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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Northern Vancouver Island Part 2: A Whale Watch to Remember

On September 4th we headed out on a whale watch out of Telegraph Cove, and with lots of recent whale reports and flat-calm waters I was hopeful for a great trip. Now I have been on a lot of whale watch trips over the years, both while traveling, while working as a naturalist for 6 years, and while riding along with friends from here on San Juan Island. In terms of wildlife and whale encounters, there have been some pretty great trips, but this one definitely ranks among the top few that I have ever experienced. Over the course of just three hours we saw transients, Northern Residents, humpback whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall's porpoise, and Steller sea lions!

As we headed out of the harbor we were making our way down Johnstone Strait towards a report of Northern Residents when I spotted a small killer whales along the shoreline across the strait. (This would actually be one of three times on this trip I found killer whales with no reports or other indication that they were in the area! While I often go out looking for whales, it's usually following up on another sighting, and it has been years since I spotted whales totally unexpectedly. For it to happen three times on this single trip to Vancouver Island was crazy!)

This trio of orcas turned out to be the T69Ds, who are rare visitors to the Salish Sea but who I coincidentally met for the first time earlier this year when they were with the T90s in Haro Strait back in February. As would be the case for all the transients we encountered while up north, their behavior was quite different than we typically see today from Ts around the San Juan Islands, and more like what they used to be like 10-20 years ago: long dives with sporadic/unpredictable surfacings, making them hard to track and view. After one dive, however, they unexpectedly popped up close to the boat, giving us a nice look after a lot of patiently scanning the water.

By this time the Northern Residents were within sight to the south of us, and the T69Ds had likely heard them as well, because they did a 180 to head back in the direction they came and we continued on our way towards the Residents. We had heard the whales were spread out in ones and twos doing long foraging dives, but we got on scene, several of the small groups merged, and we were treated to an amazing sight of 15+ whales traveling in a tight group and surfacing all together.

I would later learn these were the I4s, I65s, and G27s - all new-to-me whales - and just a fraction of the whales who were "in" that day. Also around (and some of whom we got distant looks of) were at least the A42s, I16s, I27s, and I35s.

We used to the Southern Residents like this more often, though in recent years they tend to spread out a lot more. It was hard not to keep taking photos, as regardless of how much you see it, that many dorsal fins at the surface together is a breath-taking sight.

The whales split into two groups as we followed them around the eastern side of Hanson Island:

We had the light against us when viewing the whales from the left side, and my Northern Resident ID guide only shows left sides, so it was tough to piece together many individual IDs. The only adult male in the group was 22 year-old male I76, seen here with another sprouter - maybe I122?

I76 on the left
If you follow orcas in the region, you know about the iconic Orca Lab on Hanson Island - it was pretty cool to get to see Northern Residents go by there!

Northern Residents passing Orca Lab
We left the Northern Residents heading west through Blackfish Sound and went north through the narrow passage between Swanson and Crease Islands. No matter which way you turn up there, the scenery is awesome! There are so many little islands and channels to explore.

Next up we spent some time with some humpbacks, with easily half a dozen or more individuals spread out in the same area.

As we slowly started transiting back towards Telegraph Cove, it was a scene I will never forget. The Northern Residents were back in view, there were still humpbacks in every direction, and some Pacific white-sided dolphins came by as well. I felt like I was dreaming, with multiple species of cetacean surrounding us. 

It was an unforgettable whale watch, and we returned to the dock beaming, immediately making plans to go out on the water again before the end of our trip. I made a conscious effort to try and lock the scene and the emotion inside me - the joy, the excitement, the peace of being in such a place and having such an experience. You can't bottle it, but it's moments like those that rejuvenate the spirit and keep you going through things like whale politics, dreary winter days, and stressful times at work.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Northern Vancouver Island Part 1: Grizzlies and Waterfalls

The first week of September has been marked off all year as a reset, recharge, and rejuvenate week spent on northern Vancouver Island. With various stresses having built up over the preceding months, it couldn't have come at a better time. As our departure date approached I decided to unplug for the trip as well - no e-mail, phone, or social media. We didn't have much planned other than lodging, and we left open to whatever adventures awaited us.

