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Saturday, September 13, 2014

September 11 and 13: New Baby L120 and Another Lime Kiln Morning

As is typical for September, members of all three pods have been traveling together. They've been coming and going regularly in and out the Strait of Juan de Fuca, spending a day or two here and then going out west for a day. I made an early morning of it before work on Thursday, September 11 on the west side. I met up with some other hopeful whale waiters, but unfortunately there were no orcas on the west side. The trip out there was not for naught, however (it never is). I saw both Vaux's (181) and black swifts (182), finally adding some birds to the year list, which had been stagnant since July!

The whales did turn up late morning heading towards the south end of San Juan Island, so I went back to the west side for lunch. Bingo! My timing was right on. I saw some whales heading north towards Lime Kiln, and assumed they were probably Js, who are usually in the lead. Then the guy next to me on the rock, who was looking through binoculars, said, "There is a very small whale in there..." Could it be?! Yes! It was new baby L120 and family!

L120 next to L86 Surprise
J49 has been the "baby" of the community for some time now, but he's over two years old. It's been a while since I've seen such a young calf - it was noticeably a very tiny killer whale!

L120's tiny dorsal fin is visible against mama's saddle patch
As has been the case seemingly since L120 was born, probable aunt L27 Ophelia was right by the little one's side as well. The rest of the family was close by, too.

They got up just past Lime Kiln, then turned and went back south, so we got to see the little one twice! 

Can't get enough of these baby pictures, even if the lighting wasn't the best!

Right before the Ls turned south, another whale came just up to the kelp at the south end of Lime Kiln. I couldn't tell who it was because I only saw her head-on, but I heard from a friend who was further south that it was J2 Granny! She got close enough that I could see her saddle patch underwater, and she literally came right up to the edge of the kelp then turned around under water and went back south.

A whale, reportedly J2 Granny, approaches - then turned around underwater within sight of the rocks and went back south

The whales stayed south the rest of the day then swung out west on the 12th, but again were heading back in by Friday evening. There was a book signing in town where many whale lovers were debating when the whales would arrive on the west side. That night before dark? Would they go north during the night? First thing in the morning? I told several people (somewhat tongue in cheek) that my gut feeling was the would be at Lime Kiln at 7 AM. Backing up my belief, I was out at Lime Kiln at 6:45. (Side note: I realize I'm probably in the minority of people who set their alarm earlier on weekends than on weekdays....)

The view of Mt. Rainier to the south was one of the clearest I have ever seen from the island (the picture doesn't quite do it justice):

Mt. Rainier - 130 miles away!
I was looking through binoculars, partly to look at the mountain and partly to scan for whales. Hmm, did I just imagine a dorsal fin? I kept looking.....did I just imagine another? Then a whale breached, erasing any doubts! There they were! I looked at my "watch" (phone): 7:01 AM! And no one else believed me - there was only one other person in the park! (Disclaimer: I'm not usually right when I predict the whales, but if you predict enough, you've gotta be right sometime!)

L87 Onyx in the lead, with J2 Granny right behind

Following Granny and Onyx were Shachi and Eclipse, then the J14s. It's so peaceful to be out there for moments like these! Well worth getting up early for:

There was a little gap between this group and the J16s, who came next. Inshore of the whales it looked like there were a few Dall's porpoise....but they looked a little different. Turns out it was three lags! (Pacific white-side dolphins are often called lags as an abbreviation of their genus, Lagenorhynchus, maybe because their common name is such a mouthful?)

Lags are common further north in BC but for some reason we rarely see them in the San Juans, though there have been quite a few sightings of 1-3 animals this summer. I've seen lags in BC, but this was my first time seeing them in the San Juans, so I was pretty excited! They're one of the only things that could entice me to look away from the orcas!

Three lags in Haro Strait

Lags have two speeds: fast, and faster. They zig-zagged this way and that, and actually came fairly close to shore!

The distinct rounded dorsal fin of a Pacific white-sided dolphin - both our porpoise species have more triangular fins

For some reason, locally lags seem to like to harass the orcas, or at least it looks that way as they buzz around the whales like flies. Particularly the adult males; I've heard of L95 Nigel, L85 Mystery, and L87 Onyx all being tailed by a lag in recent months. These guys were just swimming along paralleling the orcas....

J26 Mike in the background, lags in the foreground

....but when J26 Mike surfaced, they made a 90 degree turn and headed straight for him!!!

