Resident Orcas on the West Side! – San Juan Island

[6/25/16 ~ M/V Sea Hawk ~ 2pm Departure]

Summer is finally here, in every aspect! It’s 85 degrees today, sunny, and flat calm on the water. Weddings are booked every weekend in Roche Harbor now, gracing us with beautiful dresses and snappy suits on our way to the docks. Yachts are flocking to our beautiful island, and their owners sit out on the deck or walk their dogs around the docks. Patio drinks, iced coffee, and art fairs abound! Most importantly, though, the residents are back!

Resident killer whales return to our waters every summer to feast on the salmon that make their way through this area to spawn in the freshwater rivers just north of us. Historically, they inhabit these inland waters between June and September, making them perfect indicators for the summer season. These charismatic animals are loved by locals and non-locals worldwide, and have a large following of supporters. The Souther Resident Killer Whale population is split into three pods, J K and L. Altogether there are 78 SRKW’s alive today, and each one has an alphanumeric number (ex: J16) and a nickname. Many of these whales even have their own facebook pages!

Their lineages and family histories are also extensively researched by organizations like the Center for Whale Research and the Whale Museum, tracking births and deaths, and who’s friends with who. These organizations also make ID guides featuring each whale’s dorsal fin and saddle patch, which is all that we use to identify them individually. Using this guide, we were able to ID the residents on the west side of San Juan today as the J4′s, J16′s, and K14′s, lead by matriarchs Shachi, Slick, and Lea. These family groups also have one adult male each, sons of the matriarchs that support their family groups. Mike, Blackberry, and Lobo are all in their mid-20′s and are prime examples of a male killer whale, flaunting a 6-foot dorsal fin and an 8 ton body weight!

After observing these orcas for a while, we moved north to scour the islands for other wildlife that calls the Salish Sea home, and found some majestic bald eagles (including a nest!) and some harbor seals. What a treat! When we pulled back into Roche Harbor, we still had a beautiful Northwest summer evening ahead of us, including a fantastic sunset – a day for the books!

It was so warm out today that we had heat waves sitting just above the water along the shorelines. Some whales got a little wonky looking in photos because of that, check it out below!

Naturalist Sarah C.

M/V Sea Hawk

[6/19/17 - M/V Seahawk - 5:00PM] Humpback Happiness


Yesterday evening Captain Gabe and I left Roche Harbor with a great group to go search for some marine wildlife in the perfect summer evening glow. The Salish Sea was as calm as I have ever seen it only with a few ripples and the most beautiful clouds glowing orange and pink above. We motored out over to Sentinel Rocks and stopped to see about 30 Harbor Seals hauled out taking a evening snooze and tanning session. These cute little rock sausages are our most common marine mammal species here which is pretty spectacular since not too long ago their numbers were very low mostly due to human hunting of them. Now, though, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, they have made a steady and successful recovery. Next motored through the tight channels in between Spieden, Stuart, Cactus, and Johns Islands, passed through Johns Pass and into the smooth open waters of Boundary Pass. This body of water is the international border between the U.S.A and Canada and sometimes a busy traffic lane but yesterday evening we were the only boat out there as we passed by the tall, honeycombed cliffs of Saturna Island, saw some Harbor Porpoises feeding in the tidal rips, and turned the corner around East Point. Then we saw them. Two dark triangles breaking the surface of the still waters directly ahead. It was two adult Humpback Whales! They were swimming south right next to each other in the Straits of Georgia. We approached closer and turned the engine off to watch them calmly pass us. These amazing creatures have become more and more common in the waters here. Like the Harbor Seals, they were hunted by humans in the U.S. and Canada and we only started seeing them return here about 10 years ago. These two were full grown and easily dwarfed SeaHawk as they lazily passed us and both fluked to go on a deep dive. They can be up to 60 feet long and weigh around 60 tons and these two were pretty close to that size just form looking at them. Most of the Humpbacks of the world (they live all over it) now are traveling towards the poles to take advantage of the great feeding there and will return to tropical waters to breed in the winter months, but in the last few years some young whales have stayed here for a long time, taking advantage of the abundance of plankton that exist in these calm waters. We hope we see even more of them here this year!


Naturalist Erick

30+ Whales Spotted in the Salish Sea

[6/17/17 ~ KW Charter] It was yet another fabulous day on the water today! One of those days that makes the testy weather and the chilly winds that we’ve been having this week all worth it. Not only did we have a report of transient killer whales right in San Juan Channel, but L pod had also been hanging out on the Southwest side of San Juan and made an appearance earlier this morning. We had high hopes as we set out on the water, and we were not disappointed.

We sighted black fins in the distance a mere five miles from Friday Harbor. Little blows floated above each whale as they surfaced and exhaled, the tiny water particles forced upwards in their powerful breath slowly dissipating with the wind. As we pulled up on scene we recognized them as a familiar transient family group, the T65′s. This family of 5 was traveling in a tight pack, keeping young calves and adult females alike pulled in close, in a tight formation perfect for quiet travel and stealthy hunting. We tracked this family southward until they entered the wide waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We then turned our bow west, in the direction of reported residents cutting through the strait.

