We are definitely in the midst of prime whale watching season, with great sightings over the past two weeks. We’ve primarily spotted Transient / Bigg’s Orca whales, as well as Humpback and Minke whales. Combined with beautiful, sunny weather it’s been quite a summer, but it’s not over yet. We’re running for a few more weeks, through September 24th, so now is a great time to avoid the crowds and come aboard for a memorable whale watching experience.
The photos here are courtesy of Jim Bachman, who joined us on our Deluxe Whale Watching tour on Sunday, September 3rd – in addition to great viewing of Transient Orcas, we also saw seals and a wide variety of sea birds.
Yesterday was a great day – we saw whales on all 5 of our cruises, including our Deluxe and Express whale watching tours, the Sucia Island picnic cruise, the evening crab dinner cruise and a private charter. It was a group of transient Orcas (T65A’s) out in the northern San Juans. While our success rate is close to 95% on our whale watching tours for the season it was a rare treat to be able to see them on our other tours as well.
One of our naturalists, Victoria Souze, recently wrote an article about the transient/Bigg’s Orca whales for the Bellingham Herald – check it out at: https://goo.gl/w7tFXD
It’s been an amazing, and interesting whale watching season so far. Our success rate for seeing whales on our whale watching tours has never been better – since we started in early May we have seen whales on nearly 98% of our tours. While we have occasionally seen the resident pods of orca whales, most of our sightings have been of transient orcas and humpback whales. Unlike resident orcas, which primarily feed on salmon, transient orca whales feed on larger prey such as harbor seals. The large population of harbor seals in the San Juan Islands has resulted in more transient orcas being “less transient” this summer.
Sightings have been equally good on all three of our whale watching tours – our Deluxe, Express and Evening tours. If you would like to see whales in their natural habitat, with the stunning scenery of the San Juan Islands, now is the perfect time to sign up for a tour!
We set out on Friday to go to Smith Island, the only place in the San Juan Islands that has a nesting colony of tufted puffins. Unfortunately, the weather was too windy to venture out of the protection of the islands. Smith Island is a few miles south of the San Juans in unprotected waters.
Instead we were treated to over an hour of spending time with Bigg’s (formerly known as transient) killer whales. We were able to see a Bigg’s killer whale family known as the T49’s. These killer whales eat marine mammals, and they were actively hunting through the passes between the islands. There were numerous harbor seals on the rocky haul outs with newborn pups, and pregnant females. Harbor porpoise were also observed feeding in the tidal rips.
We made the best of our inner island trip to sight birds, and were well rewarded. We saw numerous pigeon guillemotts and rhinocerous auklets; both of these species are related to the tufted puffins.
Also sighted were:
Bald Eagles and nest
Double crested and Pelagic Cormorants
Great Blue Herons
Glaucous Wing Gulls
Today we were fortunate to have an amazing morning with a group of transient orca whales (T65A’s) only 20 minutes after leaving the dock. We were the first vessel with them, meeting up with them in the waters between Lummi and Eliza Islands. There were 5 adults and a baby – all were quite playful for a while (especially the baby), with tail slaps, flips and a spy hop. After a bit they pointed north and at about 4 kts, went up Hales passage. Combined with beautiful blue sky and plentiful sunshine, it was an incredible start to the day!
I started working for San Juan Cruises as finals week was wrapping up, not really knowing what I was getting into. As a student at Western Washington University, I was looking for a fun summer job so I could stay in Bellingham for summer break. I had never been whale watching before applying, so I was pleasantly surprised that I would be “required” to go on the Deluxe Whale Watching cruise after being hired. I chose to go out on a Saturday and I was not going to let the dreary Washington weather or the choppiness of Bellingham Bay deter me that morning. We headed out, making our way towards San Juan Island for our shore visit to Friday Harbor. Along the way, Captain Jeff entertained us with facts and history about the various islands we passed, pointing out wildlife like harbor seals and porpoises.
I spent the hour and a half visit in Friday Harbor perusing the art galleries and the San Juan Island Farmers Market, which boasted an array of local farmers and artisans. I left with a warm chocolate croissant in hand, and returned to the boat for a much awaited lunch of BBQ chicken and wild salmon, hot, buttery biscuits, rice pilaf, and fudgy brownies for (my second) dessert. By the time we left Friday Harbor, the skies had cleared and the sun was shining; it had turned into a beautiful day for whale watching. As we ate, the captain announced that there had been whale sightings just south of Victoria. We arrived on scene just in time to see a group of Transient orcas moving in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, dorsal fins towering out of the water and blow holes spouting. I had never seen anything so beautiful or captivating.
After sticking with the orcas for some time, the captain gave us a choice—there was a humpback sighting not too far from where we were. The decision was unanimous, and we set off in search of a whale named Split-fin. Split-fin is frequently seen in the waters around the San Juan Islands and has made an appearance every summer since 2006. We were able to watch Split-fin for quite a while, his fluke at least six to seven feet across. As someone who had never seen a whale in real life, I was astounded by the sheer size of this amazing creature. Split-fin would dive for about ten minutes, resurface for a few minutes, and then dive again, flashing his fluke each time.
I spent the majority of the ride back to Bellingham on the outdoor deck, which had been warmed by the sun during our stop to watch Split-fin. As we made our way through Rosario Strait we past several Dall’s porpoises, a handful of sunbathing seals, and two stoic eagles perched atop a buoy. As our cruise came to a close and we entered Bellingham Bay, I was reminded again of how beautiful and unique this part of the world is. The Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands are one of a kind, and this cruise definitely reaffirmed my love for the Pacific Northwest.
This weekend was a reminder that summer isn’t too far away – beautiful sunny weather in the San Juans, the perfect setting for whale watching. Saturday and Sunday were all about humpback whales – we had great sightings both days up north of Patos Island, very close to the Canadian border. We have a few school field trips going out this week, with our next public whale watching tour scheduled for this Saturday. After that, we’ll be running whale watching tours daily through the end of September. We hope to see you aboard sometime soon!
The season is going great so far, with lots of great orca and humpback whale sightings. We’ve now done 4 Deluxe whale watching tours, plus several school field trips, and have seen orcas and/or humpbacks on every trip so far, with tours taking us west and north of the San Juan Islands so far. With great sightings so far, and a forecast for sun coming into the weekend, now’s a great time to join us. The Deluxe whale watching tour includes a tour of the San Juan Islands, a shore visit in Friday Harbor and our Northwest salmon & chicken buffet.
Our 2017 season kicked off with decent weather, but excellent whale sightings! We found a playful, active Humpback on Saturday, just north of Saturna Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands, and Sunday was Orca whales – lots and lots of Orcas (J-Pod) on the west side of San Juan Island. Thanks to Jim Bachman, we have some great photos from Saturday’s cruise. In addition to the Humpback whale, we also saw lots of other wildlife. For more info on our Deluxe Whale Watching tour, visit: https://whales.com/whale-watching/full-day-whale-watching-adventure-cruise/
This summer we have added a new whale watching tour that will go out Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during July and August. It’s a great chance to see the islands when summer weather is at it’s peek, while having a great chance of seeing whales and other wildlife. The evening is capped with a delicious, freshly prepared lasagna and Caesar salad dinner.
Departing at 4 pm from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, we’ll cruise into the San Juan Islands, using information from our whale spotting network to find the best locations for viewing whales that evening. You’ll enjoy great views from the outdoor upper deck and along the bow of the boat, enjoying informative and entertaining narration from our captain.
The Salish Sea has ample indoor and outdoor seating, a bar with beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages available for purchase, and a restroom.