Hein & Salmon Banks, Strait of Juan de Fuca, WA 6–7 Aug 2022


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]

The spring of 2022 had been a red-letter season for gray whales. Not only had I found gray whales on my usual whaling grounds in Possession Sound, I had also encountered them off Kalaloch and Cape Flattery on Washington’s Olympic coast, and even a lone gray whale off Cape Russell, Vancouver Island.

By August, however, gray whale numbers were in decline across the Pacific Northwest. The main spring migratory population had long since left, and even the smaller summer resident population were beginning to depart. Now was the time to look for a different seasonal species: the minke whale.

Our summer minke whales forage on the banks in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca. At these submerged seamounts, the depth of the water decreases from one hundred fathoms to ten fathoms or less. Baitfish school on the banks and attract predators: seabirds, porpoises, pinnipeds, and whales, including minkes.

Of the eight or nine banks in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, the two shallowest and most productive are Hein Bank and Salmon Bank. A crossing of the strait from Dungeness Spit on the mainland to Cattle Point on San Juan Island would take me lengthwise over the top of both banks.

00 Route map labelled.jpg

00 Route map. The trip is some twenty-three miles (37 km) in each direction.

I launched at the Dungeness Spit boat landing on a rising tide shortly before dawn. I should have known better. Dungeness Bay dries to a vast mudflat of sucking quicksand. At low tide, the boat ramp only extends a short distance onto the mudflat. The rest of the way is pure quicksand. Last time I launched here, I got stuck so deeply I could only free my legs at the cost of one of my boots.

This time, I managed to reach open water without sacrificing any footwear. It was a matter of two steps forward, and then drag the boat after me; then two more steps, and then drag the boat again.

01 Kayaking Dungeness Spit at dawn.JPG

01 Kayaking Dungeness Spit at dawn. The flood was moderately helpful, the ebb moderately adverse for the northbound transit.

02 Dungeness Spit lighthouse.JPG

02 Dungeness Spit lighthouse, est. 1857. The historic buildings remain open for tours and even rentals.

After reaching the open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the next challenge was to locate the banks. Most of the banks, including Hein and Salmon, are marked with buoys, but at twenty miles’ distance, the buoys were either below the horizon or obscured against the islands and mountains in the background.

I had forgotten my GPS and did not have a map. The best I could do was eyeball an approximate course from Google Earth and follow a compass heading. Dead reckoning navigation is vulnerable to drift due to currents and wind, so from time to time I would line up against some distant landmark and try to estimate my actual track.

This was imprecise navigation at best, made more so by the famously swirling currents in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I was always overcorrecting or undercorrecting for the changing conditions. Likely, I ended up travelling several miles farther than I needed had I been using a GPS to monitor my track.

The buoys marking the banks remained stubbornly hard to spot. Not till I closed to within three miles could I distinguish the buoys from the background. They were never quite where I expected them to be.

After reaching the banks, the next challenge was to find the minke whales. Of our four inshore whale species, minkes are the hardest to spot. Minkes only remain on the surface for a second or two at a time. Unlike gray whales or humpbacks, minkes do not usually breathe in sets, and they almost never generate a visible spout.

The best way to find minke whales is to listen for the sound of their breaths, which are audible at distances up to a mile or so. When you hear a breath, begin searching the area for a ball of baitfish—that’s where the whale will be.

To find baitfish, just follow the California gulls. When a California gull spots a baitball, it starts keening to attract others. Very quickly, a flock of gulls assemble over the baitball and they all start diving and splashing. Other seabirds, including alcids, loons, and cormorants, hurry to join the scrum. A minute or two later, the whale will also arrive.

03 Kayaking across Strait of Juan de Fuca.JPG

03 Kayaking across Strait of Juan de Fuca. The hazy hills of the San Juan Islands are just visible on the horizon.

04 Hein Bank buoy.JPG

04 Hein Bank buoy. The white structure on top is a radar beacon.

05 Salmon Bank buoy.JPG

05 Salmon Bank buoy. The three disc-shaped structures in the middle are a carillon of gongs, each sounding a different note when struck by the mallet.

06 Harbor porpoise Strait of Juan de Fuca.JPG

06 Harbor porpoise, Strait of Juan de Fuca. Quick, shallow porpoise breaths are easy to distinguish from slow, deep minke whale breaths.

07 California gull feeding flock.JPG

07 California gull feeding flock. This feeding frenzy is already attracting alcids and will soon attract a whale.

08 Rhinoceros auklet flying.JPG

08 Rhinoceros auklet hurrying to feed. The alcids had just begun their transitions to winter plumage.

09 California gull.JPG

09 California gull. Most of the gulls were immature birds like this individual.

I transited the entire length of Hein Bank without so much as a breath of a whale. Hein Bank is usually the most productive area, so things were not looking good for whale-watching. At Salmon Bank, I searched the bank from the south end all the way to the gong-buoy at the north end, still without any hint of a whale.

