Today Captain Pete and I took the Seahawk out on yet another memorable adventure with a group of excited passengers. We left Roche Harbor with reports of Orcas far, faaar away near Victoria, BC but decided to take a chance and head that direction anyway. We made our way South through the always inviting mosquito pass out into Haro Strait.
No sooner did we enter the deep channel than a passenger exclaimed "what was that??" I turned around to see the massive back of a Humpback whale disappearing beneath the surface. Pete stopped the boat and sure enough moments later we heard the impressive WHOOSH as our large friend broke the surface once more. This humpback did not look extremely large, most likely an adolescent individual who has been feeding in the Salish Sea all summer. We watched this whale take a few more breaths while we scanned for identifying characteristics. We noticed a small white freckle on its dorsal fin and waited for the main event: the terminal dive.
When humpbacks "sound", or go down for a deep dive to feed after several breaths, they typically raise their flukes into the air to push their bodies deeper into the water as gravity takes its effect. As our freckled-friend arched its back, we eagerly awaited the inevitable rise of the flukes. As they rose into the air, we all checked out what was underneath: the REAL prize.
Underneath the flukes of each individual humpback whale we can find a unique pattern of white and black markings which, combined with the shape of the flukes, can be used to identify individuals. After checking out the mostly white pattern under this particular tail, we all practiced our photo identification skills against our on board humpack whale ID guide.
While incredible, this humpback had just whet our appetite for wildlife, so we decided to continue heading South. After a long chug on the ol' Hawk, we found ahat we were looking for: Orcas.
We caught sight of the massive dorsal fins of some of the males of J Pod as they crossed Haro Strait from the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards their favorite feeding grounds on the West side of San Juan Island.
While I am sure they enjoyed their jaunt to the open ocean, they seemed to be ecstatic to return. They showed this with an incredible array of breaches, tail slaps, spyhops, cartwheels and all sorts of surface activity. We got some fantastic looks at L87 (Onyx) and the J22 matriline AKA the Cookie Clan.
As we slowed the boat to watch the spectacle unfold, we found ourselves floating with a flock of common murres, a black-and-white relative of the puffin. These birds have evolved to feed on small fish and as a result their wings are better suited for swimming than for flying. As we glanced down we could see murres darting to and fro underwater as gracefully as any salmon!
The Southern Resident Orcas, however, were the real show and we continued to watch the homecoming celebration until they settled into a fishing routine in which they spread out to echolocate for chinook salmon.
As per usual, our time with whales seemed infinitely too short, but we bid our monochrome friends adue as we began our journey back to Roche Harbor.
Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J
San Juan Outfitters