Three lags speed towards Mike
He proceeded to go down on a long dive - we didn't see him again for something like seven minutes, and the lags proceeded on their way north. So cool to see a little bit of inter-species interaction, even if we have no idea what it means!

More whales were visible to the south, and would remain so for the next several hours, but they never came up north. The J16s were the last whales to actually pass Lime Kiln, rounding out J-Pod Group A and continuing north.

J36 Alki

I'm just in love with being out at Lime Kiln early in the morning. The sightings have been fantastic, and I know such mornings are limited before it gets too dark and cold to hang out there! The lighting is so magical, no matter what you're looking at.

California gull

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 6th: Five Epic Hours of Whales and Wildlife at Lime Kiln

With word the night before that all three pods were inbound from the ocean, I knew I should get out to Lime Kiln early on the morning of Saturday, September 6th. When I got out to the park at about 7:00, it was one of those blissfully peaceful mornings, so calm you can hear the porpoises breathing. I was sitting on the rocks about half an hour after arriving listening to those soft exhalations: Pfft.......Pfft. Suddenly, I heard a different noise. Faint - far away - but distinct. Kawoof! That was no porpoise!

It was pretty magical for me to hear the orcas before I  saw them. After hearing two breaths, I started scanning to the south and spotted a dorsal fin a mile or so away, but heading north towards me! Fighting an ebb tide, it took this first small group of whales a looonnnng time to get to Lime Kiln. When the first one finally arrived, I wasn't too surprised to see it was J2 Granny!

J2 Granny surfaces in the beautiful early morning light off Lime Kiln
Not far behind Granny were J16 Slick and her son J26 Mike. I could see more blows to the south, but very spread out, and when Mike stopped to forage for a while off Lime Kiln it was clear the whales weren't in any hurry to go anywhere. Eventually, over the next two hours, the rest of J-Pod "Group A" came by heading north: the rest of the J16s, the J14s, the J19s, and L87 Onyx:

L87 Onyx - look at that reflection of the dorsal fin!
Whales were visible pretty much all the time, but in the gaps when there weren't any close, there was so much other wildlife to look at it! It was just all around a very photogenic morning.

The first rays of sunlight on Lime Kiln Lighthouse
A belted kingfisher - the best photo I've ever gotten of one in flight!

The harbor seal action was incredible, too. There were at least three seals fishing right off the park throughout the morning, and they caught at least three large fish throughout the morning.

Harbor seal with a fish. He was looking at me with eyes like he thought I might steal it from him! The water looks so gray because this was before the sun really came up over the island - it was early!
Two harbor seals - much nicer lighting after the sun arrived!
A little early morning yoga, harbor seal style!
Once Group A had continued north in their ones and twos, which took until almost 10 AM, I could see a lot of blows all at once off Land Bank to the south. Yesss!! Who could this be? Turns out it was all of Group B (J11s, J17s, J22s) traveling together, most of them right along the shoreline!

Photographer and whales - the best of shore-based whale-watching!
I love this shot because it shows just how close to shore the whales come! When you see them appearing over or around the rocks, you know you're a few moments away from an incredible treat!

Not only were they close, the lighting couldn't have been better! I've spent a lot of early mornings on the west side this summer without seeing anything, but this one panning out made it all worth it!

I've gotten photos of orcas and harbor seals in the same shot when I've been on a boat, but this was the first time I had a chance to take a shot like this from shore! Usually the harbor seals are on the rocks behind the whales, but this time the harbor seal is in the foreground!

The lighting was such that you could see the whales underwater as they swam past, truly one of the most magical experiences. Unfortunately the surface was just a bit too disturbed to get clear underwater photos, but it still led to some neat abstract shots. I really like photos like this, though I've learned over the years that unless you've looked at as many whales and whale photos as I have, it's not always clear what you're seeing! Here's one showing just the head of the whale underwater, and you're seeing the white chin, white eye patch, and the beginning of her exhalation:

Here's the next photo in the sequence to help you better visualize what you're seeing:

Here's another set of three shots where you can see a whale underwater, right before she comes up and surfaces onto the back of the whale in front of her!

Then in this one even I'm not sure of what all is visible in terms of how many whales or which body parts you're seeing, but I like it anyway! I do see the head of one whale in the middle, right above the ripple across the middle of the photo. That whale is "upside down" compared to the ones in the photos above.