On a whim we decided to splurge on a tour to Bute Inlet to look for grizzly bears. The day dawned in classic Pacific Northwest style: with steady rain. Luckily the fog lifted as we headed out, and the scenery on the two hour boat ride to Orford Bay was beautiful.

As we arrived for the land-based portion of our tour we were welcomed to traditional Homalco lands by our First Nations hosts. We didn't even have to leave the dock to see our first two grizzly bears meandering around the estuary at low tide. We headed over to an observation tour to get a better look.

Over the next couple of hours we got to see a total of six grizzlies, the highlight of which was this one that hopped up on a log in close proximity (seen from the safety of our vehicle).

Equally amazing to seeing the bears was not only being in such a remote area, but hearing stories from our Homalco guides who are working to reconnect their youth to their traditional lands and culture. The rain continued to fall as we viewed bears, but luckily the sun broke through shortly before we left.

The stunning view from land at Orford Bay as the sun broke through
The highlight of the trip may have actually been the boat ride back to Vancouver Island on glassy seas with stunning scenery around every corner, even more awesome than in the morning with the late afternoon light. We sat on the top dock of the boat the whole way and soaked it all in.

We even got to stop and take a look at a three year-old humpback named Linea, who is the 2016 calf of BCY0027 Maude.

One more photo of the Cape Mudge Lighthouse as we headed back to port at sunset:

The next day we headed inland to Strathcona Provincial Park to check out several waterfalls. As would be the theme for the trip, it was another scenic drive.

The highlight of the day was climbing on the rocks around Myra Falls:

Next up, it was time to head further north, with plenty more wildlife to come....

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

July 5: Return of the Residents

Well, my aforementioned blog post about an epic Bigg's killer whale encounter will have to wait, because on July 5, after 59 days of waiting, the Southern Residents finally returned to the inland waters! Specifically, it was all of J- and K-Pods, along with L87 Onyx who has traveled with J-Pod for years.

The text message came in early that there were Southern Resident vocalizations being heard on the Lime Kiln hydrophones. By the time we got to the west side, we had missed them at Lime Kiln, but caught up with them heading north from San Juan County Park. After months of viewing only Bigg's killer whales, just the energy of viewing the Southern Residents was noticeably different - the way they travel and surface is different.

They're back!!
While most of them were a way's offshore, J16 Slick, J26 Mike, and J36 Alki came inside of Low Island and through the kelp beds.

J26 Mike swimming through a kelp bed off San Juan County Park

Luckily for us, the whales stalled out just north of County Park, and soon it became apparent they were heading back south. As we dashed to the car to head to Lime Kiln, we were all wondering if it would be a "westside shuffle" kind of day - where the whales go back and forth along the west side of San Juan Island all day long, something they used to do a lot of. The answer was yes, it would be that kind of day!

By the time they reached Lime Kiln the whales had picked up speed.

Nothing quite like seeing whales aiming right at you, let alone porpoising right at you!

Suddenly among the lead group up popped a very tiny killer whale - the new calf, J56! With the Center for Whale Research getting to encounter this new little one for the first time, they confirmed not only that the mother is J31 Tsuchi (who lost a neonate in early 2016), but that the new calf is a female. Yay!!

My first photo of little J56 next to mom J31 Tsuchi
When the whales return, it truly feels like greeting old friends. I've known most of these whales longer than I've known most of the important people in my life today! Here is K26 Lobo, who along with the rest of K-Pod hadn't been seen in inland waters (or anywhere else) for an astonishing 6 months since they were in Puget Sound in mid-January.

K26 Lobo
From left to right: J37 Hy'shqa, K14 Lea, and K36 Yoda

One thing that was really noticeable was how big all the young K-Pod males have gotten! Clearly they've been growing over the winter, including K33 Tika, who I like to call the shapeshifter, because over the years I've mistaken him for just about every other male in K-Pod and several in other pods. He just looks so different depending on what angle you see him at!

K33 Tika
 A couple hours later, the whales were heading back north up the west side of San Juan Island again. First, they stalled out and flipped at Land Bank, but then came up as far as Lime Kiln, where we had again, along with may others, gathered on the rocks. For a short time, everything else faded away: the long absence of the Southern Residents, the task force meetings, the political wheeling and dealing, the marathon legislative session, the worry, the fear, the anger....for a short time, it felt like the good ol' days, hanging on the rocks at Lime Kiln with Js and Ks going back and forth in the kelp. It felt like a breath of fresh air.

