Special Sighting: San Juan Islands

Sighting from Research Vessel Zephyr on July 18, 2017

 R/V Zephyr at sunset on Sucia Island.

R/V Zephyr at sunset on Sucia Island.

I spent a few days in July with my family in the San Juan Islands. We sailed on the R/V Zephyr with Captain Ron and Captain Ashley, who knew that I was particularly interested in seeing wildlife. I was particularly interested in seeing orcas - I had never seen them in the wild before.  Zephyr was at one point a San Francisco pilot boat and was later converted to a research vessel. 

 Perfect conditions on the east side of Orcas Island. 

Perfect conditions on the east side of Orcas Island. 

We hadn't been on board for more than twenty minutes when the first spouts were spotted about a mile away by Peapod Rocks (48.639684, -122.752462). As we slowly approached, we could make out the distinctive dorsal fins of orcas. I counted six spouts in total.

 The first spouts!

The first spouts!

 Harbor seal checking us out.

Harbor seal checking us out.

There were five or six whale watching vessels nearby, as well as a small patrol boat making sure everyone followed the restrictions. We slowed down and stayed outside of the whale watching vessels, always at least 300 yards away. There was no wind at all, and the sea was like glass - absolutely perfect conditions. A harbor seal bobbed along side us for a few minutes before disappearing beneath the surface.

We watched the orcas from a distance with the boat in neutral for about 20 minutes before many of the observing boats began to leave. The whales eventually disappeared from our sight, and we continued on around the eastern tip of Orcas Island, where we sighted them again at the cliffs of Lawrence Point. There was only one other boat besides us, and both of us moved slowly to avoid disturbing the whales. At one point as we floated in neutral, the group came within 50 feet of our bow, allowing us to see clearly that there were two calves in the group.

The whales moved past us and gave the other sailboat nearby a close encounter as well before moving on Clark and Barnes Islands, where they hunted in the shallow bays.

 Lucky sailboat!

Lucky sailboat!

 Hunting in the shallow bays. 

Hunting in the shallow bays. 

Ashley informed me that these orcas were identified as transients T37 and daughter T37B with her grandoffspring, along with the T34s.

 Grand offspring!

Grand offspring!

We eventually left the orcas and continued on to Sucia Island (48.760951, -122.900890), where we anchored for the night. Around sunset we went on a short kayaking expedition and discovered a multitude of harbor seals with their pups and even spotted a family of river otters.

We saw pigeon guillemots, black oystercatchers, cormorants, gulls, herons, murres, and surf scoters. My mom, who opted for an expedition on Vortex instead of kayaking, was lucky enough to spot some bald eagles.

The glassy water under us was a galaxy of moon jellies, fish, and purple sea stars. A beautiful ending to a very exciting day! Huge thanks to Captains Ron and Ashley for their expertise. I especially appreciated their respect for the wildlife and knowledge of the San Juan Islands. They also took all of the photos of us on this post! You can find them on Facebook if you want to know more about what they do. 

Looking forward to being back on board Zephyr soon!