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Monday, July 28, 2014

The Gang's All Here!

The whales were only gone for about three days, but it sure felt like a lot longer than that! It was with much excitement we all greeted the news that were "residents inbound" on Saturday evening. I went out and met some friends, hoping to see them. The first whales that reached San Juan Island - K-Pod - hit land at about False Bay and went south. We were all ready to call it a night when we noticed one of the boats heading home to Victoria stopped in the middle of the strait. There were more whales out there! After watching the sun set, we went to Lime Kiln as some L-Pod whales made their way slowly north in the almost-dark. There wasn't enough light for photos, but I shot this short video with my iPhone to capture a little of the feel of the moment.

Hoping the whales wouldn't go north or west in the night, I went out to Lime Kiln on Sunday morning (the 27th). Good decision! I was only there about half an hour before we started to see dorsal fins to the south. The whales continued to pass by for the next two and a half hours. It soon became apparent it was more than just Ks and Ls here, there were so many whales! That was confirmed for sure when J27 Blackberry popped up:

Blackberry was traveling with his sister J31 Tsuchi, K27 Deadhead, and Deadhead's calf K44 Ripple. That's one thing I love about superpods - it's always so interesting to see who associates with whom when everyone gets all mixed up!

K27 Deadhead

K44 Ripple

My prize shot of the morning - a gorgeous spyhop from K27 Deadhead. Prints available here.

It's great light to watch wildlife in the morning on the west side, and there were more than whales about. The first whales were very spread out, and there were plenty of birds and seals to watch in the breaks. One highlight was when this great blue heron flew by:

The seals were actively fishing, and while this was looking back into the light, it was awesome to see one seal surface with a salmon in its mouth and another one lunging after it as if to steal it (he didn't succeed):

You would think after all these years I would have seen whales from just about everywhere in Lime Kiln, but not so! I usually go to one of a few favorite spots, but on this morning decided to try watching from a new vantage point. It led to some different looks, particularly when some whales circled back to come closer to the kelp.

Two of 'em heading right at ya! Bonus points if you can find the third whale in this photo...
After every group of whales, we'd look south, and see more blows coming! It was just wave after wave of whales!

J40 Suttles, J14 Samish, and J45 Se-Yi-Chn

J14 Samish, J45 Se-Yi-Chn, and J49 T'ilem In'ges
L87 Onyx
I decided to take another video clip of one "wave", and it happened to include a nice pec slap from J19 Shachi. I had to let the edit run a little long to catch the great reaction of the girl on the rocks at the end:

I was really surprised when some unusual whales popped up - the L54 sub-group! This small group of L-Pod whales, for whatever reason, visits inland waters a lot more rarely than the rest of L-Pod. This was their first time "in" this season, actually, though they had been seen off the outer coast earlier this year. It was really nice to see them, and led to some of the best pictures I've ever gotten of some of these whales!

L84 Nyssa - very pleased to see he's found someone to latch on to in the L54s since he has no living family members
L54 Ino and L117 Keta show just how close to shore the whales can come at Lime Kiln
And it STILL wasn't the end - there were more L-Pod whales after that (as well as other groups way offshore during this whole time).

L82 Kasatka and L116 Finn (just starting to surface)
I determined that it looked like all the Southern Residents but the L12 sub-group were present, so that's about 69 whales! A lot of confusion followed however, as small groups went north and south and north and south (mostly not by Lime Kiln, but a few did), that by the end of the day no one was entirely sure who ended up where. But really, it didn't matter, because they stayed, and they were everywhere!

Friday, July 25, 2014

June Whale/Salmon Numbers and a July 18th Superpod

After posting April and May comparisons between whale visits and salmon numbers for the last 25 years, I wanted to do the same for the rest of the summer as well. The good news is, I've been so busy watching whales, I haven't had all that much time to blog! This week I finally got around to crunching the June numbers, and was pretty blown away by the graph:

Number of days Southern Residents were in inland waters (blue) with data from The Whale Museum's Orca Master data set (1990-2012) and Orca Network sightings reports (2013-2014). Average catch per unit effort (CPUE) for the month of June based on test catch data from the Albion Chinook fishery in the Fraser River.
First of all, many of us have called this summer "just like the good old days", and that statement is somewhat substantiated by the graph. Historically, there were Southern Residents in inland waters between 28 and 30 days of June each year, until about five years ago when those numbers started to dip. Not surprisingly, last year was the worst, with Southern Residents around only 14 days in June. This year, with 28 days of Southern Residents in June, really was like the good old days.

It's important, I think, to note that one thing this graph doesn't capture is how many whales were around. On some days in the 90s, when all three pods were around and the population was higher, that was more than 90 whales. Last year, some days in June the only whales here were the three L22s. Both of these examples counts equally as a "whale day". But the data is still interesting, especially with last year's data point.

As for the salmon data, well, we're all grateful this is a better Chinook year than last year, but when looking at it in context it's still a pretty dismal compared to what we used to experience. It's no coincidence that the last "peak" (if you can call it that, it's so low) was in 2010. Chinook return four years after they're born, so it's the higher numbers from that year that are leading to a better return now. So while that means slightly more for the whales to eat now, it's pretty scary looking at what the next three years are likely to bring. The numbers barely register on the chart from 2011-2013, but seemingly random spikes like those in 2003 show that the unpredictable can happen. It all depends on the oceanic conditions the juvenile salmon experience while they're growing up, as well as a host of other mostly immeasurable factors.

It won't be too long before it's time to crunch July numbers too, but for now, here are some photos from another whale encounter back on July 18th. I was out at Lime Kiln when K-Pod and part of J-Pod made their way south.

