Photo Courtesy of ridgefieldbirds.com
Spotting marine mammals in the Salish Sea is certainly a highlight of any charter vacation. The animal that immediately comes to most people’s minds is the resident orcas that call this region home. There are, however, opportunities throughout the islands to spot some of the smaller marine mammals that live in and around the local waters. For example, there is a good chance that you’ll spot a river otter during your charter if you are near a quiet and secluded shoreline. River otters are small, charismatic member of the weasel family that live along rocky shores. Adult river otters are typically 4-5′ in length and weigh roughly 30 lbs. Males are slightly larger than females. They have dark brown fur that is lighter on the belly, throat, and cheeks. Their long, thick whiskers look amusingly large compared to their small heads. They also have webbed feet. Their most identifiable feature, however, is their long, slender tail, which can be up to 1/3 of the animal’s overall length! River otters live in groups consisting of a mother and her many offspring. Sometimes these family groups will join other families to make large groups, but adult and juvenile males are almost always solitary.
If you’re lucky enough to find a group of river otters, you could be entertained by them for hours if you are so inclined. They are very playful and communicative. You may hear them whistling, growing, or chuckling while hunting or wrestling with their siblings. River otters are opportunistic feeders and will eat both aquatic and terrestrial animals, an unusual trait amongst marine mammals.
The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the best micro-brewed beer and small-batch wine in the country, and the San Juan Islands are a beautiful place to indulge. If you stop at Eastsound on Orcas Island during your charter, you can’t miss a visit to the Island Hoppin’ Brewery, located just north of town on Mt. Baker Rd. Island Hoppin’ is a new brewery, just opened in September of 2012, but it has already made a name for itself due to the brewers’ attention to quality and use of fresh ingredients. Come have a seat in the taproom and mingle with the locals while enjoying a nice cold glass of the current seasonal brew or one of the rotating handles. If this cooler fall weather has you in the mood for something a little more crisp and sweet, head over to Wescott’s Bay orchard on San Juan Island. This turn of the century orchard is now home to a distillery and also specializes in hard apple cider brewed using herbs and heirloom apples grown onsite. Tastings are available Thursday through Sunday from 1-4 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day. While you’re at Friday Harbor, pay a visit to the Island Wine Company, which is home to the San Juan Cellars winery. Conveniently located next to the ferry landing, the wines produced at this winery are only available on site. They source their grapes from Eastern Washington, and the dry wines they produce are characteristic of the grapes from that region. If you would prefer to sample wines with local flair, San Juan Vineyards is just across the island in Roche Harbor, and their vines have been producing island-grown grapes since 1996. Their charming tasting room is an old converted school house where you can relax, enjoy a glass (or a tasting flight!), and soak in the beauty of the vineyard.
Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are the most common and abundant marine mammal in the Salish Sea, and you are very likely to encounter them while you’re on charter. Harbor seals are quite small for marine mammals. Full grown, they average 5-6″ long and weigh around 300 lbs. They range in color from grey to tan, and most have spots, giving them a mottled appearance that provides excellent camouflage. Harbor seals are “true seals” because they lack external ear flaps. There are over 500 harbor seal haul out sites in Washington State alone, and if you’re lucky you will spot a large group of them sunning on the shore, or even doing their entertaining, shuffling-type movement on land. The only predators of the harbor seals in the San Juan Islands are the transient orca pods that occasionally hunt in the area. The resident pods do not eat marine mammals; their diet consists exclusively of fish, especially salmon. The lack of predation has allowed the harbor seal population to remain high in the Salish Sea, even though historically they were hunted for their fur, meat, and blubber. Harbor seals do not migrate seasonally, so you will be able to spot some no matter what time of year you visit the San Juans. They haul out most often, however, during the mid to late summer, after pupping season. During the same time of year we regularly have a group of seals hauled out on the docks around the San Juan Sailing office!
The most famous harbor seal in the San Juan Islands is Popeye. Popeye is a female harbor seal that has been a regular visitor to Friday Harbor since 1995. She is so common a site there that in 2005 the Port of Friday Harbor named her the official seal of the harbor! Popeye is easily recognizable because her left eye is a cloudy white color. Keep an eye out for her during your visit to Friday Harbor, and make sure to visit her granite statue in Fairweather park, located right next to the marina.