Gulf Islands

Spring Awakening: April Wildlife in the Salish Sea

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For we humans on the shores of the Salish Sea, April generates a feeling of paradise: sunny days, crazy amounts of flowers, woods and waters alive with birds, and the feeling of being deeply into our 3+-months of springtime. For wildlife, it must also be a heady time of year, and there is a big focus on food and sex.

With the help of naturalist and wildlife biologist Trudy Chatwin, here are our Top 5 Nature Events in the Gulf Islands & Salish Sea in April. (They are why we operate expedition cruises here then!)

1. Rich Sources of Nutrients a Draw to Animals

With an intricate coastline from 200 islands, wetlands and lagoons, the Gulf Islands and Salish sea offers year-round food for animals. Even birds that breed in the interior of the continent spend their winters here in the Salish Sea.

In spring (February through April) millions of Pacific herring flow toward the coastline and spread their spawn across any kelp bed, rock or piece of wood nearby. This concentration of fish and gazillions of eggs is a magnet for everything else, from seabirds to sea lions and fish.

2. It’s the Right Time, As Warmth & Sun = Upwelling & Plankton

As the herring spawn ebbs, the warming sun starts a vertical movement of water called upwelling that delivers new nutrients to the Salish Sea. The nutrients and the spring sunlight (which also allows photosynthesis) creates massive blooms of plankton. Then krill (tiny crustaceans) feed on the plankton and develop rich schools in the sea. Birds, fish and whales flock to to the krill, creating great wildlife viewing. (See video above for one such event that occurs every spring – an unexpected highlight on our trips.)

This feasting by birds especially is an essential prelude to mating. Interior birds are tanking up on calories before they fly inland, to less food-rich places, to breed. Meanwhile, coastal birds are doing their mating dances along the shores. It’s delightful to witness the mating dance of the Pigeon Guillemots as they fly through the sea, flit on the ocean’s surface and then rise into the air together.

3. The Complete Food Chain from Phytoplankton to Orcas

On our trips, we are often fortunate to witness the complete food chain — from plankton blooms to krill to schools of silvery fish to thousands of seabirds and sea lions feeding on the fish, to orcas / killer whales who hunt the sea lions.

4. Protected Waters for Overwintering

In addition to being a rich food source, the Salish Sea is a protected inland sea. Warmer than most places on the Pacific Northwest Coast, it is also protected from huge ocean swells by the hundreds of islands and reefs. This also makes for easy, delightful cruising and plenty of shore explorations by Maple Leaf crew and guests.

5. Parade of Wildflowers from February Through May

On land, the Garry Oak meadows and forests filter the sunlight. Many of the plants here germinate in winter (they’ve already started). This means that wildflowers bloom early, in a procession from pink sea blush, white fawn lilies, and lady slipper orchids to blue-eyed Mary, chocolate lilies and purple camas.

Add to all of this the absence of summer vacationers (who don’t know the secrets we just told you) and the fresh spring breezes for sailing and you start to picture why in the words of biologist Trudy Chatwin, “Spring is the crowing glory of the Gulf Islands.”

Sound heavenly?

Why not join one of our 3-night, 4-night, 5-night or 7-night cruises in the Gulf Islands and Salish Sea this spring, Apr. 7-12, Apr. 13-18, Apr. 19-22, or Apr. 23-30?


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