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Monday, November 16, 2015

A November Afternoon on the Water

We've been getting hit with one storm system after another lately, which is great because we need the precipitation, but it hasn't been conducive to getting outside or on the water! Yesterday were were blessed with a sunny, calm day, and I jumped at the chance to take the boat out after almost a month without being on the water. I went out by myself with camera in hand, and it was so beautiful out!

In my almost two hours out there I spotted 17 marine bird species, including these hooded mergansers on the way out of the harbor:

Four hooded mergansers

I went through Mosquito Pass, which is always great for winter birding. Among the hundreds of bufflehead and dozen of red-breasted mergansers and double crested cormorants were about half a dozen pairs of marbled murrelets:

A pair of marbled murrelets in winter plumage

Up in Spieden Channel I found three ancient murrelets (that didn't cooperate to have their photo taken) and a flock of about 300 Bonaparte's gulls - my favorite gull species.

Bonaparte's gull

Spieden Island is of course always interesting for its exotic wildlife. Usually I expect the most numerous animal to be the Mouflon sheep, but on this day it was the fallow deer! I don't think I've ever seen so many!

Female fallow deer
The males are crazy impressive with their moose-like antlers:

Male fallow deer

The tide was high enough that there weren't any sea lions hauled out at Green Point, but there were plenty of them in the water! They weren't just hanging out either, they were actively swimming (in pursuit of prey?):

I wasn't surprised to see the Steller sea lions up there:

But I was surprised to see several (at least 3-4) California sea lions right in with them! I only occasionally see California sea lions here, and usually just a single. Unfortunately I bumped my camera settings right before taking this sequence of shots so I didn't get a great snap of the two species swimming together, but this photos till provides the "proof":

Two California and two Steller sea lions

On the way back the clouds and sunset were so stunning I had to stop several times to take some more pictures. I'll let the photos do the talking of what it was like out there:

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Day of the Dead ~ 6th Annual Tribute

Every year on the Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos), I write a blog post honoring the Southern Resident Killer Whales that we've lost during the previous year. You can find the whole series of blog posts here. Last year was a particular sad post, as there had been three deaths and no births to the population. This year there's a little bit of a different story to tell; with two deaths and six births since my last Day of the Dead post, the population has risen from 78 to 82 animals.

J32 ~ Rhapsody

In early December of 2014 we heard the tragic news that a killer whale had washed up dead near Comox, BC. From photographs it was quickly determined to be J32 Rhapsody, and the subsequent necropsy had even sadder news: she was pregnant with a full term fetus that had preceded her in death, and it's thought that she died from an infection that resulted from being unable to expel the fetus. After having no successful births into the population for over two years, losing a prime age reproductive female with a full term calf was an especially sharp blow. A dark cloud was definitely hanging over the whole whale community with Rhapsody's death.
But it was important for us not to forget Rhapsody's zest for life. She loved to breach more than most, and even had a distinct style to it that sometimes made it possible to identify her just by how she was jumping out of the water.

J32 Rhapsody breaching in August 2013 - she would have been just a few months pregnant here

Rhapsody was born in 1996 to 15 year-old J20 Ewok. Rhapsody's family life turned upside down in 1998 when her mother died. Luckily she was "adopted" by her aunt J22 Oreo, who had just had her own calf, J34 Doublestuf. The matriline would continue to experience tragedy over the next couple years, as Rhapsody's grandmother J10 Tahoma died in 1999 and her uncle J18 Everett in 2000. Oreo, Doublestuf, and Rhapsody became a tight threesome that survived, joined later in 2003 by J38 Cookie.

Strong family bonds last a lifetime to resident killer whales. J32 Rhapsody on the right was tight with her adopted mom J22 Oreo, center, and adopted brother J34 Doublestuf, left. September 2012.

In addition to her adopted family, Rhapsody also spent quite a bit of time with other whales, especially those with calves. Perhaps she liked spending time among their youngters in preparation for becoming a mother herself.

J32 Rhapsody, left, with young mom J37 Hy'shqa in 2014 - 6 months before Rhapsody's death.

It was hard to fathom that we had lost Rhapsody at just 18 years of age. The silver lining that came out of her death, however, was that finally, people were outraged. The Southern Residents had been listed on the Endangered Species Act for 10 years, yet nothing substantial had been done to improve their fate and Rhapsody was a prime example of that. Rhapsody's death became a rallying point for activists who strongly felt the government was not doing enough to protect the whales, and her story became a focal point in the fight to breach the four Lower Snake River dams that would dominate 2015. As tragic as her death was, it certainly was not in vain.

