One of our local pods of resident-type (fish-eating) orca whales has returned to the San Juan Islands and we look forward to kayaking with the soon - maybe today! L-pod, the largest of the killer whale families that reside in the San Juan Islands from spring through fall, appeared on the west side of San Juan Island yesterday.
This spring our killer whale sightings in the San Juan Islands of Washington have been notable for two things: a late return of the resident killer whales and a large number of transient killer whales. The labels "resident" and "transient" are a bit of a misnomer. The two types are finally being widely recognized by biologists as separate species. In our opinion the resident killer whale should be called "salmon orca" or "fish orca" as they eat almost exclusively fish and only live in regions where fatty fish such as salmon and herring are abundant. The transient killer whales should be called "seal orca" or "common orca" since they eat mostly marine mammals and live globally thoughout all the world's oceans.
On the topic of common names, we should cease calling any of them "killer" whales! All marine mammals kill prey to survive - there are no exceptions. So singling out one species to be called the "killer" whale makes no sense at all! Their scientific name of Orcinus orca comes from the mythical Orcus - the Roman god of death and the underworld, who was also known as a punisher. This is at least more unique, and the common name "orca" has been used for centuries. English-speaking countries only began disparaging them as "killers" in the past century.
Welcome home L-pod! We are happy to have you back in the San Juan Islands to grace our kayaking tour routes with your awesome presence.
A mother humpback whale and her calf swam past our afternoon day trip in the San Juan Islands of Washington just as they launched their kayaks into the water. This is one of several sightings of humpbacks whales in the San Juan Islands and other Salish Sea locations this spring. We hope this will lead to a continued building of their numbers in Washington waters as they recover from persecution and near extinction in the previous century.
Once hunted to the brink of extinction, humpback whales have made a dramatic comeback in most of the world's oceans. A 2008 study estimates that the humpback population in the North Pacific Ocean hit a low of 1,500 whales before hunting of them was banned worldwide in 1966. In the last four decades that have recovered to a population of between 18,000 and 20,000 in the North Pacific Ocean. It is thought that their original population in the North Pacific was around 125,000 individuals so you see they still aren't anywhere near fully recovered yet. You can read more about the local Salish Sea whaling impacts in our previous blog entry Humpback Whale Seen on San Juan Island Kayaking Day Trip.
A humpback whale appeared on today's afternoon day trip in the San Juan Islands of Washington. This exciting discovery is the area's first humpback whale of the spring. We hope it remains in the area and is joined by more of its huge acrobatic fellows.
Today, humpback whales are uncommon visitors in Washington waterways from spring through fall. We believe they were formerly common residents until the early part of the last century, with about 30 individuals or more residing in the Salish Sea. Shore-based whaling stations near Victoria on Vancouver Island, using only row boats and hand-thrown harpoons, removed the entire population in less than a decade.
The resident killer whales have returned to the San Juan Islands of Washington this month just in time for the launch of our kayak tour season! At least two of the three resident orca whale pods have been sighted this month. Additionally, there has been a great deal of transient killer whale activity.
Today's afternoon kayaking trip witnessed several transient orca whales cruise in search of seals and sea lions for food. This morning we launched both a two-day San Juan Island kayaking tour and three-day San Juan Island kayaking trip, and both groups enjoyed some excellent transient killer whale watching right after finishing brief rests on a beach for lunch. All of our kayaking tours in Washington follow the exact routes that the orca whales stick to nearly all spring and summer - check out our San Juan Islands kayaking route maps page.
Thanks to the suggestions of our kayak tour guests, we have implemented an online reservation system for making reservations with Sea Quest. The hard work is mostly over and it is now operational for our San Juan Island kayak trips. In the next couple of days we will be adding the Alaska kayaking tours, the Washington birding tours, and Baja kayaking adventures. Please let us know if there any features that you would like to see added.
The online reservation system will allow you to make your tour reservations using a credit card in just a few minutes without leaving our website. All transactions are completely secure, encrypted, and your personal information remains solely with us. We've done some serious testing, including a security audit by the credit card companies, and everything is working very well. But please let us know if you experience any problems and our team will get on it immediately!
