Friday, August 29, 2008

San Juan Wildlife

If you are out on the water in the middle of the San Juan Islands, you have to fish at least once.
Even if all you catch is two spiny dogfish. I had never seen a dogfish before and thought it was a beautiful little shark. A dogfish really is a shark, but I guess they are just a nuisance. I still found it really exciting and I think they are a beautiful (somewhat scary looking) fish. I just read that they can grow to be larger than 4 feet in length - crazy!

Swim away little shark! We didn't want to eat you anyways.

One thing that always happens when The. Mr and Sallad get together- laughter.

Grace and Bri steer the boat and watch the fish finder while the guys fish. I took my turn, too - it was fun!

We had hoped to see some Orca whales while trolling for fish, and it was exciting to think that we may actually see some. But we didn't. :) We weren't bored though, as we saw seals, some neat little diving birds and what looked to be Harbor porpoise several times. We never saw them jump out of the water, just their dorsal fins as they came up for air. They are more shy than the Dall's porpoise which will actually zip around right under the surface of the water creating a rooster tail, or ride the bow wake of a boat. We didn't see any Dall's porpoise that I know of.

When you are out in the San Juans you must also set some crab traps/crab pots. The version Sallad used worked really good. You fill a metal mesh cylinder with raw chicken and hang it inside the trap. The crabs are attracted to the chicken and walk into the trap through trap doors that swing inwards and swing shut behind them. They can't actually eat the chicken since it is behind metal so more crabs can still be attracted to it. The first day we left the crab pot, we came back to one little crab that wasn't big enough to keep, so we tried a different tactic with the crab pot- opening more holes for the crabs to enter through. The results were amazing. We had 10 crabs all within the legal size to keep. Five of them were female and we threw those back (it's the law), deciding to keep the five males fresh for cooking in the evening by storing them in the lowered crab pot till the evening.

Look at these tasty crabs! These are all dungeness.

They were so mad! Scrambling over each other and clinging to the cage

Later in the evening we had thoughts of fresh crab legs for a late night snack, and bringing the left overs home in our cooler to share with Mom J. We pulled up to the buoy and Sallad started pulling it in. He thought it felt different than earlier in the day, but kept pulling before saying anything. All of a sudden he said "Dude! We've been attacked by something!" That was when I rushed over with my camera and a flashlight. It looked like a pile of starfish was in the cage, and all the crab were GONE!

See?! Lots of slimy tentacles and legs but no crab. So Sallad rinsed the cage in the water a few times and then we looked again.

The crabs really were gone, and what was in the cage was ALL ONE CREATURE! It had at least 21 legs as far as we could tell and covered over half the bottom of the crab pot. This was the first time any of us had seen one of these, and I guessed that it was a sun star, as I had snapped a photo earlier of one on a "learn the local wildlife" information board. I guess he was so big that as he was climbing into the cage, he held the door open for all the crab to get free. We were very disappointed about the crab, but I thought it was also a really crazy story and experience.

My third suggestion of wildlife seeing activities to make sure you do while boating through the San Juan Islands, is driving past Spieden Island. You will see why below:

Can you see all those deer? There were deer of all shapes, sizes, points (huge antlers) and colors. It is obvious that no hunting is allowed on the Island and you don't even have to look for wildlife, you'll see it right away.

I wish my photos were a little clearer, but this "meadow" that the deer have chewed down to almost nothing is actually at the top of a cliff at the ocean's edge, so I was using digital zoom.

But wait, those aren't deer are they?! At first I called them mountain goats, but later I realized I should actually be calling them Big Horn sheep. Now who would think that there would be big horn sheep living on an island? I thought they lived in mountains? I had to do some research when we got home and what I read was so interesting. Well, if you clicked the Spieden Island link above you may have already read this, but it is an interesting story so I'll share it but try to keep it short and just list the interesting points.

The current owner of the Island is the founder of Oakley, who supposedly purchased the island for $22 million. The island is 516.4 acres big, approximately two miles long and a half-mile across at its widest point with no permanent resident population. It was named after some guy who did some sort of expedition in 1838-1842 and you can read about that here.

In 1970 a group of investors opened the island to big game hunting They re-named the Island "Safari Island" and imported hundreds of grazing animals and almost 2,000 game birds. A hotel, airport, and small hangar were built on the island to accommodate the hunters and visitors to the island. Hunting was soon closed and has stayed that way for many years due to the obvious risk of bullets hitting boaters as well as people visiting other islands. The island was also once home to The Island Institute, an environmental education camp.

The "big horn sheep" we saw were actually Mouflon sheep from Corsica. Some of the deer are Sika deer from Asia, others are Fallow deer from Europe, and I suspect there are local breeds of deer on the island as well. Over 500 of them have each managed to adapt to NW Washington Island life!

Visitors to the island are by invitation only, and the island has a very secretive feel about it. It's been said that boaters have seen people escorted off the island by gun wearing security personell, so I wouldn't pick Spieden Island for your noon picnic!

(All information from here and from their cited references.)


  1. Ahh Petra is so cute! sorry I'm way behind cause we've been gone for a week. That sunstar looks creepy, but it looks like you all had an awesome trip!!

  2. Loved this post... so did my 10 year old... thanks for sharing!


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