Around these parts, the orcas and seals get a lot of attention, but they aren’t the only species of fascinating and beautiful wildlife that can be found here. Far from it, in fact. Whale-watching may be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of water activities in the San Juan Islands…unless you’re a scuba diver.
The waters of the Salish Sea offer some of the most spectacular scuba diving opportunities in North America, with widely varied underwater landscapes and a dazzling variety of reef creatures, such as sea stars. We have them in colors so vibrant you might not believe they are natural – purple, pink, orange and more.
But since June 2013, visitors, divers and scientists have started noticing an alarming trend all up and down the Pacific Coast, spreading from Alaska to Mexico and everywhere in between. Our sea stars on San Juan Island and Orcas Island have been developing a condition called “sea star wasting syndrome” at an alarming rate, causing massive die-offs.
“Sea star wasting disease is a general description of a set of symptoms that are found in sea stars,” says a report found on
UC of Santa Cruz’s website. Typically, lesions appear in the ectoderm followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions, which leads to eventual fragmentation of the body and death.”
Basically, the sea stars start to waste away and then turn into “goo,” disappearing in as little as 24 hours.
Sea star wasting events in the past have typically involved only one species at a time. The alarming thing about this round of wasting is that it is affecting at least 12 separate species, including sunflower and ochre stars, which are considered keystone species. That means they have a huge affect on the rest of the ecosystem that they inhabit. They are instrumental in keeping the populations of mussels, barnacles and sea snails managed. And as fast and devastating as these die-offs are, that could mean big trouble for an ecosystem that has already been ravaged by pollution, radiation, overfishing, and habitat destruction.
Scientists haven’t figured out what’s killing the sea stars, but according to this article published by Cornell University, Professor Ian Hewson has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to figure out the problem. Along with colleagues from Western Washington University and the Wildlife Conservation Society, he is trying to determine what organisms exist in both healthy and sick stars so he can pinpoint the cause.
According to an article in USA Today, scientists are thinking that the disintegration and subsequent death of the sea stars is probably due to bacterial infection of some kind, but they are stumped as to what is making them suddenly susceptible.
You can help in this important research by going here to report any observations of dying sea stars that you might make. Next time you’re tide-pooling or kayaking in the San Juans, keep an eye out for those sea stars that seem like they’re melting – you could be helping save an entire ecosystem!
The Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Georgia Straight Alliance have undertaken a research project to find out what would happen if an oil tanker began leaking into the Salish Sea, which is the collective name for the waters around southern Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands.
They are dropping biodegradable plywood drift cards into the water and seeing where they end up. Their path demonstrates the path an oil slick would take if it were to get into the currents. Over 1,000 have been dropped since last fall into the Burrard Inlet, the Fraser River, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The last one runs directly along the west side of San Juan Island.
“The drift card project was launched when Kinder Morgan filed an application to twin its Trans Mountain pipeline, which transports diluted bitumen from Edmonton to Burnaby,” said a recent report by the Oceanside Star. “If approved, it would increase the transportation capacity of the pipeline from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000. The number of tankers leaving the Westridge Marine Terminal each month to travel through the Port of Vancouver and the Salish Sea would increase to 37 from five.”
That’s a huge difference, and one that could have a serious affect on the quality of life for animal and human residents alike here in our islands. Most of the time when we see a vessel on the horizon, it is a whale-watching or fishing boat. When we do see the occasional oil tanker, it is looming far off in the distance, perhaps lulling us into a false sense of security that something as awful as an oil spill could never reach into our little island paradise. If the pipeline is approved, we might well see the tankers several times a week, and the increase in potential for disaster is cause for concern.
Everyone remembers the horror of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, often called the most devastating environmental tragedy in U.S. history. A quarter of a million seabirds were killed, along with almost 3,000 otters, 250 bald eagles, and 22 killer whales, not to mention untold amounts of fish.
There are only 80 current members of our southern resident orca population; barely enough to keep the community reproducing properly. It is almost unthinkable to consider what an oil spill would do to that population.
The card-dropping project was first established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); they have dropped about 50,000 cards into waters surrounding Hawaii, California and Florida during the past decade. The Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Georgia Straight Alliance hope to use the same method to prove that our area is vastly underprepared for an oil spill.
