It’s August in the San Juan Islands and we can finally start to feel the air cool off, more and more mornings are starting out gray and foggy before the sun burns off the moisture, and the sun is rising at a much more reasonable time now. Us humans are starting to enjoy our last few weeks of summer evenings and beach days. The whales, however, are still in their full summer frenzy.
Humpback whales travel to the Salish Sea and behind every spring starting in April to return to their yearly summer feeding grounds. Their journey can be up to 15,000 miles and ends in feast after feast of krill and small schooling fish in these productive northern waters. Today we took our evening trip south of San Juan Island to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to watch three humpback whales perform their daily ritual of feeding, feeding, digesting, and more feeding. After spending all winter fasting and mating in the crystal clear (but unproductive) waters surrounding Hawaii, who can blame them for only having food on their mind? Every day an adult humpback whale will each 1 ton to bulk up for the upcoming winter, but with a throat the size of a grapefruit, their diet has to be centered around something small and energy rich. Humpbacks feed mostly on krill and small schooling fish, capturing hundreds or thousands in their mouths in one giant gulp. The skin on their lower bodies is expandable to encompass about 15,000 gallons of water and prey at a time, which gets pushed to the front of their mouths and forces against baleen plates to filter all the yummy bits from the dehydrating saltwater.
The three humpback whales that we were watching were perusing the waters over an underwater bank, a favorite feeding spot for baleen whales due to its abundance of small prey animals. After a few surfacings and powerful blows they would dive a little deeper, bringing their tails out of the water for extra propulsion for a beautiful fluke-out dive, to feed on animals farther down in the water column.
After getting some amazing looks at these massive whales, we headed back to Friday Harbor, but not before stopping to look at some male Stellers sea lions hauled out majestically on a rocky island, fresh from their Alaskan migration and on their way back to California.
Naturalist Sarah C.
M/V Sea Lion