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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:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

September 7th: New Calf L122! And drone research

On September 7th, all three pods came back in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and spread out over many miles in Haro Strait. I headed out in Serenity with a friend to see who we could find, and the whales were so spread we saw just 4-5 animals in the hour we were out there. Luckily for us, we stumbled upon the newest addition to the population: newborn L122, the first calf of L91 Muncher:

L91 Muncher and her newborn calf L122

This is exciting news, being the fifth calf born into the population in the last 9 months. There's been a lot of media attention around the "baby boom" the Southern Residents have been experiencing this year, and while it's exciting it's important to keep the bigger picture in perspective. We at the Orca Behavior Institute decided to send out a press release after the Center for Whale Research announced the birth of the calf, putting the good news of the new babies in the context of the larger struggle the Southern Residents are facing. Here's what it said:


New Orca Calf Underscores Importance of Salmon Recovery
Five births coincide with Southern Residents being identified as one of the eight species at greatest risk of extinction
Friday Harbor, Washington – September 7, 2015

As K- and L-Pods made their way into Haro Strait on Labor Day, researchers and whale-watchers spotted a new addition to the community: L122, identified by the Center for Whale Research as the first-born calf of 20 year-old L91, also known as Muncher. This new baby is the fifth one born to the endangered Southern Residents in the last nine months, following a period of over two years without a successful birth. While the whale community is understandably excited about the births, their arrival also means there are more mouths to feed. In May of 2015 NOAA featured the Southern Resident Killer Whales as one of eight “Species in the Spotlight”, a report to Congress that identifies listed species at the greatest risk for extinction in the near future. The reality is these little ones will only survive and thrive if the biggest issue facing the Southern Residents is addressed, and soon. Without an increase in abundance of their primary prey, Chinook salmon, it is unlikely this population of whales is going to recover.

The Southern Residents were listed under the Endangered Species Act ten years ago, however their population has continued to decline. The Salish Sea is known as the core summer habitat for the Southern Residents, but in fact they regularly range from British Columbia to California and rely on all the major salmon rivers in the region, particularly the Fraser and Columbia-Snake River Basins. Many of these salmon stocks are also listed as threatened or endangered, and millions of dollars of recovery efforts have yielded little in the way of results. “There's a lot of cutting edge research being done by NOAA scientists and others to determine exactly what these whales are eating when and how it's affecting their nutritional status,” said Monika Wieland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute in Friday Harbor. “With the Southern Residents being featured in the Species in the Spotlight, it's clear that these studies need to inform immediate management actions to help these whales. If there isn't enough data to take action, then there needs to be more funding to help this important research expand.” 

One of the biggest actions that could be taken to recover Pacific Northwest salmon is to breach the four Lower Snake River dams. These dams are widely recognized as no longer serving their intended purpose and as being costly both in terms of taxpayer dollars and their negative impacts on wild salmon. President Obama has been briefed on the issue, and has the power to issue an executive order to breach the dams, which would directly and immediately benefit people, salmon, and orcas. The newly formed Orca Salmon Alliance (OSA), a group of ten regional, national, and international environmental organizations, brings together many different voices advocating for more salmon on behalf of the Southern Residents. OSA will be hosting “Intertwined Fates: The Orca-Salmon Connection in the Pacific Northwest” at the Seattle Aquarium in October 7th, 2015, with keynote speaker Dr. Carl Safina.

“We are ecstatic to have a new calf in the population, but it's important to look at the bigger picture,” said Orca Behavior Institute lead researcher Michael Weiss. “This new calf, if it survives, makes 5 calves this year. We know from the Center for Whale Research census data that the average for the last 35 years has been just over 3 calves per year, but this year follows over two years in which we had no new surviving calves. The whales are barely breeding at replacement rate, when what we really need is population recovery. For this population, and L122, to grow and flourish, the main limitation, a lack of food, must be addressed.”