L27 ~ Ophelia

In contrast to Rhapsody's death, which received a lot of media attention, Ophelia quietly passed away in the late summer of 2015, at the estimated age of 50. Part of the L4 matriline, she played an important role as aunt and babysitter to many of the young whales in that family group. In a family where many of the whales have fairly nondescript dorsal fins and solid saddle patches, she also stood out with her short fin with a notch in it, and distinct left and right saddles that each had a slight finger.

L27 Ophelia balancing a piece of kelp on her rostrum

Ophelia was estimated to be born in 1965. She had four known calves of her own, but sadly they all preceded her in death at ages of 3 (L80 Odessa and L93 Nerka), 10 (L68 Elwha), and 20 (L62 Cetus). 

L27 Ophelia with newborn calf L68 Elwha in 1985 - Photo by Fred Felleman

From 1996 onward she was the oldest female in the L4 matriline and would often be seen out in front leading the way, but just as often she would be right in with the youngsters of her sisters. It seems to be the fate of some adult females to be the "aunties", or caretakers and aides to the young of others (J8 Spieden comes to mind as another one), and this was a role that Ophelia filled with zeal.

L27 Ophelia (left) with her sister L86 Surprise and year-old L112 Sooke in 2010

One of my strongest memories of her is from the fall of 2014 where she never left the side of newborn L120, who lived for just seven weeks.

L27 Ophelia with L86 Surprise! and newborn L120 in September 2014

L-Pod has a real shortage of reproductive age females who are successfully producing offspring. The L4s are one of the few matrilines that carry the potential for the future of L-Pod, and I have no doubt that one reason they have had been raising some successful young is because of the help over the years from Ophelia. She will be missed.

L27 Ophelia in June 2015

Each year in this blog post I always like to take a moment to honor not only the lives that have been lost, but the new additions to the Southern Residents. Amazingly, since this time last year, there have been no less than six new births into the community.

While the gloom of Rhapsody's death still hung over the whale world, J50 Scarlet was a true bringer of hope when she was first seen on December 30, 2014. She is the sixth known calf of J16 Slick, who at an estimated age of 42 at the time of birth was tied for the oldest documented Southern Resident mother.

J50 Scarlet with mom J16 Slick in February 2015

Then just six weeks later in February, at the other end of the spectrum, J41 Eclipse became the youngest-ever documented Southern Resident mother at just 9 years old when she gave birth to her first, J51 Nova.

J51 Nova in June 2015

Two weeks after that, still in February, we got word from NOAA's outer coast research cruise that they spotted new baby L121 Windsong with mother L94 Calypso (her second calf.)

L121 Windsong in August 2015

And they weren't done yet! At the end of March, another new baby was seen in the J16 matriline - J52 Sonic, who is the firstborn of J36 Alki.

J52 Sonic and J36 Alki in August 2015

The next new birth came in early September, when another first-time mother L91 Muncher had her first calf, L122.

L91 Muncher and L122 in September 2015

And finally, just over a week ago, on October 24th J17 Princess Angeline was seen with her fourth known offspring, a new little one designated J53 who I haven't had the chance to meet yet!

As exciting as these SIX new births are, it's important to remember that they don't mean all is well with the Southern Residents. This means there are six more mouths to feed, and this population is still facing a real uphill battle trying to find enough of their primary prey, Chinook salmon. Some have pointed out that it's likely no coincidence that these little ones were conceived during or near a winter when there was a particularly strong Columbia River Chinook return. It's up to us to do our part to make sure they continue to have enough to eat as they grow and hopefully thrive. Fingers crossed this really is the turning point for Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery, but there's a lot of work yet to be done.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

More September Whales

I'm gearing up to do my annual Day of the Dead blog post, but realized I should recap the rest of the fall first! The Southern Residents were around quite a bit in September, but mostly either out of reach of shore-based viewing or in rough seas, so my encounters with them were more limited than in some years. Here are a few highlights though...

On September 13th I saw Js, Ks, and L54 sub-group from the west side of San Juan Island. This is an example of what the seas were like on days I couldn't get out in our boat!

