Today was an astounding adventure on the ol' Seahawk that nobody could have expected.
Captain Brian and I had the boat ready for some very enthusiastic and excited passengers who were carrying a boatload of luck as far as viewing wildlife goes.
After we got loaded up we headed South out of Roche Harbor down Mosquito Pass. Just as we were talking about the abundant harbor seal population we putted past a rock that was coated with the very nonchalant pinnipeds.
Reaching the Haro Strait at the South end of Mosquito pass, we began to look for the telltale signs of a Humpback whale that had been spotted in the area. Before long we were able to see and hear the explosive exhalation that gave away the enormous animal's location. This "blow" is the result of the humpback exhaling at an impressive three-hundred miles per hour and vaporizing any water trapped above it's nostrils, or blowholes. As a result, the column of steam that is produced can reach ten or twenty feet into the air!
We watched this whale of a whale blow several times then dive, raising its massive flukes into the air as it dove to feed on herring that were schooling near Kellet Bluffs on the South end of Henry Island. This humpback was very hungry (as are all North-Pacific humpbacks this time of year) and fished its way back and forth across the underwater shelf. as exciting as humpbacks are, we all wanted to see a bit more of the divsersity that the Salish Sea has to offer so we had a decision to make.
We had gotten reports of Southern Resident Killer Whales in a few different places, North in Rosario Strait and South in the Haro Strait. At the time there was a massive fog bank that was visible South of us in the Haro, and that made our decision for us. North it was! Everyone on board was gung-ho and ready for the next leg of our exciting journey.
As we headed North and East towards Presidents channel, the waters began to come alive with the intermittent, glistening dorsal fins of harbor porpoises surfacing all around us! This group of maybe forty or fifty porpoises may be a sign of a seasonal abundance of these small ceteceans for the colder months here in the San Juan Islands. Harbor porpoises, while an excellent addition to our wildlife reportiore, were not our main goal however so we continued East toward Point Doughty on Orcas Island.
Along our way, our lucky passengers continued to spot wildlife including more porpoises and another humpback whale! In lieu of stopping, however, we continued on until we saw what we were looking for: a wall of sixty-two black dorsal fins that stretched a quarter-mile from the shoreline in a nearly straight line! This incredible grouping of orcas could only be described with one word: Superpod!! We were witnessing most of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population including all of J Pod, all of K Pod and some of L Pod in an unbelievable resting formation as the wave of dorsal fins slowly rose and fell into the calm water.
The enormous group meandered it's way West along the shoreline of Orcas island and then some incredible things happened: they began to wake up. We watched entranced as groups began to break off the huge pod and whales began to explode in an unparalleled fireworks display! There was no direction we could look in which orcas were not breaching or slapping their pectoral fins and flukes on the water. To top it off, we spotted a minke whale just outside the scope of the action!
The ol' Hawk putted along, adding this spectacle to the reportoire of incredible things the vessel has been through over the years but everyone on board was elated. The gals from Texas brought all kinds of luck with them out to the islands!!
During the incredible celebration of whales jumping for joy we got some great looks at some of the whaliest whales in J Pod including the J16 matriline, especially one of the newest whales: J50 or Scarlet. Born this past winter, she is named for the rake marks that scar her entire body which are thought to be a result of another whale acting as a midwife to her mother, J16 (Slick), during childbirth. These phenomenal creatures continue to amaze us with everything we learn about them.
We also got a good look at J2 (Granny) and her ever-present companion L87 (Onyx). Granny is thought to be about one-hundred-and-four years old and is, of course, the uncontested matriarch of the Southern Residents. So we were privileged enough to see the oldest and youngest whales in J Pod, seperated by over a century!
This Whale of a festival appeared to be one of farewell as the various groups continued drifting further and further apart, breaching all the time. We stuck with the K14 matriline of K Pod and as we followed, we got passed by a small pod of Dall's Porpoises! These relatives of the harbor porpoise are a stark black and white (like another whale I know) and are capable of traveling upwards of thirty miles per hour! They were not feeling playful today, but it was a joy to see them nevertheless.
Eventually all things come to an end, and our incredible time on the water was no different. We left J, K and L pods to their personal affairs as we made our way back towards Roche Harbor under the low sun of the Autumn afternoon. As we pulled back in to the dock, we all felt incredibly privileged and lucky to have had such a magical time out on the waters of the Salish Sea.
Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J
San Juan Outfitters