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Saturday, July 16, 2016

July 13th: Epic Evening With J-Pod

It's taken until July, but it's finally starting to feel like summer in terms of whale sightings! At least part of J-Pod has been around since July 3rd, and whales have been on the west side of San Juan Island on almost a daily basis. On July 10th, most of the rest of J-Pod came in (everyone but the J11s). On the afternoon of July 13th, they were split into roughly their "Group A" and "Group B" groupings, but I headed out to Lime Kiln in hopes of seeing them meet up.

Around 5 PM, J2 Granny's group came rocketing down Haro Strait after making a visit to the Fraser River. It was a quick, mostly unremarkable passby - at least until J45 Se-Yi'-Chn started breaching!

One of a series of breaches by J45 Se-Yi'-Chn

I had hoped the Js would meet up at Lime Kiln, but the reunion ended up happening a few miles south. Several of us waited to see which way they would go, and when they started heading south, we packed up to leave. As we drove past Hannah Heights, however, I had to stop once I saw all the whale watch boats close to shore. Boy, am I glad I did! The whales had just flipped back north, and were traveling close to shore in a large, playful group. We turned around and went right back to Lime Kiln!

It took a while for them to make their way back to Lime Kiln Point State Park, but they made it more than worth the wait. Watching them approach was exhilarating, with the anticipation of what was to come, and the desperate hope that they wouldn't turn around! They didn't.

Many playful whales approaching close to shore = Best feeling ever
There were all kinds of breaches, tail slaps, and cartwheels happening, like this one:

I love seeing the males up close, as it really gives a better perspective of how big they are.

J34 Doublestuf, now nearing full size at 18 years old

I also got a better look at Doublestuf's younger brother, J38 Cookie, who at the age of 13 is most definitely starting to "sprout", aka have the teenage growth spurt in which his fin grows from the shorter fin of the females and juveniles into the tall fin of the adult male. It's amazing how big he's getting!

J38 Cookie

 Basically the J14s, J17s, J19s, and J22s, along with L87 Onyx, were all in one big group. J2 Granny was, characteristically, way ahead on her own, and the J16s were trailing several miles behind. Within the large group, just J17 Princess Angeline with calf J53 and J28 Polaris with calf J54 were a little further offshore. And in this case, "a little further offshore" mean between 100-200 yards, which other days most definitely gets classified as "close"!

The "offshore whales" from left to right: J54, J28, and J17

While of course it's a treat to have the whales pass within a few dozen yards of the shoreline at any point in time, I especially love it when it happens early in the morning or late in the day, during those special times that are the golden hours for a photographer. I just love those backlit blows at sunset!

Of course the lighting can also be pretty crazy, especially when you're shooting right into the setting sun! But I love these shots.

On several occasions recently when multiple J-Pod sub-groups get together, I've noticed there seems to be a Young Boys' Club among the juvenile males from the different matrilines. J47 Notch, at age six, is always right at the center of it, and he surfaced right in front of me for my favorite shot of the night:

A freighter wake was hitting the shoreline right as these boys passed, and it seemed like they were enjoying lunging through the surf.

J49 T'ilem I'nges, who for so long was the baby of J-Pod, is now four years old. This summer it seems like he's being allowed to wander away from mom for the first time, and he's just loving it. Forgive my anthropomorphism, but he seemed thrilled to be able to hang out in the "big kids" group!

Tail slap from J49 T'ilem I'nges

I usually watch whales from directly in front of the Lime Kiln Lighthouse. On this day I was at the south end of the park to watch them approach, which had the added benefit of getting to see (and photograph) them as they passed the lighthouse.

Even though I wasn't on my usual rock, whenever the whales are this close I still have to climb down right to the water's edge, no matter where I am. Special thanks to Jason for capturing these moments of me in my element!

Me with J38 Cookie

The conditions were too perfect not to make a run for the boat and catch up with them again further north. (Note: when we left Lime Kiln, the J16s were still to the south heading south, but they would later follow the rests of Js north too.) When we caught up the large group near Open Bay, they were still in a playful, social mood, and the breaches continued!

After heading right into Open Bay, they continued north right against the shoreline of Henry Island. At times it was hard to even see them against the rocks, and some of their breaches looked precariously close to the rocks, though I'm sure that was just our perspective!

L87 Onyx kelping off Henry Island - almost hard to see his dorsal fin against the rocks!

The whales continued to hug the shoreline as they passed Henry Island

Breach really close to the rocks!
Just north of Kellett Bluffs, some of the whales pulled a little bit further offshore, and we stuck with them while the main group continued close to the island. It was awesome to see L87 Onyx, who is so often out a mile or more away from the rest of the whales, in close and socializing with the others. At this time he was with J34 Doublestuf.