Not only was the light amazing for seeing under water, it was perfect above water, too! How about this "rainblow" from J32 Rhapsody?

A beautiful "rainblow" from J32 Rhapsody
Two whales were trailing just a minute or two behind the main group, and all of a sudden they raced by to catch up. It was J28 Polaris and J46 Star.

J28 Polaris
At this time I wasn't even sure if all three pods had made it in, or stayed in for that matter. But when all of Js had gone by, I was still seeing blows to the south, so I knew somebody else was here! About 20 minutes after the Js came the K14s. As is always the case on these epic passbys, as soon as they had passed, the next set of whales was approaching. Following the K14s were the K12s, and then the K13s in three spread out groups of their own. The final two whales to pass were K20 Spock and K38 Comet.

K20 Spock and K38 Comet
When all of Ks had gone by (we're talking about a little over 4 hours of whales slowly passing by at this point), there were still more blows to the south! These whales (they had to be Ls, by the process of elimination, as everyone else but three K-Pod whales had been sen at this point) were milling, and while I waited to see if they would make their way up, the harbor seals continued to entertain.

It looked like the seals were catching salmon:

I'm not sure if these two both saw the same fish at the same time or what, but they proceeded to fight over one good sized fish right in front of me!

The action was happening so fast I was just clicking the shutter with no real idea of what I was capturing, but it was a real treat to go home and look through my pictures later! Here's one seal lunging out of the water right at the other:

And my gem seal shot of the day, one of the seals completely submerged underwater but visible holding a very tattered salmon in his mouth!

In the end, the whales to the south turned and went back south, but I couldn't complain! After five hours and more than five hundred photos at Lime Kiln, it had truly been an epic morning. Ultimately Js and Ks continued north to the Fraser River while the 3 K-Pod whales and all of L-Pod spent their whole day off the southwest side of San Juan Island. Big news came in the afternoon, however, when the Center for Whale Research announced that they had documented a new calf, L120, born to L86 Surprise!

If you've been reading my blog throughout the summer, you've probably heard me mention that J49 Ti'lem I'nges was the last calf born to the Southern Residents - in August of 2012! We had to wait an astonishing 25 months to welcome the next new member to the population. While we were all beyond thrilled to hear about this new little one's arrival, the long drought with no babies is certainly a cause for concern. The very latest research from the Conservation Canine crew (the folks that use scat-detection dogs to  collect killer whale fecal samples for some pretty cutting edge hormone analysis) is that it looks like the whales are getting pregnant, but seem to be miscarrying, perhaps due to nutritional stress. It goes back to the very same core message: no fish, no blackfish.

The arrival of this little one was also a little bittersweet because of the family group he/she was born in to. The last whale born to L86 Surprise! (yes the exclamation point is officially part of the name) met an unfortunate fate. You can read about L112 Sooke on one of my previous blog posts here.

But I don't mean to digress too far into the sad side of things - the arrival of L120 was a very happy day! So happy that I got tears in my eyes when I heard the news. It would take a few days until I would have the opportunity to meet L120 for myself, but I would get a chance to see him/her before too long!! Stay tuned for those photos - you won't believe how small a 6 foot long, 400 pound cetacean can look!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

August 26th: Ts Everywhere!

On Tuesday, August 26th I got to go out on the zodiac the Western Explorer with a friend who was about to leave after spending the summer interning here. With some residents having gone out west the day before and others way up north out of range, first thing in the morning the whale report was looking a little questionable. I had a good feeling about the day, however, and it turned out my gut reaction was right. There were transients ("Ts") all over the place!

When we left the dock in mid-afternoon, one group of Ts was right outside Friday Harbor! It was the T65As, a group that has been around a lot this summer.

The T65As right outside Friday Harbor

With quite a few boats on scene and reports of another, larger group of transients not too far away, we just took one quick look at the T65As then headed east through the San Juan Islands towards Rosario Strait. As we got close, the whales fanned out into no fewer than four different groups as they rounded the eastern tip of Orcas Island. I've been watching whales here for over ten years, but this was something I had never seen before - we were with one group of transients, and just about everywhere you looked you could see another group! It was more like watching a spread out group of resident matrilines.

Turns out the whales were not in nice, orderly groups however. The different transient family groups present were all mixed up, and with no adult males present (just about 20 transient females and juveniles!) it proved difficult to get IDs, both while we were there and later from my photos. The best as I could piece it together, present were the T34s, T36s, and T37s, but I don't think that's enough whales to account for everyone there, so I think there was at least one more family mixed in there too!