We pulled up alongside a string of other whale watching vessels, our eyes scanning the horizon for whatever whales they appeared to be watching. The dead-calm surface was soon broken by a little puff of air and a dark back. Then another puff, and another, and another, and soon an entire line of whales spanning over 100 yards was before us, and where one whale went down, another immediately surfaced in its place. Huge, looming male dorsals broke the surface slowly as females and calves gracefully swam alongside them. We soon realized that almost the entirety of L pod, consisting of 34 whales, was in front of us. It was breathtaking, and the fluid line of orcas looked like an oilspill on the surface of the glassy waters. We stayed and watched in awe for what felt like forever and just a moment simultaneously before slowly turning away from the area and moving back to Friday Harbor.

On our way back we stopped at Whale Rocks, which is inhabited by a fairly large number of juvenile male Steller’s sea lions that haven’t quite made it to Alaska for breeding season yet. Individuals were hauled out on the rocks, producing a low growl or roar to assert their dominance. Others tousled in the water below, fins flying out in a flashy display of testosterone. Quiet harbor seals occupied the far side of the island, peacefully laying out on the low rocky shores. A bald eagle even rested atop the rocky pile, overseeing all of the seabirds that nest and rest on the island. It was a perfect way to end our classic Pacific Northwest voyage.

Naturalist Sarah C.

M/V Kittiwake

Lummi Island Wild – One Company’s Mission to Protect the Salish Sea for Future Generations of Fish and People

The Salish Sea is truly one of the gems of the Pacific Northwest, and it’s no secret that it needs our help. San Juan Safaris and San Juan Outfitters are proud to support numerous conservation efforts throughout this area, and we’re excited to announce that we’ve recently partnered with an amazing salmon fishery that is working nonstop to uphold a mission that we can stand behind:

“To promote the respectful and responsible harvesting of wild salmon and to protect the environment for future generations of fish and people.”

This is the mission statement of Lummi Island Wild Cooperative, a company based off of Lummi Island in the Salish Sea. They utilize a traditional fishing method called reefnetting, and as a result have been dubbed one of the ten most sustainable fisheries in the world. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife even calls this method “the original and still the best in selective fishing.” You’ve probably heard plenty of hub-bub about salmon conservation, but maybe the weight of this subject is something that’s still evading you. If you’re a killer whale lover, you should be a salmon lover as well. Salmon are an integral part of the marine ecosystem and their success and health is directly related to the health of the Southern Residents killer whales. Without salmon, our Southern Residents would simply have nothing to eat (salmon is their main source of food!), and they would more than likely disappear from this area forever (theĀ situation is dire).

That is why San Juan Safaris and Lummi Island Wild are partnering together to work towards a common objective: promoting the health and vibrancy of the Salish Sea marine ecosystem. Although salmon numbers are vastly lower than they were decades ago, companies like this one are focused on re-establishing the standard for sustainable fishing which will, hopefully, inspire a greater change in other fisheries through the Pacific Northwest and a focus on working with and for the environment, not against it.

And here’s why reefnetting is so cool. It is a historical Pacific Northwest fishing method, and although it was once practiced by many indigenous peoples throughout the Salish Sea, it is now practiced off of only a few islands in the San Juans. You can read more about the actual method here, but the most important things to note in regards to its sustainability are that 1) any unwanted bycatch is released unharmed back into the sea, and 2) it has the smallest carbon footprint of any salmon fishery – solar panels charge batteries that power the electric motors used in this fishery (meaning no fossil fuels are used!). Lummi Island Wild was actually the first solar powered salmon fishery in the world. It is amazing to see a company so focused and eco-conscious, which is crucial in today’s hazy confusion over the environment’s future and health.

Stay tuned for more updates on San Juan Safari’s and Lummi Island Wild’s partnership in fostering awareness about the conservation of the Salish Sea marine ecosystem. In the meantime, consider utilizing the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch app on your smartphone to learn more about where your seafood choices are coming from and how sustainably they were farmed/caught/harvested. It’ll help you choose seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment.

Remember, we’re all responsible for the health of the planet. It starts with you. Help us work towards a greener future, healthier killer whales, and an abundance of salmon!

Lauren Fritz, Whale Watch Naturalist, San Juan Safaris and San Juan Outfitters


T65A’s Spotted Again – Transient Killer Whales near Orcas Island

One of the most common family groups that we see here in the Salish Sea are the T65A’s, an adorable family of 5 consisting of a mom and her four offspring. Today we were happy to come across them again, and they graced us with quite a show, as they often tend to do when on the hunt!

When the Sea Hawk first arrived on scene, this family was already having a grand old time. Tails were flying, slapping the surface of the water with a big splash each time. Pectoral fins peaked out as these whales rolled onto their backs and their sides, and a few breaches were even witnessed! It seems like these orcas had just finished a big meal and were in their typical full-belly celebratory period.

However amazing it was, it didn’t last long. Not long after the last tail-slap, this family was on the hunt again. They moved fast up the channel, splitting up and converging on one point. This exciting maneuvering was soon followed by large plashes and lots of flailing whale parts coming out of the water. A kill was underway! We watched in awe as they finished off another unfortunate victim below the surface, most likely using an underwater reef as a hunting tool. Again, this big meal was followed by a happy display of tail breaches, full body breaches, and pec slaps. What an amazing family to have the honor of encountering on the regular here in the Salish Sea!