Click here to see a current map of the drift cards and learn more about the project.
- Anna Maria and Dave recently enjoyed a well-deserved vacation in Hawaii, and she shared with me the story of an incredible whale encounter that they had. As we approach the start of whale-watching season here on San Juan Island, I wanted to share it with all of you. We hope it inspires you to book your own whale-watching tour when you come to visit us. Read more about their amazing humpback encounter below.
“Some folks are just charmed when it comes to whale-watching. Dave and I have lived on San Juan Island for 10 years, and unfortunately don’t consider ourselves part of that esteemed group. We live vicariously through our guests and their life-changing orca encounters. We drool over their photos, or after learning they were splashed by a breach or exhalation when standing on the shore by the Lime Kiln lighthouse. Despite the strict rule that boats must remain 200 yards away from the whales, many of our guests have experienced a spy-hop or breach behavior right off the port side of the boat. Our whale-watching fortune is not for lack of effort either, by shore or boat. I can remember multiple occasions when we would get the call from a local whale watch operator alerting us to whales in the area. We would drop everything and dash to the west side of the island, only to end up despondently watching them swim across the channel. We could barely make out their dorsal fins above the water.
On our recent holiday in Hawaii, our luck suddenly changed. We were casually looking across the water by a lighthouse on Kauai, and there in front of us was a blow, and then another, a few yards away. Before we knew it we forgot about the lighthouse and were staring across the blue expanse, riveted at the prospect of seeing more whales.
Over the next three weeks, we spotted humpback whales almost every day as we traveled throughout the islands. About 4,500 humpbacks migrate from the icy Alaskan waters each fall and make a beeline for Hawaii’s tropical climate, where they mate, give birth
to and nurture their calves. Their annual migration of about 6,000 miles is the longest of any mammal. As soon as we spotted the telltale blow, we would immediately pull the car to the shoulder or a nearby beach and stand mesmerized. I found myself talking to them from afar, cheering and clapping as they went through their antics, showing off just for us. As soon as they moved out of our view, we would get back in the car and continue driving in their direction to get an opportunity to find another vantage to continue watching them.
We did quite a bit of boat diving. As soon as someone said whales off the bow, the entire group of suited up divers focused as one on the open water. At one point, we lost track of the dive briefing when a mother humpback and her calf were playing in the waters just off our boat. On one hand, we didn’t want to miss a breach or close encounter topside, but we were anxious to get underwater for the chance of seeing the magnificent animals in their watery territory. There were several dives during which their singing was so loud, that there was no doubt that they were close by. I found myself turning away from the reef and staring into the deep blue water, looking for the looming shadow of a humpback. We never did see them underwater, but as soon as we surfaced from our dive, the captain told us about the massive breach that he saw off the stern of the boat. We tried to coordinate the timing of the breach topside with a dramatic change of the singing underwater.
Observing and hearing humpbacks was one of the highlights of our trip. It was an adventure, and every encounter a wonderful gift. We experienced firsthand the same excitement our guests do when they come to the islands and see orcas in the wild. Many guests have the good fortune of seeing humpbacks here too; they made a huge resurgence this year, in addition to the Minke whales that also frequent our waters. When you plan your visit, make sure that a whale watch trip is a part of your itinerary. Our concierge will be happy to make reservations for you and have vouchers awaiting your arrival at check-in. Now that our luck has changed, we can’t wait to head down to Lime Kiln or jump on a whale watch boat to look out over the water for that unmistakable sign of our black and white icons.”
As Anna Maria said, the main whale that folks travel here to see are the orcas, or killer whales. We have two main types of orca that frequent our waters – resident and transients. Resident orcas feed strictly on fish; 80% of our resident orcas’ diet is Chinook salmon. Transient orcas feed strictly on marine mammals, such as seals and sea lions, dolphins and porpoises; sometimes even other whales. Yours truly, not just a blogger but also a naturalist, once witnessed a group of transient orcas take down a large male deer as it attempted to swim from island to island, as they often do. Fortunately, we are flush with deer in the San Juan Islands, and so it was an incredible experience to watch such an awe-inspiring act of nature.