A mixed group of transient killer whales in Rosario Strait

Things lined up perfectly for this shot:

Transient killer whales (I believe the T37As) in front of Mt. Baker
I love being on the water late afternoon/early evening - the lighting is so great. And I got to do it twice in three days!

Groups were just meandering this way and that - they didn't seem to have any destination in mind, but they didn't really seem to be hunting either, at least not as far as we could tell. Right before it was time to leave, three of the groups met up and gave us one last beautiful surfacing.

Probably my favorite photo of the afternoon

This one was taken a split second later

T37A on the right

It's always interesting to think about residents and transients interact, or at least how they share the habitat. There are definitely days we have both ecotypes in the area, but it also seems like at times its either one type or the other that's prolific throughout the Salish Sea. This was definitely a transient day! There were even more groups than the five that we saw, with no residents around at all. I estimated there were probably about 30 transients around! Other days we have three or four groups of residents and no one finds any Ts! I really do wonder what they think of each other.

It's hard to believe we're already approaching September. I'm definitely not ready for the days to be getting shorter, but traditionally September is one of my favorite months of the year here, including having some of the best whale sightings! I can't wait to see what this September will bring.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August 24th: Some Js and Ks in Swanson Channel

On Saturday it looked like J-Pod might be leaving us and heading back out to the open ocean, but then late in the day they turned and came back in! Towards sunset all was quiet on the west side, except for the blows of some very spread out orcas....and then two much longer blows of a couple of surprising humpbacks!

J34 and another whale slowly head south on the evening of August 23rd

At the same time, two adult humpbacks head north!

Early on Sunday the 24th I was excited to hear that there were a lot of whales off the south end of San Juan Island. It was looking good for an evening whale watch with my brother and his family aboard Legacy Charters. As we left Snug Harbor, we went north to meet up with Js and Ks as they were entering Swanson Channel in the Canadian Gulf Islands.

On our way out we paused to watch a purse seiner haul in his catch - pretty dismal, I thought! Word is fishing in US waters is not good this season, even though projections were for another high return this year after the record-setting sockeye run in 2010 (young from that year should be returning this year). Unfortunately for US fishermen, warm oceanic conditions have pushed all the adult fish further north, and about 99% of them are returning to the Fraser River through Johnstone Strait in Canadian waters rather than a split between that route and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Not a lotta fish for humans (or whales?) in US waters this summer
K33 Tika must have heard I was having a hard time identifying him (see my last post), because not only was he the first whale he saw on this evening, but he kept popping up everywhere throughout the whole trip. I think I saw him from all angles, so maybe I can be better about identifying him from now least until next year's growth spurt.

K33 Tika

His mom K22 Sekiu was nearby, and we got several nice looks at her as well.

K22 Sekiu

K22 Sekiu

The Hodgepod Summer continued, as we had yet another new combination of whales traveling together. Present were J2 and the J14s (without L87), the J19s, the J22s, the K12s, K13s, and K14s.

J14 Samish

Later we heard the rest of J-Pod (including L87) and a bunch of L-Pod whales were further south off San Juan Island! Surprise! No one saw the Ls coming in.

I love being on the water late in the day. The lighting is so beautiful. Watching whales in the Canadian Gulf Island is always pretty spectacular, too.

Another shot of K22 Sekiu

At one point, J32 Rhapsody came cruising by us out of nowhere

J32 Rhapsody

The whales were spread out traveling, occasionally stopping to forage. It was a very peaceful encounter.

Nothing better than sunset whales!

On the way back to port we cruised by the cormorant rookery on Henry Island:

We also pulled in Captain Spencer's crab trap and got a nice close up look at some Dungeness crabs of all sizes. My niece and nephew were fascinated but did not want to touch one!

We had a great evening on board the Legacy!

With members of all three pods around, I was assuming we might have a superpod kinda day on Monday. Not so! The mixed group of Js and Ls went west, and the northern group of Js and Ks continued north. So far north, in fact, that on Tuesday they were seen near Campbell River, BC! That's pretty unusual, and it's probably not a coincidence due to so many fish coming down the Inside Passage instead of through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

No residents doesn't mean no orcas around, however! There have been a lot of transients around, and on Tuesday I would be in for an encounter like no other.