If you'll permit me a moment to anthropomorphize, the whales seemed just as happy to be back as we were to have them back. While there was a lot of laughter, smiles, hugs, and tears among the human whale community, there were just as many spyhops, breaches, surface rolls, and swims through the kelp fronds among the cetacean whale community.

Rolling through the kelp just a few yards off the rocks at Lime Kiln

Spyhop from J49 T'ilem I'nges

As with any social party, the family and friends were all mixed up and interacting with one another.

From left to right: K43 Saturna, J51 Nova, and J41 Eclipse
Our Orca Behavior Institute intern Greg, who luckily only had to wait 5 days after his arrival to meet the Southern Residents for the very time, got doubly lucky with this incredibly close encounter on his first day with Js and Ks:

And he was far from the only one that day to have an exceptionally close encounter!

Our friend Jim Maya also captured this shot from a little further south along the shoreline, looking north towards Lime Kiln. You may have to click to see the larger view, but check out the two whales front and center in the photo and right off the rocks! (I'm the one in the turquoise coat on the left!)

Jim Maya photo taken from Land Bank, looking towards Lime Kiln

Overall I thought the whales looked pretty robust, as if they had indeed found a more reliable source of food elsewhere, as the Fraser River spring Chinook runs have clearly failed them in April-June, leading to their uncharacteristic and extended absences.

J47 Notch

K44 Ripple
Once again the whales got just about as far as the lighthouse when they slowly turned, and made their way past all of us on shore one more time!

L87 Onyx

A killer whale draping a long strand of kelp of its tail flukes
It was a very surreal day. Not only was I literally dreaming about J-Pod when I woke up to the message they were here, so that the whole day almost felt like an extension of the dream, but as a researcher who was viewing them but was not on the water with them I suddenly found myself bombarded with media requests to report on their return. In addition to several live spots on radio broadcasts, another interview turned into this article in the Globe and Mail which I thought did a solid job of summarizing the real issues: "Researchers encouraged by return of killer whales to the Salish Sea, but say food source must be replenished"

You can also check out my one minute video of this memorable Lime Kiln encounter here: Js and Ks at Lime Kiln on July 5th.

The whales went back south, but then slowly came north again, seen off Lime Kiln by others around sunset and then vocal on the hydrophones until after midnight. The following morning, July 6, they went through Active Pass at sunrise, and I assumed that meant we wouldn't see them until the following day at the earliest, as they usually spend some time up there. Surprisingly, they instead made their way rapidly back south, passing Lime Kiln again at 2:30 in the afternoon.

J31 Tsuchi and ~2 month old J56 heading south past Lime Kiln on July 6

That evening we spent several hours at Land Bank hoping for a repeat sunset appearance like the night before, but while we did see some faint blows in the distance, they never made it quite up to where we sat on the shoreline. Indeed, as their quick turnaround from the Fraser River foreshadowed, the next day they were again heading west out the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards the open ocean. It sure seems like they are finding a better food source out there, rather than in what has traditionally been their home waters this time of year in and around the San Juan Islands.

It all comes down to prey. The Bigg's killer whales are here in ever-greater numbers every year, while 2019 gave us the first June on record without the Southern Residents here in the Salish Sea at all. Not that long ago, at least some of the Southern Residents were here on a near-daily basis throughout the month of June. The Bigg's have an abundant supply of seals, sea lions, and porpoises to feed on here. The Fraser River is no longer providing a big enough or reliable enough source of Chinook salmon to the Southern Residents to keep them visiting what we call their core summer habitat on a regular basis. The data speaks for itself.

Another cloud over the visit of the Southern Residents was the apparent absence of both K25 Scoter and J17 Princess Angeline, two whales who looked visibly malnourished last fall and winter. While not altogether surprising, the loss of these two whales definitely hurts - not only us human admirers, but of course to their immediate families too, and to the Southern Resident population as a whole. A bittersweet sighting I had was of J53 Kiki, Princess Angeline's 3 year old daughter, swimming next to her big sister J35 Tahlequah. Over the last two and a half years, Tahlequah has lost her sister J28 Polaris, her nephew J54 Dipper, her newborn daughter which she carried with her for 17 days last summer, and now seemingly her mother J17 Princess Angeline. The cumulative grief is hard to imagine, and equally hard to imagine is little J53 Kiki having to find her way without her mom.

