Today Captain Jim and I crewed on the ol' Hawk with sun in the sky and wildlife on the brain. We had a boat full of excited passengers hoping to see (and photograph) killer whales. The only problem: We had no early reports. Always hoping for the best, we left the dock headed south through Mosquito Pass to the Haro Strait, the body of water that separates the West side of San Juan Island from the East side of Vancouver Island, BC (Canada).
As we got towards the open water we got reports of Orcas! we heard that they were down near Victoria, BC headed our way so we rushed South to meet them. After a scenic chug through Haro Strait, we finally began to see fins breaking the water's surface...lots of them. It was J Pod and L Pod! It appeared that they had had a brief stay out in open Pacific ocean, and decided to come back in to the Salish Sea through the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards their favorite feeding grounds: the West side of San Juan Island. Talk about great timing! As they headed East from Discovery Island, they appeared to be enthusiastically traveling because they knew what was ahead: Salmon. If you have been in the Salish Sea lately, odds are you have seen one or two of these majestic fish jumping for joy at the hope of swimming upstream in the Frasier river and spawning. Once the Orcas began feeding, they were jumping for joy as well! we were fortunate to witness lots of acrobatic activity including a few breaches, tail-slaps and even a backflip!
It is not entirely known why killer whales (or any whales, for that matter) breach, but there are a few speculations. The most popular is that it is just way too much fun! jumping in the air and splashing down (think CANNONBALLL!!!) is an exhilarating experience for anyone. However, there may be some practical applications as well. The exceptionally loud noise produced by that splash can be heard underwater for a long distance, as sound travels about five times as fast underwater as through the air. This means it has potential as a means of communications for this sound-centric animal. A third possibility is that it is a way to scratch an itch. The ocean is full of living creatures, including many parasites or organisms looking for a big whale on which to settle. The force of that big splash is enough to knock most of those hitch-hikers off. Whatever the reason, it is an incredible experience to watch a 6-ton killer whale in the air.
If the activity wasn't exciting enough, the individual whales we saw made the experience all the richer. We had a local celebrity on our hands: J2 or Granny. J2 is the oldest known killer whale in the world, estimated to have been born in 1911 (based on ages of her offspring, photo ID's and her size). She has seen and been through a lot in her years, including some of the uglier interactions between Humans and Orcas in the Pacific Northwest. She has little to worry about now, and has accumulated quite a family, or pod, including L87 (Onyx). L87 lost his mother in 2005 and traveled with K Pod for a few years before moving to J Pod. He has been traveling by Granny's side since 2010. IT is in debate weather he is more of an adopted son or a trophy husband....(probably the first one)
We watched these awesome animals feeding for a while before we had to say goodbye and begin the journey back to Roche Harbor. On the way back we stopped and checked out some harbor seals hauled out and enjoying the sun on some rocks. We all had a blast on the water and got to witness some incredible and special behavior and wildlife
Another Whale of a day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J