On the afternoon of September 15th, I picked up a visiting friend in town and we got out to Lime Kiln just as the whales were passing by. Only a few J-Pod whales came north past the lighthouse before flipping and going back south, but one of them, who approached at the very moment we ran down to the rocks, was J2 Granny:

J2 Granny close to shore at Lime Kiln

On September 22nd I got the chance to take my same friend out on our boat, and we met up with a group of L-Pod whales offshore of San Juan County Park. The first whales were saw were L92 Crewser, L91 Muncher, and her calf L122. They were tough to track, as they were swimming sporadically and going down on long dives, but after a lot of patience we did get some nice looks.

L92 Crewser
L91 Muncher and L122
After losing L120 last fall just a few weeks after he/she was born, it's especially nice to see L122 doing well. Fingers crossed he thrives through the winter! L-Pod is where we need successful mothers the most, so I'm hoping this is just the first of many calves for Muncher.

Up off Kellett Bluffs, the whales stopped to forage. We cut our engine and dropped the hydrophone, listening to a bunch of great L-Pod vocals for several minutes when the whales all disappeared. They were on a long dive and got totally quiet...until I started hearing some echolocation that sounded VERY close. "Somebody's right here...." I told my friend, and less than 30 seconds later L95 Nigel surfaced off our stern, both startling and thrilling us. I'm pretty sure I literally jumped!

Why hello there Nigel

The glare was so harsh I edited this photo to be black and white, and I kind of like the effect. What's especially cool is I posted this photo on my Facebook page and the guys in the sail boat saw it! I always love when I get the chance to share photos of people and whales with the people in the picture.

On September 24th, I saw some very spread out and distant Js and Ks heading south from Land Bank. I played with adding a filter to this photo as well, and was also pleased with the effect:

K44 Ripple cruising south

Then on September 25th, I got to see the T49As from the park near my house. It's always a treat when I can see whales walking distance from home!

Male T49A1 heading down San Juan Channel

There's a whirlwind summary of the rest of September - coming up next, October whales and Day of the Dead.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September 9th: Foggy Whales at Lime Kiln

Having heard the Southern Residents were inbound on the evening of September 8th, September 9th seemed like a good morning to head out to Lime Kiln. I was the first person in the park, and the morning was beautiful....except for the unanticipated fog!

The fog kept lifting and getting denser, so I was hopeful it would clear if the whales were going to come by. In the meantime, the constantly changing lighting made for some interesting photographic opportunities! 

A "fogbow"?

Turns out I wasn't the only one with the idea of watching whales in the fog, and a small group of us gathered on the shoreline in anticipation. Sure enough, here came the whales - we heard them before we saw them, and for many of them, we never saw them at all!

J2 Granny in the fog

The whales were really spread out, and it seemed the fog would lift in the gaps, and then grow more dense as soon as we could hear whales approaching. It was a bit frustrating to be honest, but also a pretty ethereal whale watching experience. Thankfully some whales were right off the rocks, and we could only see them for about 1-2 surfacings.

J27 Blackberry

It's hard to be pointed in the right spot at the right time for whale photography anyway, but the challenge becomes that much harder in the fog, especially for focusing! I tried to take a few video clips to capture the sound of what I called "Whale Listening Park" that morning, and also to capture some of the whales that came by right off the rocks in the fog. In the first two clips, listen for the blows. The third clip will show some whales. It was hard to see what I was filming, hence the whales being a little off-center!

Finally the fog clearing aligned with some whales coming by - J37 Hy'shqa and her son J49 T'ilem I'nges along with K34 Cali.

J37 Hy'shqa

K34 Cali

But of course it didn't last long....

K20 Spock

At this point it was time for me to go to work, but I heard later the whales continued to come by in ones and twos, and the fog DID eventually lift, providing better viewing for the shore-based whale watchers. But honestly, I kind of liked having such a unique experience in the fog.

September 8th: Spieden Humpback Whales

Last year this time when I was toying with the idea of buying a boat, one of my motivations was the humpback whales that were hanging out in Spieden Channel for days at a time. They were so close to my house, but just out of sight! This year, with the new boat, they were now within reach, and one evening I took my parents out to go look for them. We found not one, but two!

Probably the best "rainblow" shot I've ever gotten
They were milling around rather unpredictably, but we still got some nice views. With the late day lighting and stunning backdrops, the whole scene felt classically Pacific Northwest to me. 

We were mostly just stopped watching them go back and forth, and we got surprised by one close surfacing. When you hear a humpback blow from that close, you feel it all the way through your body!


And just in case you wonder why they call them humpback whales: