J-Pod Southern Resident Orcas
August 18, 2018
We set out this morning with high hopes of finding whales and discovering other surprises in the process. We received a report that one of the Southern Resident pods known as J-pod was inbound from the open Pacific! It was a long run, but worth it because we came across ALL of J-pod near Sooke!
We first spotted Slick (J-16) and then two of her daughters- Alki (J-36) and Echo (J-42). Closer towards the shoreline we spotted her oldest offspring- Big Mike (J-26)! Mike is 27 years old this year and very easy to identify with his unique saddlepatch. We were getting worried because we were not seeing little Scarlet (J-50), the youngest offspring of Slick and one of the Southern Residents that has been in the news for much of this summer. Scarlet is almost 4 years old but is severely suffering from malnutrition and possibly from round worms. Scientists are keeping a close watch on her and she has even received a dose of antibiotics. American scientists have even attempted to feed her live salmon but do not know if she took any of them. It was heart-warming to see her surface close to her Mom, she sure seems to be a little fighter! The Center for Whale Research was there to check on her.
We saw many more members of J-pod including two teenaged males named Cookie (J-38) and Mako (J-39). Their dorsal fins are “sprouting”, becoming straighter and taller as they mature. It was off to Race Rocks next where we found our largest furry friends- the California and Steller sea lions! They baked, growled and roared while enjoying the warmth of the day. We also spotted the cutest character on the water- Ollie the Sea Otter! he was just chilling out in the Bull Kelp bed. It was an exciting morning to be out on the sea!
It was one of those really lucky days where we did not have to travel far to see the ocean’s top predators- orcas! We knew the Southern Residents would probably still be traveling east across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We reached all of J-pod as they traveled in small groups, dorsal fins sweeping above the surface in unison. We even got to see some playful behavior with fun tail slaps and rolls! J-pod has 23 members and are part of the endangered Southern Resident orcas who specialize on Chinook salmon for food. It is always amazing to see them traveling all together and listening to their powerful exhales when we shut down.
We then cruised slightly west where we found a humpback whale! Four to six times larger than the orca, humpbacks feed on krill and small fish. They are here to consume 1-3 tons of food per day as they build up their fat stores to go on their long migration down to Mexico, Costa Rica or Hawaii and back over winter. The past three years have seen the return of humpbacks to our area in unprecedented numbers. We now see humpbacks multiple times a week every week from March until the end of October. We used to only really see them in September and October, so it has been a wonderful change!
We headed to our next destination- Race Rocks Lighthouse where we admired the 158 year old black and white tower, complimented by piles of sea lions, seals and of course, the all the noisy marine birds! Steller sea lions wrestled in the shallw waters while Ollie the Sea Otter rested in the Bull Kelp beds. Even the chubby Harbour Seals were enjoying the day, napping on the islets. It was a perfect afternoon full of excitement on the water!
Even after years of whale watching, you can always see something new! We headed towards the west side of San Juan Island this evening to catch up with J-pod, who we had seen earlier today. What we saw was something new to all staff onboard, including Captain Liz who has been driving boats in the whale watching industry for 30 years! We were shocked to find that every single Resident orca we could see was chasing down a Harbour porpoise!
Resident killer whales only eat fish and specialize on Chinook salmon, so they were not hunting them for food. We are not sure whether the chasing was violent or whether they were jsut having fun. A few years ago, Granny-who was the oldest known orca in the world- caught and killed a Harbour porpoise and then carried it around for awhile. L-pod whales have also been seen chasing porpoises once, but this is a very strange behavior that scientists could not explain for sure. It was fun to watch them zip around, lunge and leap after the little cetaceans, though we do not know if it was as fun for them!
As we were leaving scene, we actually got one good glimpse of a minke whale off our bow, a rare sight for sure! The cetacean party continued with a humpback whale! When this one surfaced in the fading light, we noticed it had a bent tail fluke. We cruised back to Victoria with a Quadruple Cetacean trip under our belt- a rare and exciting kind of trip indeed!
View more beautiful tour photos here.