Today Captain Gabe and I had quite the adventure on the Seahawk.
We left the dock at Roche Harbor pretty early to pick up a great family in Friday Harbor. We enjoyed the quiet, early morning cruise from Roche Harbor to Friday Harbor through the San Juan Channel, scanning for wildlife that we might come back up and share with our guests later. No dice, however; nothing but seagulls making themselves evident this time of the morning. We decided to switch to plan B, to listen to the radio for reports of Orcas anywhere in the Salish Sea. As per usual, Plan B was a success! we heard some reports of whales both on the West side of San Juan Island and some heading south from the Strait of Georgia. Great news for our soon to be passengers!
After a quick coffee run once we got into Friday Harbor, our passengers were on board and we were off! we decided to head South from Friday Harbor through San Juan Channel to head to the West side. This route takes us through Cattle Pass, located at the South end of San Juan channel in between Cattle Point on San Juan Island and the South end of Lopez Island. This area is a giant intersection of several bodies of water: the San Juan Channel, the Haro Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the very southern bit of Rosario Strait! As with any intersection on land, at sea or in life, things have the potential to get a bit dicey, especially when there is a bit of a current and an opposing breeze.
The moon is still pretty large after our recent full moon, and our tide was going out, producing a strong current that carried us right through the pass. It was incredible to see maybe a half-acre area of whitecap waves churning and turning right in front of us where all these bodies of water met to intermingle, butt heads, and discuss the bottom topography. Just inside (to the North) cattle pass we were witnessing lots of tidal upwelling, where deeper currents angle upwards after hitting an obstacle. As the water plumes upwards, it appears as perfectly round, smooth patches on the surface.
Luckily, Captain Gabe knows what he's doing and was able to safely skirt the largest waves, giving us just enough roll to make the journey exciting! As we rounded the Southern tip of San Juan Island and headed North into the Haro Strait, we began scanning for black dorsal fins along one of their favorite fishing grounds. The first thing we saw made it evident we were in the right place: Lots of fishing boats! Commercial fishing for salmon is open in the San Juans and quite a few boats from Puget Sound were actively setting and retrieving gill nets and purse-seine nets. We saw these fishermen (and women) succeeding in catching lots of fish, and then we saw it: Our first dorsal fin just North of all the boats!
As we got a bit closer we could see the massive six-foot-tall fin of a male resident Orca, then several smaller curved fins of females and juveniles spread out along the shore! These residents are the original catchers of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and have been feeding in this area for generations upon generations, long before the first humans left Beringia and crossed into North America. Their favorite feeding grounds (or waters!) as well as their many different feeding techniques have been passed down through the generations by matriarchs to their calves for at least as long. To see the ancient techniques of locating, chasing down and biting a salmon in half fish by fish next to the modern techniques of gathering them in various types of nets by the hundreds (or even thousands!) is a remarkable living contrast that may make one ponder...In any case, it was exciting to see the salmon actively portraying their role as a keystone species, contributing immensely to the life and livelihood of two major predators who rely on it in this part of the world.
As we watched the orcas expertly navigate the forest of fishing equipment, we were able to identify the large male as L89, or Solstice! This is exciting, because L Pod spends quite a bit more time out at sea and out of our range than do J and K Pods. Solstice was fishing with his mother L22 (Spirit). They were soon joined by members of the L12 matriline including L94 (Calypso) and her calf, the newest member of L Pod, L121. It is always exhilarating to watch a baby of the largest predator on earth bobbing up and down, half-breaching, and generally splashing along as it tries its best to keep up with the rest of the family. After fishing for a bit more, the entire pod grouped up and began slowly meandering north. We decided to take this as our cue to begin our journey back to Friday Harbor.
Along the way, we saw plenty of harbor seals, leaping salmon and flocks of auklets and murres as we made our way back up the San Juan Channel. After dropping off our wonderful, and still excited, passengers back at Friday Harbor, Gabe and I began our long and lonely journey back to Roche Harbor to put the ol' Hawk to bed.
Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J