It was great to see the often lonesome L87 Onyx in with the other whales getting some social time

 I'm not sure if I've ever seen Onyx breach before, but he did once on this night, and it was an impressive sight!

Huge breach by L87 Onyx

All too soon it was getting dark and was time for us to leave. We got one last look as the whales continued north into the dimming light near Spieden Island.

It can be easy to overuse words like "epic" when talking about whale encounters. Of course every sighting is memorable in its own way, getting to see these fascinating, gigantic creatures in the wild. But epic - meaning " heroic or grand in scale or character" or "particularly impressive or remarkable" certainly fits for my encounter with J-Pod on the evening of July 13th.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

July 7-9: 3 Days of Js

After being gone about three weeks, members of J-Pod finally returned to inland waters on July 3rd. They zoomed north, and have alternated between spending some time at the mouth of the Fraser River and doing laps on around the San Juans. Until July 7th, it was just the J2s and J19s (plus L87) here, a total of 10 whales. I caught up with them a couple times, including on the evening of July 6th as they made their way north past Lime Kiln towards Turn Point. Off Stuart Island, they stopped and had a good old-fashioned "cuddle puddle", as after traveling for a while they all grouped up, rested at the surface, and rolled around together for about 10 minutes.

The only whale not included in the mix was L87 Onyx, who for whatever reason stayed well offshore of the socializing whales. He did participate in some playful behavior, however, by throwing a couple of inverted tail slaps.

L87 Onyx

As they continued north again, little J51 Nova kept up the friskiness, doing several tail slaps and cartwheels.

Cartwheel from J51 Nova

From left to right: J40 Suttles, J2 Granny, and J51 Nova

Even though the rain started coming down, we couldn't quite leave them as they approached scenic Turn Point.

J37 Hy'shqa off the cliff at "Lover's Leap" on Stuart Island

As my research partner Michael commented, the drizzly, overcast evening seemed like "the kind of weather killer whales should be seen in".

Js pass the Turn Point Light Station on Stuart Island, July 6th, 2016

On July 8th, the J2s and J19s started heading up Haro Strait past Lime Kiln in the late afternoon, but stalled out before they had all passed. Looking west, I spotted the reason for their delay as whale watch boats came into view past Discovery Island. The J16s, J17s, and J22s (the rest of J-Pod except the J11s) were on their way in! Granny's group went out to meet them, and they all reunited in the middle of the straits before making their way over to San Juan Island. It looked like they were aiming for False Bay, and as it got later in the day, many of the people who had been anxiously awaiting the whales on the rocks left the park. As so often happens, after many people cleared out, that's when the whales showed up. And they didn't disappoint. As the J17s led the way north, we were treated to a close pass on the rocks at Lime Kiln - my first such pass of the year. I can't believe it took until July to see the whales this close from shore, but I'll take it!

J47 Notch surfaces right off the rocks in front of Lime Kiln Lighthouse
The J2s and J19s followed the J17s north, while the J16s and J22s spread out and foraged to the south of Lime Kiln. With daylight fading and most of the boats clearing out, we headed out for a brief evening encounter with the northbound whales. The first whales we caught up with were J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova, still cruising north:

J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova on the evening of July 8th

While we only had a short time with the whales before it got dark, it was well worth the trip out for the stunning hydrophone recording we got of the Js vocalizing in the tranquil seas. Listen to a clip of what we heard on the Orca Behavior Institute's Sound Cloud here.

Sometime overnight, the J22s and J16s must have made their way north to join up with the others, because on the morning of July 9th, they along with the rest of Js (still minus the J11s) went south past Lime Kiln in the late morning. The whales were all very spread out and pretty far offshore, but it was still a chance to check in with all of the J-Pod youngsters.

J51 Nova, who is proving to always be full of spunk

J17 Princess Angeline and her youngest, J53, with a freighter in the background

I predicted the whales would come back north on the flood tide in the mid- to late-afternoon. Usually when I voice something like this out loud they like to prove me completely wrong, but today that's exactly what they did! At around 3:30, they began passing Lime Kiln heading north again, and it was pretty quickly apparent it was going to be a special passby.

J19 Shachi was in the lead, followed by J2 Granny, who came in close to shore:

J2 Granny

Following Granny were members of the J16s, particularly J16 Slick with J50 Scarlet and J42 Echo.

J16 Slick in the foreground with her daughter J42 Echo behind her

Next were two young mom with their firstborn calves traveling together: J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova with J36 Alki and J52 Sonic. Alki broke off for a bit, leaving Eclipse to babysit the two youngsters.

J41 Eclipse with J51 Nova and J52 Sonic

After this group passed, all the other whales (the J14s, J22s, and J17s) meandered there way towards the shoreline of the park together in one big, slow moving, playful group. As a few whales ducked into Deadman Bay, I had to climb down lower onto the rocks to experience what I knew was going to be a special moment.