Humpback whales are not seen as often as the orcas are, but we spotted over 5 different humpbacks in the summer of 2013, which is almost an unheard of number for this area. Humpbacks are incredible animals; they complete an annual migration every year. They give birth in the warm, sheltered waters of Mexico in the winter months, then travel back up the western coast of North America with their newborn calves to head to Alaska and feed on the abundance there. Transient orcas have been known to work in teams and separate newborn humpbacks from their mothers; to them, a large whale like a humpback is a prime meal. I’ve never witnessed that, and it doesn’t happen very often in our part of the world; more likely in the open ocean.
If you do decide to come see our orcas in their natural habitat, you won’t regret it. There’s a good chance you will witness some of their natural social behaviors such as spyhopping, breaching and porpoising. Orcas are extremely social creatures; they depend on their family bonds for survival and mental stimulation. Orcas can swim over 100 miles in a single day, so it’s not unusual for them to be on the west side of San Juan Island in the morning and halfway to the top of Vancouver Island by the end of the day. Come try your luck at seeing them, in the only part of the continental United States that such a thing is possible. How lucky we are to have these amazing animals in our backyard!
Blackfish, a documentary filmed directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, began as an investigation into the events leading to the death of veteran Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010. What it has turned into is a worldwide sensation that is making people everywhere question the morality of keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity, and bringing major attention to an issue that has been a hot topic on San Juan Island for years.
Brancheau died of blunt force trauma to the upper part of her body when the now infamous orca, Tilikum, dragged her into the water during a routine demonstration for a crowd. The 41-year-old trainer was the most experienced at Sea World Orlando and had, by all accounts, a close bond with Tilikum. She was the third person to die from an attack by Tilikum, who has been shifted from park to park since he was captured. There is no record of any wild orca killing a human being.
Orcas are among the only members of the animal kingdom who are sentient creatures, meaning they experience emotions and complex thoughts similar to humans. Because of this, the filmmakers and stars of Blackfish are all strongly opposed to keeping them in captivity and making them perform tricks for paying customers. They believe that the highly complex social structure of wild orcas can’t be mimicked in captivity, and there is evidence to back up their opinion.
Wild orcas, like the southern resident community of San Juan Island, live long lives – an average of 50-60 years for males and 70-80 for
females. The average age of orcas in captivity is 14. Each family group of orcas, or pod, has its own distinct dialect, and researchers can often determine which pod is nearby simply by listening to their calls over a hydrophone (underwater microphone). The orcas in marine parks are generally from different pods, or perhaps even different subspecies of orcas, and cannot communicate or bond with each other the way that wild orcas do. There is often aggression and physical abuse among captive orcas.
Many of the stars of Blackfish are former Sea World trainers who have expressed shame at being part of keeping the whales in captivity. They have all been to San Juan Island to see wild orcas; some footage of their visits can be seen in Blackfish. San Juan Island’s own Ken Balcomb and Howard Garrett are also in the film. Balcomb is the director of the Center for Whale Research, which has been studying the orcas here since the mid-70s; Garrett is the founder of Orca Network, a non-profit meant to raise awareness about the southern residents.
The trainers in the film — Jeffrey Ventre, Carol Ray, Samantha Berg, and Dr. John Jett — have formed an organization called Voice of the Orcas that is dedicated to ending cetacean captivity.
“San Juan Island is the unofficial home of Blackfish,” Ventre told me via email. “Most of the interviews and footage came from the island, and the waters around it. Seeing free-ranging orcas [in 1996] radically altered my perspective regarding the morality of keeping them in marine circuses. I accepted that invitation while still working as a trainer at Sea World, and it didn’t go over well with the management. They have an interest in keeping whale and dolphin trainers in the dark. Seeing whales in Haro Strait forms the basis of our passion at Voice of the Orcas. When you see the whales foraging or congregating in a super pod, it really drives home what we’re fighting for.”
The “Blackfish effect” really kicked into high gear when it began airing on CNN and streaming on Netflix, giving millions access to the information in it.
According to a National Geographic news story, “the images and information in Blackfish (the live captures which started the industry; the physical and social stresses the animals, especially Tilikum, endure; the separation of calves from their mothers; and the aggression that occurs between killer whales and trainers) have surprised and shocked many viewers who have mostly thought of the Shamu show as lighthearted entertainment.”
