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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Awesome Day in Boundary Pass

While waiting at the dock for all our passengers to arrive today we were caught right under a cloud burst, but as soon as we pulled away from the dock the sun was shining again and we decided to head towards the northeastern part of the San Juan Islands to search for wildlife. We headed up beautiful President's Channel towards Patos Island, where the always picturesque Patos Lighthouse looked especially stunning with the billowing clouds in the sky behind it:


I was excited to check out nearby Boiling Reef, a shelf where the dramatic change in water depth makes for turbulent and unpredictable currents. The water is awesome in itself but I remembered that last spring we often found a variety of animals there taking advantage of the tidal movements to feed. We were there right on a strong flood tide, so I was hoping to see some foraging harbor porpoise and maybe some sea birds. Little did I know what spectacle was in store for us!

The water was indeed turbulent. When Boiling Reef is living up to its name, as it was today, spontaneous upwellings suddenly erupt from the surface without any notice, and what was once flat-calm water becomes in a matter of seconds an incredible tide rip, or a bubbling flood of whirlpools and vortexes.

From a little ways off, we spotted some backs breaking the surface of the water. From a distance I thought they were porpoises, but as we got closer it became obvious that there were no dorsal fins...they were the arching backs of Steller sea lions! As we got closer groups of them started surfacing on all sides of us. We estimated there were about 50 sea lions swimming around, way more than I have ever seen in the water in one place!

It soon became apparent that they were indeed taking advantage of the currents to forage. We saw several animals bring fish to the surface, only to be hounded by gulls hoping to get some scraps for themselves.


For the most part the sea lions just went about their business, rolling in the waves in small groups or diving down for fish. A couple of them, however, came up closer to the boat and took a look at us, making me wonder who was really watching whom:


Further towards East Point we spotted a large flock of birds. Actually, "large flock" doesn't do it justice - there were probably tens of thousands of Bonaparte's gulls swirling about and actively feeding over a mile or more. It was easily the largest congregation of sea birds I have ever seen. It is hard to capture such a large spectacle with a photograph, but I'll attempt it by sharing these two - just keep in mind that we were surrounded by this on all sides, and in some cases it stretched way off into the distance!



Yesterday I was so excited when I posted my first shots of Bonaparte's gulls in summer plumage. I wouldn't have even bothered had I known was in store for me today! These petite gulls that look so buoyant in flight were flitting all around us, diving down to capture some type of shrimp-like creature right off the surface of the water. Right now they all look as if they've dunked their heads into a bucket of ink, as they are decked out in their black-hooded summer plumage as they make their way back to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra.


I was surprised that some of them were actually diving from the air in an almost tern-like fashion, completely submerging themselves underwater as they captured their prey. Others took a more dainty approach and simply lowered themselves to the water....


...where they could then barely touch the surface with their feet as they found what they were looking for:


We spent a half-hour or so up by Boiling Reef completely surrounded by wildlife. It was a phenomenal experience to be sitting amid the swirling seas, with giant sea lions popping up all over and little gulls swirling around in the air in all directions.

One of our stops on the way back to Friday Harbor was along Spieden Island, where saw no fewer than nine bald eagles in a two mile stretch. Also, the small band of sea lions we have been regularly seeing in the water was somewhat surprisingly hauled out on Green Point. After seeing so many sea lions in the water earlier it was cool to get a close-up look of them hauled out. I always find it so odd that they hang out in such close proximity to each other this time of year when in a couple of short months they will be fiercely competing for the best beaches at their breeding grounds. They weren't exactly enjoying each other's company today, as several of them were growling and biting at each other:


Today was a perfect example of why I love working as a naturalist and going out to observe wildlife every day: we always see something different. Even on days like today when the orcas weren't around, we found ourselves surrounded by an abundance of wildlife and everyone on board, myself included, came home with a big smile at our thrilling experience with sea lions and Bonaparte's gulls up in Boundary Pass.

2 comments:

Vera said...

Spectacular closeup pictures of the Bonaparte's gulls. I especially like the last one.

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Brilliant close up gull pics Monika. Like Vera says that last one is a belter!. Re you comment on my post the other day - can't believe you get the 'wrong' type of children on your boat trips - do they come away with some frm of awe and a bit more respect once they have witnesed your wildlife spectacles close up? I hope so.

Cheers

Dave
PS Keep thast camera pointing at those gulls.