A family enjoying just how close the whales come to the rocks at Lime Kiln Point State Park
J28 Polaris and her calf J54 approaching the kelp

It was my first time seeing whales in the kelp this year. Again, I can't believe it took until July for this to happen - but again, I'll most definitely take it!

J28 Polaris kelping

J28 Polaris kelping

Here's my artsy shot of the day, a black and white close up of J35 Tahlequah. 

J35 Tahlequah
It was nice to get a close up look at J34 Doublestuf, who I hadn't seen in a while. As usual, he wasn't far from mom!

J34 Doublestuf

J34 Doublestuf and J22 Oreo

Doublestuf's younger brother J38 Cookie was further offshore, but is getting so big! Look at how straight that fin is now.

J38 Cookie
Several of the whales were in a playful mood. I could see them swimming upside down underwater. While the camera didn't capture that so well, it did capture their rolling at the surface, tail slapping, and surface lunges.

It was awesome to get another close pass from J47 Notch, who was traveling with his uncle (who is just one year older than him), J44 Moby.

Seven year-old J44 Moby (left) and six year-old J47 Notch (right)

I was at the south end of the park, and as the whales approached the lighthouse several of them did a series of breaches, including J40 Suttles.

Nice big breach by J40 Suttles
I could get used to this seeing whales every day thing again! Fingers crossed there's enough fish for these guys to stick around, and for the rest of the Southern Residents to come in soon too!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

June 25th: The T123s, T36As, and T75Bs in Boundary Pass

After being around for a few days early in the month, the Southern Residents have again proven scarce. This is starting to feel a lot like the summer of 2013, when they were hardly around at all. On a few days, some residents have just poked their heads in, presumably to check things out, before leaving and heading west again less than 24 hours later. On June 18th, it was a sub-group of L-Pod that came in as far as Lime Kiln before heading west again.

Members of the L4 matriline came into mid Haro Strait, barely making it north of Lime Kiln before turning and porpoising back south again

It was nice to see them, however briefly, including numerous spectacular breaches by L82 Kasatka:

On June 23rd, the stars finally aligned for me to see orcas right from our houseboat in Friday Harbor! It's not often orcas come right inside of Brown Island, and despite having the houseboat in the family for the last 13 years, I've never managed to be here when the whales come through. That all changed as I lived out something I've dreamed of experiencing for years! I really only saw one surfacing from pretty far away, but it was still awesome, and I have a photo to document it:

As they left Friday Harbor and turned north up San Juan Channel, we hurried over to the Friday Harbor Labs property where we saw them again, getting a little better view this time of the T73As, a group of transients I had never seen until this year.

T73A with her sprouter son T73A1

Today, with no reports of whales anywhere nearby but sunny skies and calm seas, the Orca Behavior Institute crew decided to head out anyway since we haven't been on the boat in a long time. Maybe all we needed to do was get out on the water anyway! It wasn't long after we left before we heard about two different groups of transients heading south from up north. It was still a bit of a trip for us, but with whale sightings being more limited for us this year, it was worth the effort!

First we caught up with the T123s near Skipjack Island.

Male T123A

They were looping all over the place. First they seemed to be aiming for President's Channel, but then they followed along the north side of Waldron to Sandy Point. Just when it looked like they might aim south to San Juan Channel, they flipped north again, then went west, and finally east across Boundary Pass. For whatever reason, they decided not to intercept the other group of transients that had just made their way down Swanson Channel.

Crossing Boundary Pass is fun in calm waters, but you had better keep an eye out for those freighters!

With the T123s getting more and more unpredictable, we headed over to the other group heading east along Pender Bluffs, made up of the T36As and T75Bs - six whales including two one year olds. They were all slowly traveling in a tight group, and with their more predictable surfacings it was easier to get a good view and snap some photos.


T36A and one year old T36A3
The T36As


It was nice to get a look at little T75B2 - who is actually quite a bit bigger than when I first saw him/her as a two week old calf back in April 2015!

When we decided to peel off and head home, they were just at the bottom of Plumper Pass, seemingly undecided as to whether to head north or continue east. If the seas were anything but flat we wouldn't have been able to venture so far from home. I checked out on the map after getting back, and it turns out with all the looping around Boundary Pass we traveled about 45 miles on Serenity today! It was a great christening trip for the new name decals we just got on the boat this morning:

Back at the harbor after about four and a half hours on the water, I had to whip out the camera one more time to snap a few photos of these Canada geese goslings in the bay:

It was a great day that finally felt like summer, but despite seeing lots of orcas, it still doesn't feel right not having our Southern Residents around!