August was another solid month for orca whale watching on our San Juan Islands kayak tours. Starting in June, we had an unbroken streak of daily killer whale activity in Washington’s Salish Sea that ran for 83 straight days until August 20th when they mysteriously disappeared. Fortunately, the orcas quickly returned after being absent for only two days. Despite the threats to their survival in our local waters, killer whale watching in the San Juan Islands near Seattle, Washington is the best that can be found in the entire United States! Y68BQHEBG7DJ
August is the month when the resident families of orca whales begin to stray further and further from the primary hunting zone on the west side of San Juan Island as they pursue salmon all the way to the Fraser River’s mouth in Georgia Strait. These long range pursuits slightly reduce the whale watching success on our kayak day trips in August when compared to the peak killer whale watching months in spring and early summer. The one day kayak tours are affected the most since they spend the shortest amount of time in the orcas’ habitat. The kayak camping trips are only slightly affected by the changing hunting tactics of the killer whales.
Despite the killer whales’ pattern of more widely ranging hunts in late summer, our one day kayaking tours operate exclusively along the west side of San Juan Island as this remains the primary feeding area and offers us the best statistical chance of finding orca whales in any month. Our multi-day camping trips don’t experience a significant drop in whale sightings since these kayak adventures explore the outer San Juan Islands that the whales pass through en route to the secondary feeding area off the Fraser River delta.
Here’s the August whale watching report for Sea Quest Kayaking Tours:
The slight drop in August whale watch sightings is a pretty fair trade for enjoying the warmest, driest weather of the entire year. Temperatures typically range in the 70s and 80s and yield less than a half-inch of rainfall. We’ve experienced a few Augusts that didn’t shed a single drop of rain. Most people underestimate how dry and pleasant our rainshadow climate is in the San Juan Islands!
Photo credit to San Juan Island whale watching captain par excellence Jim Maya.
Vast numbers of leaping silvery salmon have been a frequent sight this summer in the San Juan Islands, a scintillating abundance that we haven’t enjoyed for the past couple of decades. This year’s salmon productivity has led to lots of well-fed wildlife and a record-setting orca whale watching kayak season in the San Juans near Seattle, Washington. Killer whales were observed for 81 straight days in the Salish Sea until a brief two day disappearance last week broke the spell. But the orcas quickly returned to start a new streak and are entertaining our kayak tour guests once again!
Salmon, especially chinook, are the most important food for killer whales in Washington state. Previously in our blog we discussed the huge resurgence of salmon in Washington in 2010. This summer the Columbia River had one of the top three chinook runs since 1938 and the largest ever sockeye run since 1955. These great results are most likely due to cyclical cooling sea temperatures, greater hatchery efforts, and increased spillage at dams to allow more young fish to migrate safely to sea. Dam spillage has been a highly controversial topic and is vigorously opposed by powerful lobbies including electric utilities, agriculture, and others. Federal dam regulators have backed these wealthy groups and strongly resist any attempts to increase spillage for salmon. But in 2006, thanks to the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge bravely ordered more water flow for the benefit of fish and we are now seeing the spectacular results.
The fantastic news for orca whales continues to come in! The Fraser River of British Columbia, Canada, is the other major salmon spawning river that strongly affects the orca whales of the San Juan Islands. The biggest sockeye run in nearly a century - estimated at up to 30 million fish - is moving through the San Juan Islands right now towards the Fraser and its tributaries. These sockeyes were hatched from a strong 2006 spawning, spent a year in freshwater, and then matured for three years in the ocean. More than three times the number predicted are returning this year and it's a bonanza for both wildlife and our San Juan Islands kayaking trip guests!
Over the past decade, Fraser River runs have been extremely disappointing. Last year fewer than 2 million salmon returned, a small fraction of the expected 10 million, and commercial fishing was not allowed. The culprit seemed to be excessively warm water that prevailed throughout the previous decade, both in the sea and in the river. Warm oceans result in reduced productivity where the salmon feed and record-setting river temperatures prevented the few survivors from successfully spawning. Many lean years for the San Juan Island killer whales was the result, adding pressure to a threatened population.
Biologists caution that 2010's run does not signal a sustained recovery of sockeye in the Fraser River. Although the Fraser's main path is free of the dams that impede salmon runs on other rivers such as the Columbia, sockeye production can quickly collapse again if warm water temperatures return as predicted by climatologists. Even now, the Fraser is well above average temperatures and well below average flow. So 2010 may stand out as a rare return to a previously glorious era in the turbulent history of the Fraser River sockeye and a reminder that we must remain committed to doing whatever is required to secure the continued survival of both orca whales and their primary prey. Please check out the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition to learn more about what you can do to help!
