When it comes to wildlife and the San Juans, the first thing that generally comes to mind is the orca. Orcas are unique to this part of the country, and this area is the only one in the United States that has its own population of resident orcas. They are stunningly beautiful, highly social, and love showing off for eager whale-watchers. The southern residents specifically are also endangered, having been listed as endangered by the U.S. and Canada since 2005 (and only getting into more and more trouble with overfishing and pollution). But the orcas are not the only rare and amazing wildlife to be found on San Juan Island!
Take the Golden Indian paintbrush flower, which once thrived throughout this region of the world and is now facing extinction. Most of them have been cleared away, and according this article in the San Juan Islander, the plant is only known to exist on 11 sites in the state of Washington and British Columbia. One of those spots is on the property of Rick Rubin and Patti Rouen, who moved to the island in 1989 and now have what is believed to be the only thriving crop of the paintbrush flower in the world. Rick and Patti care about the future of this cheerful yellow flower, and have donated part of their property to the island’s Preservation Trust.
Another precious being found on San Juan Island is the marble butterfly. This lovely-patterned creature was thought to have gone extinct way back in 1908, but was discovered during a butterfly survey project at American Camp in 1998. Scientists believe that San Juan and Lopez Islands are the only places in the world to find the butterflies. According to the San Juan Island National
Historical Park’s website, in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) sponsored a survey with the park to find out more about the natural history of the butterfly, including how far it flies, how long it lives, and whether gender ratios vary in different areas. Steps are being taken to protect its habitat and determine whether the park can do more to help the population thrive. The marble is “white and pale green with a mottled pattern of greenish-yellow under its hind wings.” Find it in the tall grass near the mustard plants at American Camp!
Marbled murrelets are a beautiful seabird closely related to puffins that are now believed to be extremely threatened by logging. In Washington, they are found in swallow, coastal bays but breed deep into the forest. They are most often seen in the San Juans in the winter months, flying low over the water in pairs or small groups, but are found all over the state during the rest of the year. They find their small, schooling fish underwater, close to shore. Look for them during your next ferry crossing – they are plump, with either brown, mottled colors or black on top and white on the bottom.
Finally, next time you’re here, make sure you catch a boat trip of some kind, whether it be fishing or whale-watching, and see if conditions are right to travel out to an area nearby the extreme southern side of the
island called Whale Rocks. The species most often seen there is not whale, but sea lion! Specifically steller sea lions, which are considered endangered but are thriving in the Salish Sea. Fairly reliably every day in the off-season and increasingly in the summer, clumps of giant male stellers gather on Whale Rocks, battling each other for the best spots. It’s an impressive sight. Stellers are the largest sea lions in the world, weighing up to 2,500 pounds. They hunt fish, squid, octopus and sometimes even smaller seals! They are called the grizzlies of the sea for good reason – their deep-throated roars can be heard from miles away.
There are infinite possibilities of seeing an exotic new creature during your next trip to San Juan Island. Just remember to keep your distance and rely on your camera to capture them!