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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

July 8-July 16: The Year of the Transients Continues

The first two weeks of July slipped off the calendar with no sightings of Southern Resident Killer Whales in inland waters, which is very unusual. Even with the "new normal" of drastically reduced visits from them in the spring months of April through June, in recent years sightings have at least picked up starting at the beginning of July. Not so this year. We continue to hope that wherever they are hanging out they are finding plentiful food, but in the meantime another amazing phenomenon is unfolding: the marine-mammal transient killer whales are seemingly taking over.

Not only have they been around on a nearly daily basis, but there have usually been multiple groups of transients around this month at times numbering more than 30 whales. It has also become the "new normal" to see lots of Ts in the spring (April-May) and late summer (August-September) but having this many of them around in June and July is also unprecedented. It's been amazing to see, and I've very much enjoyed the opportunity to get to spend a lot more time with this other population of orcas of the Salish Sea. It's hard to believe when I first started visiting the San Juans it took four summers here before I ever even saw transients for the first time!

On the evening of July 8th we headed across Haro Strait to Sidney Island, BC to hang out with the T49As, who took up residence near the San Juan Islands for more than a week. When we first got there they were doing long dives with very sporadic surfacings, making them hard to track, but shortly thereafter they hunted a harbor seal and proceeded to hang out for more than half an hour.

Amazing evening light that only got better as the sun set
All the boats were shut down and it was a peaceful atmosphere as we watched the whales go about their business. If I learned one thing about the T49As in our multiple encounters with them in July it's that they are not at all boat shy - in fact, rather boat curious. Every time I saw them they went over to check out at least one boat, and this evening was no exception as in their circling they made a close pass to pretty much everyone who was there drifting in the current.

The T49As: opposite of boat shy

A close look at mom T49A and three year-old T49A4
Male T49A1
The whales weren't the only one hunting for their last meal of the day. I had to focus for a moment on this rhinoceros auklet and his mouthful of fish to take home to his chick:

Just as the sun set, the light got even more amazing. In a perfect magical moment, the whales swam right into the orange light as a flock of sea gulls took off behind them.

Most of the largest groups of transients lately have been hanging out in Rosario Strait or the Strait of Georgia, generally a bit too far for us to go by boat. On July 11th, however, one group made up of 10 whales (T36, T36Bs, T37A1, and T99s) came up San Juan Channel past Friday Harbor and then headed up President's Channel. After seeing them from shore in San Juan Channel, we hopped onto the boat and caught up with them at the north end of President's Channel, following them to Sucia Island (the furthest east we've ever been in the boat!). 

A peek-a-boo spyhop
T37A1 is a very interesting individual, as he/she has dispersed from their matriline the T37As at a very young age. Dispersal is not uncommon in transients, as in some cases both sons and daughters will leave their mother's side, but usually only when they're adults, when the group size is large, and for the case of females when they start having their own offspring. Just 10 years old this year, this whale regularly flips between traveling with different family groups. His/her appearance is also distinct: a very short, broad fin that's sporting some new scarring this year.

T37A1: a reminder of how much we don't know about these whales
After this group made a kill, they rounded Point Doughty on Orcas Island and grouped up, traveling in a slow-moving tight group through, again, brilliantly colored waters.

T99 and T99B (surfacing)
T99 (left) and T99B (center)

On the evening of July 14, it was the T77s' turn to make their way up San Juan Channel. Again we tried to see them from shore near Friday Harbor, and while they were very close to the rocks, they almost completely bypassed where we were standing on a long dive. We got just one quick look at them as they made on surfacing before diving to our south, giving these surprised onlookers (who had no idea the whales were coming) a memorable moment:

The light was fading but with the whales so close we had to try to catch them from the boat. Enabled in part by them making a turn in our direction, we were able to briefly catch up with them for another sunset encounter.

Male T77B off Spieden Island
That Friday evening proved to be the start of a triple header for the weekend. On Saturday morning (July 15th), we met up with the T34s, T37, and T37Bs near Flattop Island. Soon after we arrived they made an apparent pursuit on a harbor porpoise, though it wasn't clear if they got it. Shortly thereafter they did make a kill near White Rock. It was amazing how close they surfaced to these rocks as a group of wide-eyed harbor seals looked on!