After seeing the film, many celebrities began expressing their outrage on Twitter, and regular citizens began circulating petitions on Change.org asking famous musicians to cancel performances they had lined up at Sea World. Among those who canceled, either due to public pressure or after seeing the film themselves, were the Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Tricia Yearwood, Heart, and more.
Sea World refused to be interviewed for Blackfish; yet they have since spoken out against it, calling the information false and one-sided. They have maintained that it isn’t affecting business, but attendance has fallen drastically and, earlier this month, Sea World’s CEO, Jim Atchinson, sold off 50,000 of his shares in the company.
In the end, the real measure of Blackfish’s impact will not only be whether Sea World decides to change the way it does business, but how the world looks at the relationship between humans and highly intelligent creatures like orcas.
You can decide for yourself by visiting us on San Juan Island, and taking a whale-watching tour that will show you orcas interacting with each other in their natural habitat. Our concierge at the Harrison House and Tucker House will take care of your reservations for your wildlife adventure and have vouchers awaiting your arrival. We have a great relationship with many of the tour operators on the island and will help you find the perfect outfitter for your party!
Back in the day, choosing a place to stay on your vacation was usually a last-minute decision, whether that meant pulling off the freeway when you were done driving for the day and hoping for the best or just selecting an accommodation from your stack of trusty travel guides like AAA or Lonely Planet. In these wired modern times, you probably know your hotel or inn inside and out before you even leave your home, and chances are pretty good that you turned to TripAdvisor for that knowledge.
According to a 2013 PhoCusWright study commissioned by TripAdvisor that surveyed 12,000 independent travelers around the world, 67% of them visit TripAdvisor at least a few times a month, and more than 80% read 6-12 reviews on a particular accommodation before making a decision to stay there or move on.
Not only is TripAdvisor affecting your decision of where to stay and what to do on vacation, it is ranking travel destinations. San Juan Island earned the #4 spot on TripAdvisor’s Best Islands in the U.S.
For years we have been asking our guests to write a review after their stay or dining experience. Recently, we’ve experienced the other side of the guest review game as discerning travelers. Anna Maria and Dave used the site a lot while planning their most recent vacation to Hawaii, and gained a new appreciation for how much thought and time it really takes to leave a thoughtful review. They knew that the words in their review would have a positive or negative effect on that business. Fortunately all their research led them to great businesses, so all they had to write were travel tips or glowing words of praise. It is really a very powerful concept – leaving the measure of how good your business is in the hands of those who are free to write whatever they want in a very public forum.
We respond to every email and handwritten comment form left in a guest room, whether it’s good or bad, and be honest about times when we might not have measured up to our guests’ expectations or our own standards. We are thankful for this feedback and the amazing suggestions we have received over the years, which has only made our businesses and customer service better. We also respond to the online reviews as well, embracing the new buzzword of “reputation management.” The PhoCusWright study showed that users tend to rate a business higher if they see that management has been active in responding to the reviews.
Another interesting aspect of TripAdvisor and other review sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon is that there is no gold standard by which to judge every single accommodation, restaurant or attraction. It is simply a community of people that have all experienced this place and left an account of their isolated experience. For example, think about comparing a favorable review of the modest ice cream shop in town to that of a fine dining full-service restaurant (like Coho). 5 stars at the ice cream shop might be very different than 5 stars at the gourmet restaurant. There is a lot of trust involved in using TripAdvisor, whether you’re a reviewer or a business owner. We trust our guests to leave reviews that won’t put us out of business, and you trust your fellow travelers to steer you to the best places.
Our inns and restaurant rely on TripAdvisor. Reviews entice prospective travelers to stay or dine with us. Our ranking on TripAdvisor is affected by the frequency of reviews and the scores we receive. We are humbled to our guests for awarding us the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2013 for all of our businesses. We appreciate all your time and effort to write compelling and honest reviews of your stay at the Tucker House or Harrison House or your dinner at Coho Restaurant.
We give TripAdvisor five stars, and always encourage our guests to take full advantage of it! We hope that your research on TripAdvisor (and anywhere else) will lead you to stay with us next time you take a trip to San Juan Island!