Just as I was about to give up and make for San Juan Island, I heard a deep, loud whoosh of whale breath. When I looked, there was nothing, but that was actually a good sign—it meant this was a fast-diving minke rather than a slow-diving humpback or gray. I just had to stick with the baitfish, and soon it would return.

10 Minke whale at Salmon Bank.JPG

10 Minke whale at Salmon Bank. This individual had a distinctive white patch anterior to its dorsal fin, and a distinctive notch in the fin itself.

11 Minke whale spout.JPG

11 Minke whale spout. This was the first time I had ever seen a visible spout from a minke.

The minke whale spent an hour lunging from baitball to baitball, leaving me trailing laboriously in my kayak. When the whale finally seemed to be moving off south, I turned around and headed for Cattle Point on the southeastern tip of San Juan Island.

Cattle Point is a steep, grassy slope with a lighthouse on its very tip. The land is divided into separate parcels administered, respectively, by the National Park Service, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The Park Service and DNR do not allow camping on their holdings at Cattle Point, but the BLM has not published camping regulations for its holdings. At least until BLM’s pending resource management plan is finalized, the default BLM rules apply, which do allow dispersed camping. Thus, I could lawfully camp at Cattle Point, even though there is no campground, sign, or other designation.

Dispersed campers are not popular among San Juan Island residents. Even most locals do not know dispersed camping is legal on BLM land. Fewer still know there is a parcel of BLM land in the middle of Cattle Point. Anyone who spotted me camping would likely assume I was breaking the law.

To avoid any unpleasantness with the sheriff, I tucked into a secluded pebble beach beneath the steep bluff. Although visitors were hiking the trail high above, none could see me down on the beach. I camped out under the stars, watching meteors until I fell asleep.

12 Kayaking to Cattle Point.JPG

12 Kayaking to Cattle Point. Even from a distance, the dry, brown slopes of Cattle Point are an easy landmark to spot.

13 Gulls and Mount Baker.JPG

13 Gulls and Mount Baker. Even with all the development overtaking the state, Washington remains full of beautiful scenes like this.

14A Cattle Point lighthouse.JPG

14 Cattle Point lighthouse, est. 1935. The surrounding dune-grassland habitat is rare and valuable.

15 Reading on Cattle Point beach.JPG

15 Reading on Cattle Point beach. At low tide the next morning, a lone hiker came through my camp who told me he has hiked this stretch of beach every morning for twenty years.

To get back to Dungeness Spit the next morning, I launched at the beginning of the flood tide. The current was adverse most of the way across, but the wind was calm and the ocean swells all but non-existent. The miles flew by as they do, the faster the less I paid attention to them.

Hein Bank was once again a bust on the return leg, but there was a new minke whale foraging at Salmon Bank. The skin coloration of today’s whale was different than the previous day’s had been, and today’s whale also had an intact dorsal fin. It was a different individual.

One final navigational challenge confronted me: the Dungeness Spit lighthouse was invisible against the background of the mountains, just as the buoys had been during the outbound leg. I had to lay a best-guess course based on Google Earth and try to compensate for the currents on an ad-hoc basis. After much oscillating side-to-side during the crossing, I finally picked out the lighthouse at a distance of about three miles.

16 Kayaking soutbound across Strait of Juan de Fuca.JPG

16 Kayaking southbound across Strait of Juan de Fuca. The flood pushed me too far east, while the ebb pulled me too far west.

17 Minke whale Salmon Bank.JPG

17 Minke whale, Salmon Bank. No white patch and no injury to the dorsal fin.

18 Common murre Salmon Bank.JPG

18 Common murre, Salmon Bank. This species is not usually very approachable, but in the throes of a baitfish frenzy, the birds barely noticed my presence.

19 Rhinoceros auklet Salmon Bank.JPG

19 Rhinoceros auklet, Salmon Bank. This individual is well along its transition to winter plumage.

20 Red-necked phalarope Strait of Juan de Fuca.JPG

20 Red-necked phalarope, Strait of Juan de Fuca. Small flocks of this species congregated wherever there were clumps of seaweed floating on the surface.

21 Kayaking past Dungeness Spit.JPG

21 Kayaking past Dungeness Spit. Mercifully, I arrived near high tide and so did not have to face the quicksand again.

No doubt there are more efficient ways to whale-watch than by kayaking across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But I wouldn’t want to see a minke whale from the deck of a diesel-belching powerboat, hemmed in by the elbows of tourists and lectured by some perky guide. Far better to search for minkes on their own terms, with no engine, no electronics, and no guarantee of success, and nothing but seabirds for company for days on end.


[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]
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