Whales moving in towards the seal haul out
The whales milled around here for quite some time and apparently spooked at least one or two into the water, which they made quick work of. Not only did we see gulls coming down to grab scraps off the surface, but a closer look at my photos later showed meat in the mouth of one of the youngsters here on the right (note the pink - click to see a larger view:

Before we departed, we saw these whales give a close pass to the local sailing ship the Spike Africa.

Then on Sunday it looked as if we might go a day without whales when a group of Ts was picked up nearby heading our direction. We caught up with the T37As off Henry Island on the evening of July 16th. This group is made up of mom T37A (mother of the young dispersed whale T37A1) and the three of her offspring that travel with her. She's a very successful young mother, at age 23 having already given birth to 4 surviving offspring. I wonder if her birth rate of a new calf every 2-3 years has anything to do with her oldest dispersing so young. At any rate, she's got her work cut out for her as the only adult and a family of 4 to feed!

At first all 4 whales were traveling together, but soon mom and her oldest non-dispersed offspring completely disappeared for 15 minutes while the two youngest - four year-old T37A3 and two year-old T37A4 played together at the surface. It was like she left them to entertain themselves while going hunting!

No mom in sight while these two little ones frolicked right off the shoreline of Henry Island - so close to shore it looked like they were practically touching the rocks!
Eventually mom did come back to pick them up, and the family booked it over to Open Bay, where they again stalled out. It wasn't clear what they were doing as they were loose and surfacing every which way, looking more like the residents that often forage in this same location.

A young transient dwarfed by a passing container ship
After a long period of milling, they suddenly grouped up again and chose a direction - a direction that happened to be right past us! Their close surfacing startled me enough that I jumped, but I still had composure enough to point the camera in the right direction and click the shutter, capturing another magical sunset whale moment:

I have a feeling we're in for some more transient killer whale encounters in the near future, but next the Southern Residents finally returned to inland waters after a 17 day absence when, on July 17th, part of L-Pod made their way in. Their stay was short, but we did get to see them - those photos in my next blog post!

Friday, July 7, 2017

June 29th: Sunset Js -- July 1st and 3rd: Ts

On June 29th, J-Pod and the K14s were back in Haro Strait after spending a few days at the Fraser River. They flipped back south before going north in the mid-afternoon, but they did go north past Lime Kiln just before sunset.

Early morning and sunset whales - there's nothing better.

Light was fading quickly but we've seen so little of these guys this spring that we couldn't help but hop on our boat for another short encounter before dark. We met up with the J19s and J11s at Open Bay, and J51 Nova was in an exuberant mood!

J51 Nova
These whales had been the lead group, moving quickly north on the flood tide, with most of the rest of J-Pod in a large, slower moving group behind them. We were a bit surprised that they all stalled out on their journey north, as we didn't see the large group. From what we heard from others, it sounds like they were milling around County Park until after dark, when they did all finally go north.

J27 Blackberry in Haro Strait at dusk
Right before we had to go in, we got a beautiful look at J31 Tsuchi.

J31 Tsuchi
They made one more trip up north but then snuck out during the following evening, and again no Southern Residents have been seen since. We had resident whales in inland waters for just 24 days through April, May, and June of this year. The average from 1990-2016 over the same time period is 60 days. The crashing spring Chinook runs on the Fraser River seem the likely culprit for this drastic change.

While it doesn't make up for the scarcity of our resident orcas, the transient killer whale sightings continue to be off the hook. Unfortunately for us most have them have been too far away for us to see, but we did get a couple of looks at the T49As over the 4th of July weekend. They've been looping around the San Juan Islands a lot, and even made two visits INTO Friday Harbor and one into Roche Harbor (on a holiday weekend no less, those crazy whales!). On July 1st we saw them from the Friday Harbor Labs as they headed north up San Juan Channel.

Spyhop from male T49A1

We got a nice look at them as they passed, but then they stopped and made a kill just north of us, giving us a longer view from shore. At one point a lot of of blood was visible on the surface of the water, leaving no doubt as to what was causing them to linger!

