Archive for July, 2010

July 30, 2010

Today was one of those days where you have to pinch yourself, you feel so lucky and amazed to be living in such a wonderful corner of the world! We heard reports of orcas both way north of us, and south near salmon bank, so south it was. Though the sun was shining brightly over Friday Harbor, we knew the south side of the island was thick with fog, which might make spotting the orcas a bit tricky. On route we slowed down near an exposed rock that’s always home to a dozen or so harbor seals so our guests could get a peek at them, and try to spot a pup or two. We discussed the fascinating lives of our native, but endangered killer whales, touching on tough issues like the decline in their main food source (Chinook salmon) and the high levels of toxins found in our ecosystem and therefore the whales. Caroline struck up an interesting conversation about the historic killer whale captures, after learning that two of our guests actually witnessed the Penn Cove captures 40 or so years ago. Lolita, one of the oldest captive orcas, and only surviving Southern Resident orca of these captures, was taken from that very spot on August 8th, 1970. This year for her 40th anniversary, witnesses of this tragic event including our two guests will gather to share their stories, and come together in support for her retirement in a sea pen in her native waters. Today, we all got to hear a little bit about that history. Time flew by, and before we knew it we were approaching the whales, and most of the fog had burned off! J27 Blackberry was one of the first sighted and we watched him slowly cruising through the water, occasionally skimming the surface with his tall dorsal as he did semi circles, likely foraging for salmon. Our attention was soon stolen by a VERY outgoing little calf, who was breaching, tail lobbing, spy hopping, and rolling around almost nonstop. When we see adults breaching, we consider the motivation to be one of many possibilities – communication, signaling to the rest of the pod, cleansing their sensitive skin of parasites, or of course, excitement or play of some sort. Watching this calf, it was obvious to us all that this little one was just plain having fun! Though we were not able to positively ID this calf, or the other juvenile it was with, it appeared they were accompanied by 14 year old J32 Rhapsody. That’s about the age a female will have her first calf, so perhaps she was getting a bit of practice by babysitting those two youngsters! We were so caught up in all the youngster’s antics, that we were taken by surprise as Blackberry dove in front of our bow, headed right towards us. Our engines were shut off, and we fell silent as we searched the water for his glowing white skin. Sure enough, he surfaced right next to us! It’s such a very rare and lucky treat to get an up close encounter like that, and nothing can prepare you for it. He certainly took our breath away, as we got to see just how large this male is. What an amazing day this turned out to be!

Heather Hill, Naturalist

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July 23, 2010

Another sunny day in the San Juans! Our excitement was high as we embarked upon our journey, hearing that there were whales both north and west of San Juan Island! As we headed north Captain Pete made the decision maintain our direction so that we could meet up with some residents near the Pender islands. It was J pod, headed down from Point Roberts – hopefully having found lots of salmon! First to pass us was Slick (J-16) and her oldest son Mike (J-26). Closer to shore was Shachi (J-19) Speiden (J-8) who can not only be identified by her saddle and the distinctive notch at the base of her dorsal, but also by the “wheezing” sound she makes when breathing! Next up came a rambunctious group closer to shore with several active juveniles! The were breaching, and splashing around like crazy! It’s awe-inspiring to see a large adult leap from the water, but when we get to see the youngsters do it, it brings about a feeling of fun and excitement to all our guests. We were so caught up in watching them, we didn’t even notice that Mike had doubled back for another pass along side us, as well as his younger brother Keet (J-33). I imagine Slick’s youngest, three year old Echo (J-42) was among the active calves. I’ve been noticing this year that she’s a very outgoing calf, with lots of energy just waiting to burst out of her! Our guests were intrigued by the idea that like human children, some are shy, while others (like Echo!) are more outgoing.

The whales may be the rock stars, but we love showing our guests our other amazing wildlife as well! On our way back, we stopped by Gull Rock, and saw a couple mature bald eagles, as well as a juvenile all standing on the rock. Along the water’s edge was a few harbor seals as well. The seals are right in the middle of their “pupping season” so we got out our binoculars and tried to pick out the small round babies. Along with the seals and eagles we also spotted some harbor porpoise! Thanks to our great guests for making this a unique, and as always – FUN – day on the water!

Heather Hill

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Magic Happens

July 16

I have a corny motto: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, have few if any expectations, show up with a positive attitude, and sometimes magic happens! A recent day tested this when we prepared for high winds, lumpy bumpy seas, along with the strongest currents of the month. We had reports of orcas on the south side, but weren’t sure they would come our way as we headed north in more comfortable waters, sighting bald eagles, harbor porpoise, harbor seals, and marine birds along the way. As we rounded to the west, J-Pod families, with J-2 Granny, classically in the lead, displayed many of the behaviors we had been talking about, as if on cue! Our guests were delighted, and our timing spot on, for the smoothest conditions and seeing the whales! We also had quite a few children on board and since these killer whales are listed as endangered I asked a group if they knew what ‘endangered’ meant. One little girl thought for a moment and said “that means they need something”. What a great response.Yes, these whales need Chinook salmon, clean water, and our care and respect! Little J-45 capped off our trip with four consecutive breaches! The day was filled with hope and magic.
Caroline Armon, Naturalist

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July 15, 2010

Today we had an excellent tour aboard the Odyssey. We headed south out of Friday Harbor down San Juan Channel against the tide. We saw lots of seals and sea birds on our way out to the whales. We were lucky to catch up with them before False Bay and we encountered the J’s. There were lumpy seas off shore which caused Capt. Pete to bring us in closer to shore. We saw several members of J pod milling around fishing and drifting with the incoming northerly current. We had a close encounter with a fairly large bull. We identified him as J-26 or “Mike”. All in all a wonderful trip with the incoming tidal current to push us back to Friday Harbor on time. A big thanks to the guests and staff of San Juan Excursions for giving me a great day on the water.
To be continued -Tim, Naturalist, San Juan Excursions

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July 14, 2010

Name That Baby!

