Whales & Marine Life
Other Marine Life:
Giant Pacific Octopus | Sunflower Sea Star | Scallops | Barnacles |
Orca or Killer Whale
Orcas are highly intelligent and social animals, traveling in groups called pods. Their fierce predatory style won them the nickname of “killer whale” in spite of the fact that Orcas, both in the wild and in captivity, show incredible curiosity, awareness and gentleness toward people. Orcas have no natural predators except for humans. Whaling, aquarium capture, pollution and the reduction of food supply have taken a toll on these majestic animals.
In the waters of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands there are two different types of killer whales known as transient and resident Orcas. Transient Orcas travel a much broader range than residents. The transient Orcas we see here travel between Alaska and the mid-Californian coast and travel in small pods, usually between one and seven whales. They feed primarily on marine mammals such as seals and sea lions but will also form large temporary pods in order to attack other species of whales like the Gray or Minke. There is no socializing, interaction or breeding between transient and resident Orcas. In fact, resident Orcas will chase transients out of the area, making transient Orca sightings somewhat rare in these waters. Resident Orcas have a smaller and more defined traveling range, spending months at a time in a specific area. They travel in family oriented pods of 20-40 whales. When a baby is born into a pod it is a group effort to raise it. Residents spend their entire life with the pod into which they were born. They will interact, socialize and breed with other resident pods but they will not change from one pod to another. Their diet is made up of fish and squid with the primary food source being salmon.
The resident Orcas that reside in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands are known as the Southern Resident Community and are one of the best-studied Orca populations in the world. Their growing community is made up of three distinct pods known as J, K and L pods. From spring throughout the summer and sometimes into the fall, these resident whales can be seen regularly in the San Juan Islands as they seek out the salmon returning to spawn. In the fall and winter months, they will leave protected waters, sometimes for months, and swim out to sea to follow the salmon. An adult Orca must consume about 40 salmon a day, so they spend considerable time hunting.
Orcas are black in color with white undersides as well as white markings located behind the eyes and dorsal fin. The largest of the dolphin family, male Orcas average 27 feet in length and weigh eight tons with dorsal fins growing as high as 6 feet. Females are smaller, growing to an average 23 feet and weighing six tons. Their dorsal fins only grow to two feet and are more curved, making it possible to tell the genders apart while viewing them from the boat. To spot Orcas, look for their black dorsal fins rising through the water. It is easier to spot adult males as their dorsal fins are so tall and distinct. Also, scan the horizon for rising puffs of steam known as a blow. This is a sign that a whale is coming to the surface to breathe. An Orca may jump clear of the water and crash back down on its back or side. This is known as breach. It is also common to see an Orca slap its tail on the water’s surface, a behavior called tail lobbing. Another way to get a great view is to watch for spyhopping. This is when an Orca hangs vertically in the water and sticks its head above the surface to get a look at what is going on out of the water.
Gray whales are the most coastal of the baleen whales (whales lacking teeth) and are often found within a few miles of shore as they migrate from Alaska to Baja. Gray whales have baleen (a hairy substance) instead of teeth. To feed, they fill their vast mouths with mud from the sea bottom and filter it through their baleen to capture amphipods and other small animals. This is the only type of whale to feed in this manner.
The average adult Gray whale reaches 50 feet and weighs up to 35 tons. They have robust bodies that are mottled gray, marked with orange patches that are caused by parasitic whale lice. Their heads often have areas encrusted by barnacles. To spot this animal, look for a tall and bushy blow near shore as they feed in shallow water. These whales lack a dorsal fin and show their tails when diving. Gray whales will quite often swim alongside boats to “people watch,” and are also known to breach.
Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales. To feed, the Minke takes in huge mouthfuls of water then, using its tongue, pushes the water back out of its mouth catching small fish and plankton in its bristly baleen.
Minke whales are dark grey to black with a white underside and a white patch on both front flippers. They often have a pale chevron behind their heads. Adults grow to an average size of 30 feet and weigh between five and ten tons and females tend to be larger than males. The Minke are usually solitary but may be seen in groups of up to three whales. They are normally difficult to approach but some are curious and will come close to boats for a better look. They are not as acrobatic as Orcas but they will breach, usually three times in a row. These whales have also been observed making dolphin-like dives in the water. To spot a Minke whale look for a low, bushy blow at the water line as well as watching for the broad black back and small dorsal fin. When the animal dives, the dorsal fin is visible well above the water but the tail rarely breaks the surface.
Dall’s porpoises are the largest porpoises in the region reaching six feet or more in length and weighing up to 500 pounds. They superficially resemble baby Orcas because of similar coloring. Their body is black with a white belly and flanks. The top of their dorsal fin is white as well. They travel in pods that average 10-20 individuals but may gather in the hundreds at exceptionally good feeding grounds.
The behavior of these animals has been aptly described as hyperactive. They can swim over 35 mph and are often seen darting to and fro and then suddenly disappearing. When viewing these animals, it is not uncommon to see their dorsal fins and sides but they rarely take their tail out of the water. This leads to their nickname of “broken tail.” To spot these porpoises, look for small black dorsal fins cleaving quickly through the water. This is often accompanied by a distinctive spray of water called a “rooster tail”, caused by water moving off of the animal’s head when they surface to breathe while traveling at high speeds.
This is both the most common marine mammal in the area and the easiest to spot. Harbor seals are true seals. They have short necks, small front flippers and are unable to pull their hind flippers under their bodies. This makes their movements out of the water ungainly and inchworm-like, landing them the nick name “ crawling seal”. Harbor seals’ distinct torpedo shape is the result of a thick layer of fat, called blubber, that insulates them from the frigid waters of the Pacific Northwest. The shape is also important in making the seal hydrodynamic so it can swim quickly and efficiently. Their spotted fur varies from nearly white to almost black, and adults are on average six feet in length and weigh about 250 pounds.