If you want to pay by check you will have to use the "old-fashioned" pen and paper method that we have been using for 20+ years as a tour operator. Our reservation page still allows you to download the form if you prefer to pay with check or money order. Of course, you can always call us to initiate any type of reservation and to ask us questions about our trips and tours.
See you outside this spring and summer!
Our spring birding tours on San Juan Island have been very productive with some occasional surprises. April is an interesting month for bird watching in Washington state as many winter visitors overlap with newly arriving summer breeders and passing migrants. This makes for some great diversity on our bird watching tours in April and May. Combined with the spring wildflowers and newly emerging butterflies, this is a vibrant time to get outside to pick the brains of our published birding and botany experts.
Since our recent birding tours have been restricted to the terrestrial habitats on San Juan Island, we will only cover the land-based birds in this bird-watching report. Starting from the top of the list, we've been hearing and seeing good raptor activity as breeding Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper's Hawks are making aerial flight displays and cackling loudly. "Coastal Forest" Merlins are a rare breeder in Washington state but one was recently seen on Cady Mountain in excellent nesting habitat. We hope it stays to become the first nesting record for the San Juan Islands!
Nocturnal birds of prey have also been gearing up for the nesting season. Great Horned and Barred Owls are booming their songs over long distances - they are likely sitting on eggs or feeding chicks. You have to be much closer to hear the smaller ventriloquil owls and we have been fortunate to have nesting pairs of both Western Screech-Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls most years near our San Juan office. This happens to be one of those favorable years as they have been tooting non-stop on clear nights.
A total of five gray whales have perished in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands over the last ten days, and all seem to have died from starvation. As we mentioned in a previous blog entry, this spate of gray whale deaths in Washington is not unusual. Large die-offs have occurred before, most recently in 1999. This might turn out to be another one of those bad years. Ominously, very few entered Magdalena Bay this winter, a critically important breeding area where we offer gray whale watching tours in Baja, Mexico.
The gray whales’ troubles this spring most likely arises from a lack of food last summer in the Bering Sea where they do almost all of their feeding. Gray whales fast most of the year and survive off of the thick blubber layer they obtain in Alaska waters each summer. Many may not have had sufficient fat reserves to have the energy needed for the rigors of breeding in the Baja lagoons. Others may not be able to survive the 1,000-1,400 mile long round-trip migration - the longest of any mammal in the world - without thick blubber to provide energy. So poor feeding conditions in the Bering Sea last year may be affecting them most strongly nearly a year later.
This week our one day kayaking trips in the San Juan Islands had great success with finding a variety of pinnipeds, the "fin-footed" mammals such as seals and sea lions. Four species in total were found on our sea kayaking tours this week, which is about the maximum that can be found in the inland waters of Washington. The list included Steller's Sea Lions, California Sea Lions, and Harbor Seals.
But the big star of the show was a Northern Elephant Seal, the largest of all seal species in the world. Adult males weigh 3 to 4 tons, the same average weight of our local killer whales! Most of the elephant seals we see while kayaking in the San Juan Islands are these gigantic adult males. For some reason the females do not like to enter the Salish Sea and remain further south near their California breeding beaches.
Most of the elephant seals that visit the San Juan Islands never come ashore. When not breeding or moulting, they have no reason to come ashore and stay out at sea for up to 8 months straight. Occasionally, a young male elephant seal will decide that a San Juan Island beach is the perfect place to moult its skin and fur. Last summer one did exactly that, causing a lot of commotion at our favorite kayak launching beach!
Each spring around 20,000 gray whales migrate north from Mexico along the Pacific coast of Washington. Perhaps 1% of these, around 200 gray whales will enter the inland waters of the Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands, treating kayaking trip participants to some amazing whale watching encounters.
Only a dozen or so gray whales venture all the way into Puget Sound proper, mostly staying in the north sound where they will often feed for several days. Just a few errant gray whales venture into the south sound each year, and sadly, these strays frequently end up dead on the beach.
Some excited boaters today confirmed an attack by killer whales on an adult gray by videotaping the encounter. The attack took place southeast of the San Juan Islands while whale watching near Whidbey and Camano Islands. This is the same area that a pod of "transient" killer whales attacked gray whales with a calf that we reported on in an earlier entry.