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Puget Sound’s awesome marine mammals

I wake early and achy in the back, a common occurrence nowadays. Not sure if my age is to blame. Maybe its the permanent skeletal tweaks two pregnancies have left with my body.

I curl my knees up to my chest and spin around out of my spot between my sleeping husband and the side of our berth, tucking my chin so I don’t hit my head on the low ceiling. With my feet facing out, I climb out of bed.

Once off the boat, the cool Seattle morning air douses me fully awake. The packed marina is quiet, the water still. I begin to walk toward the marina showers up on shore when hear a snort.

Just a few slips ahead of me lie five harbor seals. They look like furry sandbags in a range of sizes and color: White, gray, black. Barely as long as a toddler to as big as a large adult man. They all are staring at me, seeming as startled by my presence as I am of them.

The morning is windless and I am still about 15 feet away, but I can smell them. Musky and fishy and briny and warm. It’s off-putting and endearing, like smelling your own wet dog after its played in water. With every slow step I take toward the shoreline and closer to them, they one-by-one slide back into the water. I’m only 5 feet away when the biggest one finally goes, a beautiful harbor seal with mottled black fur that I assume is the big papa in the family.

Maybe I am just imagining it, but it seems like he was playing a game of chicken with me.

Marine mammals as backyard animals

Our son marveling at a jumping sea lion that swam up to our boat shortly after we spotted a pod of orcas.

Growing up in the Midwest, I got used to co-existing with squirrels and robins.

While living in Colorado, a crow would perch itself on the balcony outside our bedroom window and wake us up every morning while taunting our cat with its calls. Bears broke into the dumpster outside our townhome complex and troops of elk would bed down for the winter in a field near a new housing development.

In Portland, we have had frogs and ducks in our pond, a deer in a yard and a family of raccoons under a neighbor’s house. I gave up running in the early mornings after I once came across a group of coyotes roaming the street at the end of my block.

They won that game of chicken.

Now that I live part-time on our boat in Puget Sound, seagulls have replaced squirrels as the everyday amusing and sometimes annoying presence. We spot harbor seals most days in the marina, especially as the weather starts to warm, and find one or two patrolling nearly every harbor or bay we have moored in.

We often see sea lions on our trips, usually lazing on channel marker buoys, and porpoises, presumably chasing fish.

And we’ve gotten lucky–really lucky–and seen orcas twice from our boat and even a pod of gray whales.

A lifelong love for cetaceans

That amazing day earlier this spring when a pod of orcas came up to our boat.

I’ve been fascinated with whales and dolphins since I was a child, growing up on the high, dry plains of Kansas. I saw a television program once about the songs of humpback whales and dreamed of someday living near the ocean and becoming a marine biologist.

I wanted to understand those animals, how they communicate, how they think. To get closer to that mysterious magnificence. I lost that ambition as I got older and cycled toward careers that were more pragmatic and attainable in the Midwest.

But while living in California in my early 20s, we took a trip out to one of the Channel Islands to do some whale watching and sea kayaking. On the way, we saw dolphins and in the distance, a beautiful humpback whale came up spouting for breath.

I’ve held that image in my mind for so long without seeing anything else that I sometimes wonder how accurate it is. The impact was long-lasting, though; I know I wanted to see whales again. And admittedly, when I started to get more into sailing and we got a boat in Puget Sound, I hoped the odds I would see whales again would increase.

On a light wind day Memorial Day weekend a few years back, we saw porpoises, their short dorsal fins like triangles arching out of the water. Then the wind died almost completely, and we considered dropping the sails to fire up the motor. It was sunny and warm. I felt bored, but alert, like something new was coming. I needed to look for it.

About a hundred yards ahead of us, I saw a concentric circle moving in the water out of the corner of my eye. Like something had just dove down. And then a dorsal fin rose out of the water, tall and black. And then another. I had never seen them before, but I knew.

“Orcas!!!” I screamed. “Get up, get up, get up!” we called to the kids who were in the cabin below.

I knew we weren’t supposed to be too close to the orcas, but didn’t know what to do as they swam closer to our boat. All humans and vessels are required to stay 100 yards away from marine mammals and it is even more strict for orcas, specifically the threatened Southern Resident killer whales. Vessels are supposed to stay 400 yards behind or away from the path orcas take and 300 yards from either side of them.

Several other boats approached, too, to watch the orcas come up for the air. One even spy-hopped while we were watching and then continued eastward, away from us.

Sharing space with the natural world

We didn’t get pictures of the orcas, but minutes later a sea lion swam up to our boat and my husband got his phone to take pictures. We had seen sea lions swimming before, but never had one come toward us, diving and barking at us like this one.

It quickly became clear it was distressed, likely because of that pod of orcas we had just seen. Southern resident killer whales primarily subsist on a depleting supply of Chinook salmon–which is why they are a threatened species– but transient orcas, which are more commonly seen, eat other marine mammals, including sea lions.

We ordered both of our kids off the foredeck and back into the cockpit, fearing the sea lion would jump up and grab one of them.

By this point, we had our motor running but still had it in neutral. I moved it slowly into forward and drove away. Now the kids, who were so excited to see orcas and then a jumping sea lion, felt scared. It was a rude awakening to the facts of nature. These beasts, while beautiful, awe-inspiring and even cute, are animals that kill, protect, eat and die.

Since that day, we have seen gray whales near the southern end of Whidbey Island (sorry, no pictures) and orcas again, this time near Foulweather Bluff in Admiralty Inlet. We were able to get pictures and a video of the orcas this second time, and again, while our boat was in neutral and not moving, the orcas swam very close to our boat–about 20 feet, in fact.

We reported our sightings to the the Orca Network, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of the needs and health of whales and orcas in the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia. The network staff identified the pod as part of the Bigg’s Transient T65A family. I’m hoping that I can eventually develop the knowledge to help identify any other orcas we come across.

Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoise and more

A couple of seal lions rafting up to bask in the sun while drifting in currents near Joemma Beach State Park.

During our recent sail to Lopez Island in the San Juan’s we saw a colony of Stellar sea lions covering a massive rocky island just outside the entrance to Cattle Pass. Stellar sea lions are a near-threatened species. They are notable for large size–only walruses and a few species of elephant seals are larger–large necks and longer, golden fur.

Speaking of elephant seals–we have seen one twice! in Puget Sound. Both times, we spotted it in the water south of Alki Beach and near Burien. We saw a large mound floating in the water and thought it was an orphan boat fender. But as we got closer, it turned toward us, revealing its characteristic large snout. It must have been a male.

Elephant seal sightings are rare in Puget Sound. We also reported it to Seal Sitters, an all-volunteer organization that aims to protect seal and sea lions, especially from strandings.

While in the San Juans, we also glimpsed a small pod of Dall’s porpoises. They have markings and coloring much like orcas, but have much smaller dorsal fins that also are black and white.

I know humpbacks come into Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, but I haven’t seen one yet. There have even been reports of marine mammals not normally seen in this area, such as sperm whale, Byrde’s whale and even a ribbon seal.

Climate change, population growth and rising seas will no doubt impact all these animals and we may see more mammals that are normally seen elsewhere here in the Salish Sea and possibly fewer of those we considered locals.

I don’t like to use my writing to preach. I don’t think I am in a place to justifiably criticize the impact of others actions on the environment, but I am becoming more and more mindful of my actions and am trying to change them for the better. I feel a particular responsibility to do what our family can to minimize our impact and promote awareness and preservation of the Salish Sea.

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