These seals are incredible hunters and are able to dive up to 600 feet deep and stay submerged over 25 minutes to find their prey of fish. They are mostly nocturnal feeders so it is quite easy to spot them during the day. Look on rock outcroppings near the water line and beaches for their familiar shape stretched out for a mid-day nap.
Steller Sea Lion
Sea lions differ from seals in a variety of ways. They have elongated necks and long front flippers that are used for propulsion when swimming. They are also able to pull their hind flippers under their body. This enables them to use their flippers for four-legged movement, hence the name “walking seals”.
The Steller Sea Lion is the largest in the region and the least commonly seen. They are shy animals and their numbers were so depleted in the 1960s and 70s that they remain on the threatened list today. The males are much larger than the females averaging nine feet, 1,500 pounds and seven feet, 600 pounds respectively. They are light brown to blond but appear tan in the water. The males also develop a thickened neck and mane as they age. Steller Sea Lions are opportunistic feeders and may be able to dive to 600 feet or more.
The Steller Sea Lion can also be differentiated from the California Sea Lion by its vocalizations. The Stellar will rumble, growl and even roar but they do not bark. To spot this animal look on secluded rocky outcroppings or beaches with little boat traffic.
California Sea Lion
This species is the most abundant sea lion in the area even though they are almost exclusively male. Most females remain at their breeding grounds in California year round while the males migrate north. They stay from fall through late spring, feeding on fish and preparing for the summer breeding season. Many males return to California in the summer, but there is a significant population that chooses to remain here year round. These are usually males either too young or too old to win territorial fights in the breeding grounds.
California Sea Lions are dark brown and appear black when in the water. The males average eight feet in length and weigh around 800 pounds. The males also develop a prominent raised forehead called a sagittal crest. Females average five feet and 250 pounds. To spot California Sea Lions, look on rock outcroppings close to the water. They are also quite fond of lounging on buoys and docks. Their dog-like barks are also a sure indication of their presence.
Salmon are anadromous fish. They are born in freshwater, migrate to salt water and return to freshwater to spawn. After the returning adults reproduce, they die, their bodies providing nourishment to the river system. The salmon’s life is not an easy one and mortality is high. On average, a female salmon will lay approximately 4,000 eggs but only two will survive to return to their spawning grounds.
There are five species of salmon found in Puget Sound and San Juan Islands. These are the Chinook, Coho, Chum, Pink and Sockeye.
Chinook are the largest salmon species. At full growth they vary from five to 30 pounds. When these fish exceed 30 pounds, they are often called “king” or “tyee” salmon. The largest Chinook on record weighed an incredible 126 pounds.
The best time to view salmon is during the late summer and fall when they are returning to their native streams. They can be seen struggling up salmon ladders at dams or you may glimpse them in shallow water as they swim upstream.
The Geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) is the world’s largest burrowing clam, and Puget Sound supports most of the world’s population. An average Geoduck has a shell length of eight inches and a siphon that extends another nine inches even when fully retracted. Older monsters can have shells over one and a half feet with three foot siphons and can exceed 20 pounds. To see and perhaps capture a Geoduck requires a very low tide or diving equipment.
Giant Pacific Octopus
The largest species in the world, this octopus can obtain an arm span of over 25 feet, but a seven to eight feet arm span is more common. Though they grow to an amazing size, they live only three to five years and mate only once in their lifetime. Octopuses have eight arms lined with suction cups and highly developed eyesight. They catch fish, crab and a variety of other prey with their arms, eating with a birdlike beak. Octopuses are able to change the color of their bodies to blend in with their environment, aiding them in hunting and hiding from predators.
They are shy animals and when confronted will usually swim away while emitting black ink to camouflage their departure. These animals are highly intelligent and in captivity, have been taught to negotiate mazes and open jars containing food. To view these animals in the wild, you almost certainly have to scuba dive as they are usually found deeper than 30 feet, living in crevices and caves.
Sunflower Sea Star
Sunflower Sea Stars are quite common in these waters and can regularly be viewed during low tides. They are the largest species of sea star in the world sometimes growing to a diameter of three to four feet and possessing as many as 24 arms. Each arm has hundreds of tube feet on the underside that work like suction cups enabling the animals to move around and cling to rocks or pilings. This sea star is predatory — eating clams, mussels, crabs and other invertebrates. If a sea star loses an arm or another body part, it can regenerate, or grow back, the missing limb. They are colorful, ranging from bright orange to deep purple. To spot Sunflower Sea Stars, look on rocky beaches during low tide or in tide pools. Sunflower Sea Stars can also be regularly found clinging to the pilings at our dock in Friday Harbor.
Scallops are bivalves, mollusks with two shells attached by a hinge. They can attach themselves to rocks with byssal threads but are also able to swim through the water by flapping their two shells. They use this skill to escape predators such as sea stars. They are usually found in beds under 150 feet or in tide pools during very low tides. Scallops have small, light-sensitive eyes located on their mantle just inside the top of the shell and are visible when the shells are partially open.
Barnacles are inter-tidal crustaceans found living on hard surfaces such as rocks. As larva, barnacles resemble crabs and live amongst the coastal plankton. When adulthood approaches, the barnacle finds a rock or other appropriate surface to live permanently. Once a place is chosen, the barnacle flips over and glues its head to the surface using a very powerful adhesive. (The adhesive that barnacles excrete is the strongest in nature — so strong it was used in dentistry.) It then secretes a shell around itself and lives out its life filtering food out of the water with its bristly feet. There are several different species of barnacles found on our beaches. To find them, look for their white or gray “houses” attached to rocks, boat hulls, etc. during low tide.