The T49As surface amid a blood slick from their latest marine mammal kill

Eventually they did continue north, and so did we, catching them again from Reuben Tarte, where two of them made an incredibly close pass to an unsuspecting fishing boat! This whale never even surfaced, but lingered for a second alongside this boat, long enough for the people on board to move over and look straight down at it! In this photo you can see the white of the whale's chin and eyepatch right below the hull of the boat:

The T49As continue on their way
Two days later, on July 3rd, the T49As were in San Juan Channel again, this time heading north with the T65As and T75Bs. We saw them from a distance from Cattle Pass as they entered the channel and then as they milled in Griffin Bay, but we got our best look from the shores of the Friday Harbor Labs. We got there before the whales came into view so we had no idea which side of the channel they were on, or even for sure if they were still headed our way, so this was a very welcome sight:

Yes! Right place, right time
Again they gave some unsuspecting fishermen an incredible experience!

It was a short, but nice, pass.

Males T49A1 and T65A2, traveling together
We tried seeing them again from Reuben Tarte, but by that point in time they had crossed to the far side of the channel and were hard to see. So our last good look was this head lift by T49A1:

That catches you up on my whale encounters for the last week - now I'm ready to have more! :) Well, there was one more unusual superpod spotted on July 4th - at the parade in Friday Harbor. More than 130 Orca Protectors from 16 local organizations came together to march under the banner "Protect What You Love". We carried dorsal fins for every member of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales, plus ghost fins for the 7 whales we lost last year, and many salmon and other sea creatures. It was an impressive sight, taking up much of Spring Street as orca vocalizations played over an amplifier! This picture doesn't quite give the scene justice, but you'll have to imagine more of this stretched out in both directions. Our entry won the judge's choice award among all parade entries and was declared the unofficial overall favorite.

A superpod of Orca Protectors at the 4th of July Parade
As amazing as the transient encounters have been, this was a great reminder to everyone that this *should* be a peak time for visits from J-, K-, and L-Pods. We will not let their absence go unremarked upon, even if there are other whales around to enjoy.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

June 26th: Hangin' Out at Land Bank

On Monday, June 26th the westside shuffle by Js and the K14s continued and I was lucky enough to catch one of their northbound passes on my (extended) lunch break. The first few whales were spread out and several hundred yards offshore, but then a tighter group slowly rounded the bend to the south and made the hoped-for turn to aim inland towards us waiting on the shoreline of Land Bank's Westside Preserve.

Heading towards us!
It turned out to be the K14s with J39 Mako and J40 Suttles, and after a long dive they made a slow pass along the whole length of the shoreline where we were, slow enough that I could walk along the rocks with them. The pictures don't fully capture it, but from this one you get a glimpse of how the color of the water let us see their bodies underwater more than usual.

K26 Lobo
It was a perfect moment to capture how awesome shore-based whale-watching can be. I snapped this photo of this group of visitors (and was able to share it with them afterwards!):

And I was thankful my husband Jason stayed above me on the rocks and took one of me, too!

They made one more surfacing as a group before diving again....

I assumed when they next surfaced they would be further north up the shoreline towards Lime Kiln, but instead they were offshore and proceeded to mill back and forth for a while. K26 Lobo wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere, and the presence of the whale watch vessel Squito didn't keep him from showing off his "sea snake". He's upside down with his erect penis visible here:

While that group hung out offshore, more whales continued to pass inshore, including some of the J17s:

J17 Princess Angeline and J53 Kiki

J17 Princess Angeline, J53 Kiki, and J44 Moby.
Next came the very playful J16s, who also were in no hurry to go anywhere, going back and forth past the Land Bank shoreline several times.

J26 Mike with his dorsal fin covered in kelp

Was that going to be all? Nope! A look to the south while all this was going on revealed this sight:

The rest of J-Pod came to join the party, and K14's group and J16's group had seemingly been waiting for them as when they all met up they all finally continued north in big, cuddle-puddle fashion.

Spyhop alongside two whales who are right off the kelp bed south of Land Bank
From left to right: L87 Onyx, J45 Se-Yi'-Chn, J38 Cookie, and J22 Oreo
After two days of going back and forth, the residents finally did commit to going north, and would spend the next 2+ days up near the Fraser River. Next up is my report from when they did come back south to San Juan Island again!