But here are two sisters - one who lost a daughter, and one who lost a mom - and perhaps in each other they will find both solace and a way to survive.

J53 Kiki swimming in the slipstream of her big sister, J35 Tahlequah

Indeed, it is in their perseverance and joie de vivre that I continue to find hope. While I trust them to do what they need to do in order to find enough food, I will eagerly await the next moment they can spare to visit the Salish Sea, where I hope to continue to meet them right off the rocks at Lime Kiln for many, many years to come.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

June: A Month Full of Bigg's Killer Whale Encounters

It still feels very surreal that we've just had our first June on record with no Southern Resident killer whales in inland waters. June used to be a highlight of the year because of the abundance of sightings of all three pods on the west side of San Juan Island. Yet here we are, 58 days without any of them in the Salish Sea. The silence created by their absence is deafening.

It's been an interesting process to hold on to that loss and that grief while simultaneously celebrating and reveling in the mammal-eating transient or Bigg's killer whales, which continue to set records year after year for their presence in the inland waters. It's equally bizarre to think I was here for years before I ever met any of them, and now I'm beginning to know them as families and individuals, too. The encounters I've head with them over the last month or so have been awesome - though there have been multiple occasions where I've had an unexpected moment of heartache when I think to myself, "The Southern Residents used to do this": a large group of whales swimming spread out up Swanson Channel. An early morning report of vocals on the Lime Kiln hydrophone and a surprise close pass of a tail-slapping whale through the kelp. Getting off work and watching two mothers with calves round Edwards Point and swim past Land Bank. I never thought I would see Bigg's killer whales doing those things.

I've been negligent in posting my sightings and photos here, so this post will serve as a quick recap to share a few memorable moments leading up to my next installment about an encounter that deserves its own post.

June 6 - The T65Bs and T137s in San Juan Channel

June 11 - The T49As in Wasp Passage

Having our boat in a new location this year has meant whale encounters in new locations, and Wasp Passage between Orcas and Shaw Islands has quickly become a new favorite spot to see whales.

We even got to see the T49As go through narrow Pole Pass, a channel between Orcas and Crane Islands about 250 feet across and 12 feet deep at low tide. Fun fact: apparently it's so named because, as the story goes, Native Americans would stretch fish nets on poles across the pass to catch migratory waterfowl.

June 12 - The T123s pass Friday Harbor

I lucked out with a close surfacing by the whole family from my shore-based perch.
June 20 - The T46s and T46Bs in Swanson Channel

On this truly memorable evening we headed out with some friends aboard a Maya's Legacy trip out of Snug Harbor. While there was another whale report in the area, we stopped to scan where an additional group of whales had briefly been spotted a short time before. We stopped several times and looked in all directions, but didn't see or hear anything. Then our captain caught sight of a fin 2 miles away, and it turned out to be a group of 13 whales that had gone undetected all day!

The two family groups were the T46s and T46Bs, such a storied group they deserve a longer treatment at some point, but this day it was all about getting to meet T46B1B, a little calf nicknamed Tl'uk ("Moon" in the Bella Coola Coast Salish language) who has made headlines for his very pale appearance.

He had periodically been around for a couple of weeks, but it was my first time meeting him, and I was very excited! We can't say for sure what is causing him to look so light. He's not albino (he doesn't have red eyes), but other conditions are difficult to assess without genetic sampling. Some are calling him leucistic (a condition that prevents pigments from functioning properly), but it's also possible he has another genetic condition called Ch├ędiak–Higashi syndrome. Some whales who have looked this way haven't lived very long, while others have darkened up with age. One thing that's really striking about this little guy is just how different he looks in various lighting conditions - sometimes almost white, and other times just a shade of dark gray instead of black!

We left them heading up Trincomali Channel (my first time in this waterway!) and were treating to a stunning sunset on the way home.

June 21 - The T75Bs and T75Cs at Land Bank

June 21 - T124C at Land Bank

June 23 - The T46Bs and T77A on the west side of San Juan Island

Following this last one I would go a week before having another whale sighting, but it turned out to be well worth the wait! Stay tuned....