Today Captain Pete and I were slightly less than enthusiastic about the heavy rain in and around Roche Harbor, but more than willing to brave the weather in search of awesome wildlife.
Luckily for us, our passengers also had adventurous attitudes and were not afraid of a little rain! We had heard about some whale activity waaaaaay down south at Salmon Bank, near the South end of San Juan Island, so we set off on our wet journey. Welcome to September!
As we made our way through Mosquito Pass we encountered a small harbor seal floating on the surface, most likely a newly weaned pup, or a "weaner". These youngsters have just been left on their own to experience the world after just three or four weeks of parental care. This particular pup eyed us curiously before slipping down into the emerald waters of Mosquito pass.
The passengers on board convinced me that we had a lot of luck on board and it began to show. As we entered Haro Strait we found ourselves surrounded by common murres, pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants, rhinoceros auklets and a myriad of seagulls all either resting on the steely grey surface or diving into a current line to grab small baitfish. As we chugged further south, the rain began to let up and eventually stopped and as we reached Eagle Cove (much closer than we originally anticipated) a couple of miraculous events occurred: The sun came out and we found killer whales!! This string of wonderful events culminating in finding these enormous dolphins was a good sign. What could be better you ask? These whales did not disappoint.
Orcas are referred to as both dolphins and whales. We call them whales because they are quite massive, yet they are much more closely related to bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales with their teeth and prominent dorsal fins than to larger "whales" like humpbacks and blue whales which use baleen to feed.
These whalish dolphins were members of the Southern Resident Killer Whales population. As we got a bit closer we began to realize that we were surrounded by L Pod! L Pod is the largest of the southern resident families at thirty-five whales strong with one new calf that was born this past winter.
We watched as the blows erupted all around us; whales diving for salmon, spyhopping, tailslapping and occasionally breaching.
We got fantastic looks at L27 (Ophelia), a fifty-year-old would-be matriarch, as she checked us out as well as L90 (Ballena) and her nephew L92 (Cruiser), a nearly full grown male.
Identifying members of L Pod is always a fun challenge because we do not encounter these whales as frequently as we do J and K Pods. In fact, we got to compare some expert photographs to our on-board identification guide to figure out who some of these animals were.
The bands of rainclouds that had parted to let the sun through were creating an incredible backdrop against which we watched this spectacle unfold. After what seemed like far too little time, we decided to take our leave. We wished L Pod the best of luck in their fishing efforts and we began heading North back to Roche Harbor.
Along the way we kept our eyes open for wildlife and spotted a couple of harbor porpoise close to shore amongst all the seabirds. Soon enough we arrived at the dock warm, dry, and full of whale tales to tell our friends and family.
Another Whale of a Day in the San Juan Islands!
Naturalist Mike J
San Juan Outfitters