Well, today was one of those days that fall in the category of a 5% chance of not seeing orcas. The two groups that were known to be in the area headed out this morning and were out of our range by the time that we left the dock. That is okay though, with all of the babies that have been born in the past year and a half it is nice to know that they are all out there stretching their legs and building up nice strong muscles. With all of these babies running around it can be difficult to keep track of who is who, so the Whale Museum is soliciting name suggestions for four calves that were born in 2009. They are the sons and daughters of Princess Angeline, Surprise!, Polaris and Calypso and you can submit two names per calf for consideration. The final names will be decided by popular vote during the months of August and September and the people with the winning names will get free adoptions of their orcas.

So, from all of us at San Juan Excursions, to all of you name droppers out there, thank you and we will…

See You In The Islands!
~Tristen, Naturalist

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Friday July 9th

Summer is here in the San Juans, and this week we’ve actually had the weather to prove it! It was a toasty 84 degrees as we left the dock today, and we were all quite grateful to have the breeze coming off the water to cool us down. What a perfect day to be out on a boat, exploring the protected inland Salish Sea! Our southern residents were coming down from Pt. Roberts to meet another group, and we’d kept our hopes high that they might continue south within our range. As it turned out, once the two groups met up they turned around and went back north, far out of our range, likely heading to the Fraser River in search of Chinook. Though we were disappointed, we spent a lot of time discussing the importance of this river’s salmon runs and hoped that wherever the orcas ended up, they were finding a feast! We continued on our journey cutting through John’s Pass and enjoyed the sites of camp Norwester, exchanging waves with a few happy campers hanging outside their tepees. We encountered harbor porpoise several times throughout the cruise, and watched as they did a bit of fishing in the riptides. Other exciting sightings included a bald eagle next to it’s nest, with a large fledgling sitting inside, several other bald eagles either perched on branches or soaring through the sky, harbor seals both hauled out and swimming along side our vessel, female mouflon sheep, and lastly but certainly not least – a pair of oyster catchers! Though there were no orca sightings, today was a relaxing and fun trip full of great wildlife encounters, and our guests left eager to join us again in the future!

Heather, San Juan Excursions Naturalist

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Orca babies and good ol’ Granny

Granny, J-2, stills breaches at 99 years old!! She showed us her power and place as the grand matriarch of J-Pod (and the whole Southern Resident Community of Killer Whales)today, as she lead the pod south from Turn Point. I wonder that she was communicating to the families to hurry up- catch up! Since the rest of the pod was spread out a mile or more, then they sped swam at about 15 miles an hour, porpoising, leaving wakes, until they reached Henry Island. All the families came closer together and slowed their pace as they went near shore right along the cliffs, probably hunting for salmon. Both of the 5 & 6 month old calves kept up with the fast pace. Nothing cuter than watching orca babies leaping up right next to their moms and relatives!

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Friday July 2nd, 2010

There was excitement among the guests and crew today as we left the dock, getting reports that there were orcas off the south end of San Juan Island, though we had no idea at that time what an amazing encounter we were in for! When we met up with members of our southern resident community they were porpoising across the channel towards Cattle Point. The guests were instantly wowed seeing the orcas come so far out of the water with each lunge. We naturalists are always looking for that perfect saddle patch angle since we know that’s what enables us to ID the individuals and therefore relate to them. The guests on the other hand are much more interested in seeing their faces, as that is how we humans are accustomed to identifying one another. So from right off the bat our guests were getting some awesome “facial views!” Once the whales got closer to shore along the south end, they started swimming at a slower rate, and we got to work identifying which families we were with. Our first group was new grandma J17 Princess Angeline, her daughters J28 Polaris and J35 Tahlequah, and their new babies J46 (~8 months old) and J47 (~6 months old). Along with being a first time grandma, Princess Angeline is also the proud mommy of her newest calf, J44 who’s a little over a year old!

We then started to see some foraging behavior between K16 Opus (who was trailing some kelp along her dorsal fin) and her son K35 Sonata. They gave us a nice view as they passed ahead of us. By this time J32 Rhapsody and J31 Tsuchi had come along side of us and angled themselves to pass right along the front of our bow. What an awesome sight it was, and for sure the highlight of the trip, up until that point at least! Once we thought it couldn’t get any better, K21 Cappuccino came towards us on our starboard side, surfaced twice quite close to us as he closed in the gap, then swam underneath us. Our engines were shut off, and the boat fell momentarily silent as our eyes searched the water along our port side, until we spotted his saddle patch glowing several feet below the surface. We were all prepared as he surfaced, and yet were still absolutely blown away by his sheer size, and the magic of being so close to such an incredible animal.

It was a warm and sunny day, though I think it would have still been a phenomenal trip even if it had been pouring down rain! What a great day to be on the water, and to share an afternoon with an endangered species in their habitat, on their terms!

Heather, Naturalist for San Juan Excursions

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