in Boundary Pass, which is where we were watching them. However, it seemed that there were at least 15! We got some incredible views of these whales as they foraged for chinook salmon. They were breaching, tailslapping, and porpoising. It was a breathtaking experience. We soon had to head back toward Roche Harbor. We were all so excited to have seen 2 different populations of killer whales, and we had memories that would be etched into our brains forever! Until next time!

Naturalist Erin