Today I set up my kayak tour just like any other. We got geared up, talked a bit about safety and paddling, then got in the boat and hit the water.
As soon as we began paddling through Roche Harbor, however, I knew that this was going to be a great trip. We began to encounter cormorants and could see right through the crystal clear water to the bottom on the shores of San Juan and then Pearl Island.
Making our way out into Spieden Channel, we had great views of Vancouver, Salt Spring, Stuart and Spieden Islands. The clear water characteristic of Autumn gave us a great look at some anemones and crabs on the bottom as well as the all important eel-grass beds on which herring lay their eggs.
Here we encountered our first (of many) harbor seal! The tiny exhalation through their nostrils, their sleek grey heads and their big dark eyes are enough to make any kayaker swoon, but we kept our distance and enjoyed from afar not only because they are wild animals, but also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Approaching Posey Island (the nation's smallest state park with a campsite), we got to see spme of the incredible avian diversity that the changing seasons provide. The entire north end of the rocky island was covered with a variety of seagulls, pelagic and double crested cormorants, and harlequin ducks. The harlequin ducks are a sight to behold as the males are audaciously decorated in bold green, white and brown stripes while the females are much more modestly dressed in all brown. Both genders, however, squeak like bath toys as they putter their way around the Salish Sea.
Heading towards McCracken Point, we encountered another harbor seal's head as it took a break from foraging for the small fish, crabs and other invertebrates that are abundant in this area. Soon enough, we were tangled up in the bull kelp near Battleship Island.
This forest of "mermaids hair," as it was thought of by native salish people, is an incredible sight. Each hollow stalk rises from a tiny spore on the rocky bottom twenty to thirty feet down by filling with Carbon Monoxide and rising its float to the surface where fronds can grow and take advantage of the abundant summer sunlight. As the days become shorter and sunlight wans, the stalks begin to produce spores to keep the next generation alive. All of the previous season's biomass, however, will inevitably die off by winter.
For us, it was a bice spot to take a break and talk about the exciting habitat below where fish, crabs and mollusks abound and seals are the top predator. We didn't linger too long so that we could take advantage of the tidal current pushing us South.
As we drifted aling we began to hear faint "phsh, phsh, phsh", the sound of a small marine mammal exhaling. Directly in front of us was a pod of three Dall's Porpoises! These are the black-and-white speed demons of the marine mammal world, reaching speeds of up to thirty-five miles per hour. They can achieve these incredible speeds due to their extremely robust caudal peduncle (the muscle between their torso and their flukes) and their light bodies. These particular porpoises, however, were peacefully perusing this patch of water with barely a ripple behind them as their white-tipped dorsal fins rose and fell.
Our next stop was a small cliff which, at low tides, revealed some interesting intertidal invertebrates. Today we were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a couple of bright red blood-seastars! These echidnodeems prey on barnacles and muscles higher up on the rocks, so it is not uncommon to see them at low tides. However common, the splash of bright red is amazing to see against the muted blues, greens and grey of the island coast.
As we continued paddling south, we noticed what could only be described as a whale-watching boat out in the middle of Haro Strait. We could assume this because A) it was garishly colored (not unlike a male harlequin duck) and full of passengers and B) it was watching whales!!
Soon the presence of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population became evident as we began to see dorsal fins and, despite being over two miles away, hear the distinctive "WHOOSH" of their exhalations. Dorsal fins filled the seascape in front of Vancouver island as we watched elderly and young whales swim by in groups of twos and threes. While only a few distinctive males like K33 (Tika) were recognizable from our distance, it was clear that there were a lot of orcas present (later confirmed to be members of J, K and L pods). This huge group must have been having a good time because soon enough we began to see big splashes in the distance and black, fusiform bodies in mid-air as orcas breached and breached and breached!
As we were watching the spectacle unfold from a kelp bed, a sudden exhalation behind us startled us. Turning around, we saw the pronounced head of a male california sea lion sticking out of the water! This visitor from the south was a contrast to all of the harbor seals in the area. Definitely the odd piniped out!
As we continued paddling it was hard to believe that the wildlife viewing could get any better, but suddenly a flock of gulls parted to reveal a bald eagle flapping its wings just feet off the water's surface on its way to land in a nearby tree, from which it surveyed us as we got a great look at this awesome bird.
After the wildlife overload, we began our journey back to Roche Harbor. Fortunately the tide had switched while we were out so we got a nice push in the right direction to take us back North towards Battleship Island. On our way back we saw quite a few more harbor seals, harlequin ducks and even some hooded mergansers (another unique-looking duck) before we made it safely back into the dock.
Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist/ Kayak Guide Mike J
San Juan Outfitters