It was exciting for us to see our first press release get some attention from the regional media. Our article was featured as a guest column in the San Juan Journal, and also referenced by articles in the Kitsap Sun, the front page of the Victoria Times-Colonist, and even by Care2

Not only did we get to meet the newest calf, but we got to see some cool research in action. NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center has a photogrammetry team led by John Durban and they're using a hexacopter drone to take aerial photos of orcas as a way to assess the health and growth rates of the Southern Residents. It's pretty amazing research; I got to hear John Durban give a talk about it at The Whale Museum a few weeks ago. Basically with a known altitude and focal length on the camera they can calculate the scale in the image and take measurements of how long and wide the whales are. They've even determined ways to detect pregnancy from the air. It's amazing science, not to mention astounding photography. You can read more about it and see some of the images here.

John Durban controlling the hexacopter from the research vessel Skana

They were taking images of the mom and calf (see one of their shots on Facebook here), but we also saw them take a "calibration" measurement on the Center for Whale Research boat. Each trip they take aerial measurements of an object of known size to see how accurate their measurements are for that day. Turns out they're pretty darn accurate - within about 1%, or 5 centimeters of the actual length of the boat.

The drone (can you see it?) over the Center for Whale Research boat

In Canada with the Northern Residents they've also been commissioned by DFO to look for any behavioral impacts of the drones. They operate at over 100 feet to take photogrammetry photos, but flew at some lower altitudes for study flights and found no evidence of any behavioral modification of the Northern Residents in response to the drone. That's not to say everyone should be able to fly drones low over the whales, but it's good evidence that when done properly this is a very non-invasive research technique.

Sept 4-5: Ks on the West Side

In September it's not unusual for all three pods to be traveling together, but in early September I ended up only encountering K-Pod whales for a couple of days. On September 4th the K13s and K14s went north on their own, and I saw them off Kellett Bluffs. 

K42 Kelp

On September 5th the K12s and some L-Pod whales were off the south end of San Juan Island. In the morning the K12s went north and met the K13s and K14s coming back down. I saw them all head back south in Haro Strait near sunset. After an especially warm and dry summer, we've had an abrupt change to more winter-like weather here in the San Juans. It's been an adjustment, but it's made for amazing lighting on almost a daily basis.

K26 Lobo and K14 Lea

K33 Tika

K33 Tika is a real shape shifting male - he looks so different depending on which angle you see him from. I've mistaken him for almost every other male in the Southern Resident Community over the last two years, it seems like. This is his K25 Scoter look:

K33 Tika looking like Scoter

K33 Tika and the Olympic Mountains
We didn't know it yet, but the Ks were headed off to meet the newest member of the Southern Resident Community, who was with the L-Pod whales further south in Haro. Amazingly, while someone later came forward with pictures of it from September 5th, it took two more days for the new calf to be detected....

August 30: Superpod in Unreal Lighting

On August 30th I got out to Lime Kiln in the middle of several large groups of the superpod were heading north. They were quite a ways offshore, but the sheer number of them in one group was pretty darn impressive:

With a few friends in town, the conditions were right to meet up and head out on the boat to show them some whales before sunset. As intriguing as the lighting was at Lime Kiln, it got even more amazing as we followed the whales towards Stuart Island. They were now spread out all the way across Haro Strait in smaller groups, and no matter which way I looked I could see whales in amazing light.

Can you spot the orca?
A little easier to see the whale in this one
J2 Granny

K25 Scoter - no filter needed
Heck, on the way back in, the scenery was pretty darn spectacular even without the whales in it ;)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

August 28th: Last Official OBI Encounter of the Season

As August came to a close, it was about time for my research partner Michael to head back to start his senior year at Reed College....but not before one final whale encounter! It happened out at Lime Kiln as J- and K-Pods went north in spread out groups, our 59th research encounter of the summer.