These whales were making their way down from the Fraser River, a large group of L-Pod had been doing the westside shuffle, and the rest of Js came down Rosario and were rounding Lopez. Got all that?

The stage was set for all the different groups to meet up somewhere off the west side of San Juan Island...but where was it going to happen? South of Lime Kiln, by the looks of it. I watched through binoculars, and could see whales appearing from the south to meet the ones that had just passed us.

K25 Scoter
Hopeful to get a glimpse of the meet-up, I went further south too, and was rewarded with seeing lots and lots of dorsal fins near Hannah Heights. In this group appeared to be mostly L-Pod whales, almost in a resting group as they were surfacing slowly all together with long dives.

The whales swam IN to Kanaka Bay, apparently not fully asleep as several were completely covered in kelp!

The whale sightings have been a bit thin for me since then - after weeks of being in the right groove, my timing has been a bit off, and all the residents have been out west for the last few days. I'm hoping all that changes this weekend!

Monday, July 21, 2014

July 15 ~ Close Pass By Js

On Tuesday, July 15th I headed out to the west side after work, with most of the whales slowly, slowly inbound from south of Discovery Island. I met up with a couple friends of mine, and while we watched Js, Ks, and Ls meander their way across Haro Strait, K16, K35, and K21 - a somewhat rogue group of K-Pod whales - came by heading south to join up with the group. How odd of them to be traveling on their own while everybody else was together!

The big group of whales "hit the island" south of where we were at Land Bank, but as the first few began to round the point heading north, we all agreed we should head to Lime Kiln. Good decision! They angled in towards shore as they passed Land Bank, ending up way inside Deadman's Bay at they approached us at the south end of Lime Kiln Point State Park.

Whale coming out of Deadman's Bay
It was "Group A" of J-Pod....sort of. All our old standard groupings are falling by the wayside this summer, as the whales are mixing and matching in all sorts of new combinations. Not that we're complaining! It's just harder to keep track of who is where. In this case, we had J2, the J14s, and the J16s traveling together. (Interesting side notes: Usually J19 and J41 are with this group, but perhaps due to the death last year of J8 - who was the grandmother of J19 as well as a close companion to J2 - the J19s are now going to start traveling with their closest living relatives, the J11s. Also, L87 is usually with J2's group, but seems to be wandering a little further afield lately. On this day, he followed behind this group heading north, by himself, an hour and a half later.)

As the whales approached, they were down on a slightly longer dive, and we all waited with anticipation to see where they would pop up. It ended up being RIGHT in front of me!

J2 Granny

I was extremely lucky to have my friend Barbara with a camera behind me. I've often taken, and shared, photos of others and whales, and always hoped one day to get a great shot of me and whales. I've had a few given to me over the years, but this is the kind of shot I was dreaming of! Thank you Barbara!

I'm so low on the rocks it looks like I'm standing on the kelp bed! That's typical me - wanting to get as close to the water as possible when the whales are close. Here's the photo I was taking at the same second the above shot was clicked:

From back to front: J14 Samish, J2 Granny, and J37 Hy'shqa

Moments like these are why I go out there as much as I do, but they're always over so fast!

J49 T'i'lem I'nges - the last calf born to the Southern Residents in August 2012. It's hard to believe it's been almost two years since we've had a new addition to the Southern Residents - not good!
After J2 passed surrounded by the J14s, the J16s weren't far behind, but they were racing like they were trying to catch up:

For a dedicated (crazy, fanatic) group of us, whale-watching is an addiction. We forgo things like food and sleep to get more of it. We get anxious when we go too long with out it. We feel an overwhelming sense of happiness and peace when we get it. Yup, this today provided a much needed "whale hit". :)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Westside Sunsets

When I used to visit the island for a week or two every summer, the hour before and after sunset were my favorite hours of the day. Once I moved here full time, got a job, etc. it became easier to just stay in at night, but I've been reminding myself just how great it is to be out and about around 9 PM on these late summer days. This past week in particular I've made it out to take in more than one west side sunset.

On Thursdays and Saturdays at Lime Kiln, you can take a free guided tour to the top of the lighthouse. Years ago, I used to volunteer and help give these tours, but it had been several years since I'd been up in the lighthouse. It's a spectacular view, even more so in the golden hours of the evening.

The light inside the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, looking south

Sunset as seen through one of the windows in the lighthouse stairwell

It also allowed me an aerial view of my favorite rock to watch whales from. Many of the photos on this blog were taken while sitting on this rock!

The whales have been around a lot at sunset, and after striking out on the 10th, I went back on the 11th to try my luck. Success! I got to Land Bank in time to see the second half of J- and K-Pods head south. Actually, it's easy to say "Js and Ks were there", but in actuality, it was only part of each pod. Since the whales dipped out west on the 8th, present in inland waters have been J2, the J14s, the J16s, and L87 (J-Pod "Group A" without J19 and J41), and K-Pod (minus K21, K16, and K35 - the roamers).

I just love seeing the blows illuminated in the evening light. There's just nothing like seeing whales at sunset....

After the whales passed by, I just sat for a while, taking in the beautiful scenery.

As the sun was going down, the "Super Moon" was rising:

It was hard to know which way to look - watch the moon come up, or the increasingly orange sun go down? Ah, the difficult decisions we face.... :)

As amazing as this sunset was, the one to follow a couple days later would blow this one out of the water. I've seen a lot of sunsets in my day, and the evening of July 13th was one of the best I've ever seen. So good, it deserves its own blog post.