While super quiet sea kayaks are now accused of being a threat to orca whales in the San Juan Islands by a misguided and misinformed National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the same agency remains silent about the US Navy plans to increase ocean warfare training and testing of new sonar devices in the killer whales’ home waters.
The Navy readily admits that their testing and training affects 2.3 million marine mammals each year in the United States, ranging from seals and sea lions to dolphins and whales. Several endangered species and populations such as our resident killer whales have already been affected by testing. The new plans to expand the coastal ranges where the tests occur is expected to affect an additional half million marine mammals.
The high intensity sonar’s effect on marine mammals has been shown to interrupt normal feeding and resting, to cause significant injuries to ears and brains, and even cause death. Federal records show that since 2000 there have been four mass strandings of whales on beaches due to Navy sonar. Nevertheless, the Navy insists these are minor and temporary problems that do not warrant any precautions.
Most biologists believe that the Navy is underestimating the effects, especially in the long term. So far, environmentalist groups’ legal attempts to curtail the high-intensity sonar testing have been met with rejection by the courts. Even requests that the testing be moved to locations outside of established marine sanctuaries have been rejected. Over 3500 public comments in opposition to the navy testing in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary have been received by the federal government to no avail.
And once again, NFMS, the federal agency in charge of protecting the orca whales from the real threats that include declining salmon, elevated toxin levels, and brain-hemorrhaging sonar, prefers to focus its attention and our tax dollars on the dangers of sea kayak tours in the San Juan Islands. Talk about a red herring! Be sure to write to NMFS firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them they need to get to work on the real issues that threaten the survival of killer whales and that you support the environmentally-benign practice of using non-polluting and silent kayaks in their home waters
July was a great month for our killer whale watching kayak tours in the Salish Sea of Washington state. And our whale watching luck in the San Juan Islands has carried right through into August. As of August 17th the local orca whale pods have been sighted in the Salish Sea for 80 straight days - that must be a record!
Our San Juan Islands kayaking tours found orcas almost every day in July, same as in June.
Here are some more observations and news about our resident-type (salmon-eating) killer whales in the San Juan Islands from the month of July:
Food for the orca whales has been much more abundant this year compared to most of the prior decade. Previous blog entries have discussed the importance of chinook salmon as the primary prey species of the resident-type killer whales and we have good news on this front – nearly 300,000 chinooks migrated up the Columbia River this spring. This rates as one of the top 3 runs of this endangered species since the Bonneville Dam was constructed in 1938, the year when the majority of fish were blocked from their traditional spawning grounds and a massive multi-decade decline began. Biologists also report that an unusually high number of sockeye salmon has passed Bonneville Dam this spring, with the count of more than 270,000 sockeyes ranking as the highest since 1955.
The size of the spawning runs reflects a variety of factors, including plankton and baitfish productivity in the ocean. It appears that we are in the cooling phase of the North Pacific Ocean Decadal Oscillation, a decade long cycle that swings from cool to warm and back again. The cool phase is related to massive boosts in ocean productivity and gives some threatened species a chance to recover. Our orca whale baby booms correlate closely to the cooler phases of this cycle. Many seabirds that rely on baitfish are also experiencing a reprieve this year from their relentless and alarming declines over the past two decades. How long will their luck continue without humans making a serious effort to undo the damages we have wrought on the marine ecosystem?
The San Juan Islands are home to a year-round population of chinook salmon and sit directly in the path of migrating coho, sockeye, chum, and humpback salmons. This makes the San Juan Islands a very special habitat for the orca whales and the best place in the United States for kayaking with killer whales.
Photo credit to San Juan Island whale watching captain par excellence Jim Maya.
To contend with the ever increasing level of noise in the oceans, North Atlantic right whales have recently learned to yell in louder voices to each other. Some biologists are now speculating if orca whales living in our San Juan Islands kayaking routes must do the same.
June finished in fantastic fashion with orca whale watching sightings in the San Juan Islands on almost every day of the month. Our San Juan Islands kayaking tours encountered killer whales on nearly all of the camping trips! All of our 5-day San Juan kayak expeditions saw both orca whales and porpoises. All of the 3-day San Juan kayaking trips found killer whales, too. Our 2-day San Juan kayak tours scored a 60% success rate for orca whale watching in June, but managed to see at least one species of cetacean on all the tours. And finally, the 1-day San Juan kayaking trips succeeded in finding cetaceans on 94% of the trips in June, with killer whales seen on 74% of the trips. On the few trips that we missed them, it was often by mere minutes!
The summer diet of Washington’s killer whales consists mainly of an endangered species of salmon that spawns in a nearby river in Canada. Orca whales in the San Juan Islands prey heavily on chinook salmon from British Columbia's Fraser River, underscoring the connected nature of the Salish Sea’s threatened ecosystem. The chinook is the largest of all salmon species and is the killer whales’ favorite as they provide the largest meal for the effort expended.
From 2004-08, scientists in the San Juan Islands tracked the J, K and L pods of orcas (the families that make up the “Southern Resident Community” of killer whales) to learn what they were eating and where their food came from. The work involved following the orcas in small boats and gathering killer whale excrement, regurgitations, fish scales and other tissue with a fine mesh net. The scientists were often alerted by a dog specially trained to smell orca poop!
Examination, including DNA testing, revealed that orcas select chinook salmon almost exclusively, despite far more abundant numbers of sockeye and humpback salmon in the area. DNA indicated that 80-90% of the chinook salmon fish came from British Columbia's Fraser River, and only 6-14% from Puget Sound rivers.
This is not a surprise as the rivers in Puget Sound have been much more severely damaged by careless human activities and produce far fewer salmon than the rivers of Canada. The strongest run of Puget Sound chinook remaining is from the Skagit River where 25,000 chinook spawn. The Fraser River of Canada has runs at least four times larger, plus millions more of sockeye and other salmon species.
The San Juan Islands are perfectly situated so that runs of chinook must migrate along its shores en route to both of these productive rivers. This makes the San Juan Islands the ideal location for the orca whales to intercept salmon finding their way home to rivers in British Columbia and Washington. And that in turn makes the San Juan Island’s west side the best place to kayak with killer whales in the entire United States.
Photo credit to Astrid Van Ginnekin from the Center for Whale Research.
Here is a fishy tale of two species at the opposite end of the biological spectrum: a giant on the rise, and a tiny sliver of silver quickly becoming extinguished. The humpback whale’s recovery from near extinction is a heartening success story. Many whale biologists believe their population is now at 10% of historical levels, having bounced back from a mere 1% at their nadir less than fifty years ago. We hope their population is now large enough to survive a sudden shock such as another major oil spill in their habitat. Here's a photo from our Alaska kayaking tour area of humpback whales lunge feeding on herring inside a bubble net.
Herring formerly thrived in stupendously large schools throughout the Pacific Northwest - from Washington through Alaska. But human impacts, some that we’ve discussed before in the Sea Quest Kayaking blog, began a crushing decline in their southern range about 30 years ago, recently reducing them to 5% of historical levels in much of Washington. This insidious decline seems unstoppable and has swept northwards into Alaska where estimates of 50% drops in the past 20 years are alarming biologists, conservationists, and fishermen.
As herring are the keystone species in this marine ecosystem, their departure will be devastating and we are already feeling the impacts. In the San Juan Islands and elsewhere in Washington, marine birds dependent on herring have experienced declines from 90-99%. In Alaska, the northern population of Steller’s sea lion has plummeted, forcing them on to the federal threatened species list. Countless other impacts are reverberating throughout the marine ecosystem as the herring biomass shrinks, including reduced food for salmon which in turn feed the orca whales, bears and eagles.
In the eastern half of Prince William Sound of Alaska, researchers have been closely following the fortunes of both humpback whales and herring. This was the site of the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 that lead to a total crash of herring in the sound. It was expected that some recovery would occur over the past 21 years, but this has not happened. In an amazing display of ignorance, some people are beginning to blame the recovering population of humpback whales for the inability of herring to bounce back! Somehow they are overlooking the fact that a century ago, before the hand of man was felt, both species flourished in the productive waters of Prince William Sound.
It is true that more humpbacks are eating more herring, and that some humpbacks are remaining in Alaska for the winter in recent years. But this is just a return to normality for the humpback whaless. Both whales and herring have evolved together over tens of thousands of years to balance out the predation. A more sensible analysis would look at the lasting effects of the oil spill. Recent news and published studies show that significant amounts of toxic oil remain trapped in beach gravel, possibly leaching out to reduce herring fertility. It’s no wonder that Prince William Sound fishermen still curse Exxon for the absence of herring. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, formed to oversee restoration of the injured ecosystem, and backed by a $900 million civil settlement with the petroleum company, says the reasons for the poor herring recovery remain largely unknown.
Note: Sea Quest offers kayaking tours in the far western portion of the 100 mile-wide immensity of Prince William Sound, far from the site of the 1989 oil spill. This part of the sound is still rich with feeding humpback whales, roving pods of killer whales, sea otters, nesting eagles, and abundant marine wildlife!
Many big events in the small world of San Juan Island whale watching took place this week. And our San Juan Islands kayak tours were there to witness the best of it!
First, a run-down of some biological and scientific notes on orca whales from this week:
And now for the fun stuff! We had some great killer whale watching on our San Juan Islands kayak tours this week and here are some highlights:
Summer weather and orca whale watching are a great combination on a San Juan Islands kayaking vacation!
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.