Today Captain Pete and I left the dock on the Seahawk with a glorious sunny day, a boat full of curious and excited passengers, and plenty of whale reports from which to choose. Armed with our whale knowledge and eagerness to see wildlife, we headed North out of Roche Harbor. Right off the bat we were greeted in Mosquito Pass with a great blue heron taking off with its large, slow wingbeats as well as a bald eagle perched in a tree.
Heading out into Haro Strait towards Stuart Island, we began slowing down to scan for wildlife when suddenly a black dorsal fin and back exploded out of the water as an Orca porpoised passed! Just as we were recovering from the excitement of a first sighting we saw another! and another! It was K Pod racing across the channel in a hurry!
Killer whales are one of the quickest marine mammals in the entire ocean, with the ability to sprint at 35 miles per hour! Our residents rarely need to move at such speeds, as they are very effective at hunting and corralling salmon without moving too quickly. Transients, however, will sometimes engage in high-speed chases with one of their favorite snacks, the Dall's porpoise. These black-and-white speed demons can just barely outswim Orcas at 36 miles per hour! To reach this incredible speed (remember, we are talking about a 30 foot, 6 ton animal here), they must "porpoise", or get their bodies partially out of the water. Doing this exposes more surface area to air, which causes significantly less drag on their bodies than does water.
In comparison to these mind-blowingly fast speeds, K Pod was taking a brisk walk down the Strait at around 8 or 9 Knots (very similar to miles per hour) towards Henry Island. We kept pace with the leaders of the group, which was very spread out, until we reached Kellet Bluffs at which point they decided to have a little lunch. We watched as their pace relaxed and a male and a female dove with a splash and abrupt direction change, indicating they found a delicious King Salmon to much on.
Once the group reached the shoreline, they fanned out in a line to echo-locate, or use their sonar, more effectively. When operating like this, each whale not only gets images from the sound beams it sends out, but also from those of its neighbors.
As we were passed by the leaders, we hung out in the water to let the rest of the pod make their way by and we got great views of the K13 matriline including K13 (Skagit) and and her daughter K20 (Spock) and son K27 (Deadhead). This active crew was great to watch. As they passed us by to grab their lunch, we wished a hearty "live long and prosper" as we headed back North to check out some other wildlife.
Up near Spieden Island we got some great views of lots of harbor seals hauled out on a reef as well as a bald eagle flying away from it's nest. All these animals benefit from the presence of the Pacific Salmon, which are considered a "Keystone Species" (A plant/animal on which all or most other organisms in an ecosystem depend).
One of the best parts of this tour were the people! I was asked so many wonderful questions about whales and other wildlife, and us naturalists live for the opportunity to show off our knowledge of the ecosystem. Satisfied with our lovely experience on the water, we headed back down to Roche Harbor. Another Whale of a Day in the Salish Sea!
Naturalist Mike J