J41 Eclipse

J47 Notch
J27 Blackberry and J46 Star

From left to right J27 Blackberry, J31 Tsuchi, J28 Polaris, and J46 Star

At the end of the passby, some of the K13s were north and some were south of Lime Kiln. The pods have been splitting into smaller and constantly changing groups over the last few years, but it's still highly unusual for a matriline to split, so we figured one of he partial groups of the K13s would go join up with the other. Indeed, that's what happened - though it took K20 Spock going back south to round up the rest of her family! She went down there, got them, and then they all came back north.

Spock detours back south to get the rest of her family

While I'll still continue to collect some behavioral data as I have whale encounters throughout the year, this marked somewhat of an ending of our first field season at the Orca Behavior Institute. It's worth taking a little time to reflect on all the data we collected this year - much more than I think either of us hoped for! 

Our 59 research encounters resulted in over 91 hours of behavioral observations and 129 hydrophone recordings totaling more than 38 hours. Surprisingly, K-Pod was present for more of our encounters (47) than J-Pod (46), though our most encountered matriline was the J19s (present for 38 encounters).

Here's how our 91 hours of behavioral observations parsed out in terms of which pod or pods were present:

It seems to be making less sense to look at socialization in Southern Residents in terms of pods, however, as pods aren't as stable as they were when studies began 40 years ago. Instead, matrilines seems to be the most stable social unit. Here's how our data collection for the summer breaks out by matriline, showing which family groups we spent the most and least time with. J-Pod families are in blue, K-Pod in yellow, and L-Pod in red. The two smallest bars, L12+ and L54+, refer to the L12 and L54 sub-groups which are stable units made up of several small matrilines.

Finally, our behavioral observations ranged throughout most of the daylight hours, from before 7:30 AM until after 9:30 PM. Here's how out observations of the Southern Residents broke down by time of day. The peak observation hour ended up being between 5 and 6 PM:

Much more advanced analysis will be happening over the coming months as Michael works on his senior thesis, but for now I thought this was an interesting overview of who we spent time with this summer. Stay tuned for much more from the Orca Behavior Institute, and in the meantime, my whale encounters certainly haven't come to a stop!

August 23 - 26: Let the Superpod Begin!

In the afternoon of August 23rd, we met up with the whales we had seen the day before coming back down from the north. All the Southern Residents except the L12 sub-group were there, but whereas the day before they had been in 2-3 large groups, on this day they were all spread out. When we encountered them they were spread for many miles both north-south and east-west across Haro Strait. As a result we didn't see/identify nearly as many whales, but we did get to spend some time with a few animals we don't see as often.

A big spyhop from K16 Opus, who has a little beauty mark on her chin

10 year-old L106 Pooka (pretty sure - this guy and his siblings are hard for me to tell apart)

On August 24th the L12 sub-group came in to join the party, meaning we had our first full-fledged superpod of the summer! All 81 Southern Resident Killer Whales were here! I didn't catch up with them until late in the day on August 25th, out on our boat Serenity. We could see a huge group of whales in the distance heading out into the middle of the straits, but the only group of whales we got close to on this day was the L54s.

L54 Ino in the middle with her two offspring, L108 Coho and L117 Keta

All the whales hung out down south that night, which meant they were either going to head west and leave or Lime Kiln was going to be an awesome place to be the next morning, on the 26th. Turns out it was the latter! So glad I made sure I was there. At first just a few Js and Ks came by...

J2 Granny and K12 Sequim

But then all the other Js and Ks came into view in one tight, active group right on the rocks. Best. Feeling. Ever.

As they got close I switched to video, and I'm glad I did. I think it captures the moment a little better than stills would have. Someone had the hydrophone playing on a speaker, so you can hear their live vocalizations in the video.

After Js and Ks passed, we could see another huge group of whales to the south: L-Pod! Unfortunately for us they stalled out and turned back south, but not before L41 Mega breached a couple of times, impressive even from miles away! (He's the biggest living Southern Resident.)

Breach from L41 Mega