In July of this year, my best friend Janine and I took a trip up to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington State. I really wanted us to go whale watching and I contacted Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching about their excursions. Little did I know that booking with them meant I would walk away armed with more knowledge about orcas than I had before!
Our tour was set to depart from downtown Friday Harbor aboard their newest boat, J1, on a beautiful Sunday evening. Everyone we met on the team were incredibly friendly and we felt at home almost immediately. Prior to launch, Captain Jeff Friedman and Captain Spencer Domico talked to our small group about everything we could and should expect. First and foremost, they could not guarantee we would see any whales, but would make every effort to accomplish this goal. What they could ensure was amazing scenery, a fun trip and, if we were interested, a lot of information. Regardless of a whale sighting, it was definitely going to be one amazing boat ride!
Speaking of boats, the boat that Maya’s Legacy uses has been in service just over a year, and is a rigid-hull boat with an inflatable collar designed in New Zealand and built in Washington. They were very intentional picking out their USCG-inspected boat. For one, it was designed and built to handle the Southern Ocean. The boat provides viewing areas in the bow and stern, and a cabin with 360-degree views. The windows can be completely raised to give everyone on the tour fantastic and unobstructed views when the boat slows down to view wildlife. This means there is no pushing or shoving and everyone has an opportunity to take great pictures. Janine and I got off a few great shots, if I do say so myself.
Back to our trip, the captains informed us that orcas had been spotted in Canadian territory and with that we were off! They credited the fantastic network among local whale watching operators that share whale sightings, letting us know that everyone cooperates on the water. This time, the whales were far north of where we were in Friday Harbor; the boat had to go northward about 45 minutes. During that time, we learned about the San Juan Islands and the orcas that inhabited the area.
Most of the islands in the San Juan Islands are volcanic, and made from material from the South Pacific (plate tectonics at work). The south sides of all of the islands are almost barren as ice-age glaciers scraped everything down and left only a very thin layer of top soil almost 10,000 years ago. A great example of this starkness is evident if you go hiking to Jakle’s Lagoon, just outside the town of Friday Harbor. You can see short stubby grasslands on one side of the islands and thick, rich, dense temperate rain forest right next to it. It is an amazing sight.
While traveling north, we also learned about the fascinating story of Safari Island (now known as Speiden Island) – a forgotten, real life Jurassic Park (minus the actual dinosaurs). I highly recommend asking your boat captain about the history of this island and the famous Walter Cronkite’s connection to it.
Everyone on San Juan Island we met on this trip shared a deep passion for the area, its environment, and held respect and reverence for the orcas that call the area home. Captain Jeff, who also happens to be the U.S. president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, takes this passion to another level. He advocates for the health and safety of this ecosystem. He told us how he had recently traveled to Washington, DC and met with staffers from the House and Senate to discuss the rapidly declining salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The dams contribute a small percentage of a large surplus of energy in the state of Washington. If some of the dams were breached, the endangered salmon runs would have access to thousands of miles of critical spawning habitat, which could boost salmon numbers that would help feed our endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. The fight continues. Salmon populations directly impact orcas found in this area.
There are different types of orcas that are found in the Salish Sea: transient orcas and resident orcas. You may hear those terms on the news all the time, but those names are misleading. Transient orcas eat marine mammals and over 300 reside in the Salish Sea. Resident orcas are endangered and feed on salmon – and with the declining salmon populations, you can imagine how devastating this has been for the resident orcas, who numbers only 76 with the recent loss of K13 “Skagit” and J52 “Sonic.” Transient orcas do not eat salmon and resident orcas do not eat the mammals. Despite the names neither of these types of orcas migrate.
Bigg’s Orcas are named after Michael Bigg, the grandfather of orca research. Dr. Bigg is the researcher who figured out how to identify individual orcas, through the gray marking behind their dorsal fin, known as a saddle patch. The Bigg’s Orcas feed on mammals such as harbor seals and harbor porpoise and have babies every 2-3 years. Did you know that all orcas are culturally distinct? I did not!!
The Puget Sound also has Humpback and Minke whales! Captain Jeff told us that the area went almost 100 years without seeing a Humpback Whale. It wasn’t until 2001 that they began returning, and now the area has seen a great resurgence in the gentle giants. Minke whales, the smallest of the filter feeders, feed in the Salish Sea during the summer months and it remains a mystery where they head in the winter.
Soon, we were in Canadian territory and there they were!! We were so fortunate to be able get to see the orcas! We traveled up to Trincomali Channel in British Columbia, along the shoreline of Galiano Island where we saw a small group including the T37As along with T51.
The T37As were one of the favorite families for Maya’s Legacy to see. T37A is the mom and she has four offspring at just 23 years old. Her oldest, T37A1, was traveling with a different family, which happens on occasion. The rest of her kids were with us that evening, including T37A2 (8 years old, gender unknown), T37A3 (5 years old, gender unknown) and T37A4 (2 years old, gender unknown). They were traveling with a male from a different family, T51, who is 36 years old. We spent about 30 minutes keeping our distance but observing the whales socialize and hunt. If something could be described as majestic and magical – this was it. I cannot even begin to write how it felt to watch these whales in their natural environment. They were beautiful and the scenic backdrop of Galiano Island behind them was National Geographic-worthy.
Alas, we finally had to head back to Friday Harbor but on the way, we saw a very pregnant looking seal who looked slightly miserable and just wanted to give birth!
I highly recommend going on a whale watching tour with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching. While we were very lucky to see orcas, what you learn about the whales and the Salish Sea from your boat Captains is worth its weight in gold.
Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching
Friday Harbor Marina
#14 Cannery Landing
Friday Harbor, WA 98250
Ph. (360) 378-7996