This Monday was another spectacularly sunny day out on the Salish Sea. This inland sea connects the Pacific Ocean to the Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia via the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and in the middle of all these are the San Juan Islands. This near shore environment that is between many rivers and the open ocean creates a unique marine environment. The cold, nutrient-rich salt water of the North Pacific mix with cool fresh waters produced by the famous rains of Washington and British Columbia to make a huge estuary. These waters feed a huge a mount of animals with its nutrient-rich waters and this energy moves up the food chain to feed a wide array of charismatic marine mammals that we as humans love to watch. Throughout the year more than 10 marine mammals call this sea their home either temporarily or permanently. Our most famous marine mammal, the Orca (aka Killer Whale), only calls any place its home temporarily, able to travel around 100 miles in one day, they are constantly on the move to find the best places to find their favorite food. Because of this nutrient-rich environment in the waters of the Salish Sea we are lucky enough to have 2 types of Orca that love to spend time here. Our most famous are the Resident Orcas that come during the summer months to feed on the salmon that are running from the ocean back to their natal streams in Canada and the U.S., but all year round a second type can be seen here. They are the Transient Orcas. They travel in smaller family groups, have a more fluid social structure, and also feed only on other marine mammals! They come here because of our massive year round population of Harbor Seals, which make up around 70% of their diet.

These are the type of orcas we saw this Monday. Before we spotted them though, we spent time looking at their main food sources in the area – seals and sea lions. The Harbor Seals were hauled out on a bunch of rocks to warm themselves in the sun. Some swam in the water looking for food and a few Bald Eagles watch from a mere few feet away ready to swoop in and steal and food the seals were foolish enough to show on the surface. These seals only weigh in at around a few hundred pounds and are sort of like morsels to the Transient Orcas, we next saw their genetic cousins the Steller’s Sea Lions! Although the orcas also prey on these guys, it’s much rarer since they can grow to 11 feet long and over a ton, not to mention their Grizzly Bear-like teeth. They were sharing the tiny space on a shipping marker with a California Sea Lion and of course another Bald Eagle keeping a sharp look out for free food. We soon headed out to find the bigger predators of these already impressively large mammals, the Transient Orcas. At first it was hard to see them as they were swimming just a couple yards off shore off the black rock of D’Arcy Island. But soon their blows and massive shiny black fins were easily seen against the smooth shimmering waters. It was the T049A’s! (Each Orca that is spotted is given an alphanumeric ID and entire families are named after their matriarch since orcas tend to form matriarchal social structures.) This family was four members strong, which is a pretty common group number for Transient Orcas. The mother, T049A, was hunting with her three offspring through very shallow waters, sometimes less than 10 feet deep, visually scanning for prey hiding in the rocky reefs. It was amazing to watch her and her oldest son, T049A1, lead the hunt. They are like a pack of panthers, if panthers hunted in packs, as they silently hunt through the waters. Instead of relying on their echolocation as much as other orcas, they quietly zig-zag under water and visually scan for prey so as not to scare away their intelligent prey. Since they did zig-zag a lot they would surface in unexpected places, so we got to see all four of them from every angle possible, which was awesome as you really get a since of the their size and how silently they can travel even though they are so incredibly big – just beautiful.

We soon had to start our journey back to Friday Harbor, but not before we spotted two Humpback Whales! Due to the nutrient-rich, calm waters I was talking about before, Humpbacks stop by here on their annual migrations to rest and eat before they continue on, but usually they are traveling alone even if there are several in the area they are eating alone and soon head back out to the ocean. These two ended up being related! It seems that this mother and her grown-up daughter ran into each other here serendipitously and got to spend some quality time together. I have never seen this behavior in Humpbacks before. ‘Split-fluke’ and ‘Heather’ were nuzzling each other rolling over to show pectoral fins and fluke and traveling side by side constantly on contact. It was the most beautiful mother and child reunion I’ve ever witnessed.

Well I hope all of your Aprils are treating you just as whale out there folks, but that’s all for now from us. Have a San Juanderful day!


Naturalist Erick

M/V Sea Lion