On Wednesday, May 15th around noon us Salish Sea whale watchers got the news we've been waiting for for weeks: resident orcas inbound off Victoria! The Southern Residents can and often are seen in the area every month throughout the year, but around April or May we expect sightings to start happening more often and continue regularly through September. I remember in 2005 someone telling me they thought April was one of the best whale-watching months here, with J-Pod on the west side of San Juan Island just about every day. The last two years, however, there have been no sightings of Southern Residents in inland waters in the month of April for the first time since studies began. This year, there were no sightings of Southern Residents from March 10th off Campbell River until May 15th, the latest ever return for the whales in the spring. Perhaps a sign of the changing times and ocean conditions out there!
The good news was that all of J-Pod (and honorary J-Pod member L87 Onyx) was present and accounted for, from the estimated 100+ year old J2 Granny to the newest calf, the less than one year old J49:
Even better, they all seemed to be in great body condition (nice and fat), so hopefully wherever they've been hanging out they've been finding lots and lots of salmon!
Luckily I only had to work a half day at work, so after lunch I went out to the west side of San Juan Island to look for the whales coming across Haro Strait. They were making slow progress as I saw a few of them just round the tip of Discovery Island. Often they pick up speed and jet across Haro Strait, but that wasn't the case today. Luckily I heard from a friend that the naturalists at Western Prince, where I used to work, were just as keen to see J-Pod as I was. We all chipped in some gas money and the captain took us out for a late afternoon cruise aboard the zodiac-style Western Explorer. I met them in town, we suited up in mustang suits, and off we went around the north end of the island.
We met up with the whales north of Lime Kiln Point State Park in Haro Strait. The first animals we saw were members of the J16 and J14 matrilines. Throughout the early evening we would get to see just about every animal in J-Pod. While unfortunately I didn't actually see J2 Granny or J8 Spieden myself, their presence was confirmed.
|J16 Slick and her son J26 Mike|
After the first few whales passed by, we spotted another, larger group a little ways behind them.
In this group were the J22s, J11s, J17s, and the rest of the J14s. Included among them was J27 Blackberry, one of the first adult males I've watched grow up from a juvenile into this big guy:
Not far from Blackberry was his ten-year old younger brother J39 Mako. These two have been extremely tight since their mother passed away a few years ago:
|J27 Blackberry with J39 Mako - his smaller dorsal fin hard to see against his big brother's in this shot|
The whales were fairly close to shore as they made their was up San Juan Island, wowing visitors at both Lime Kiln and then here at San Juan County Park. It was amazing to see a full parking lot there this time of year - word spreads fast when the whales come back!
|J17 Princess Angeline in front of San Juan County Park|
|Fifteen year-old male J34 Doublestuf passes in front of Low Island, a National Wildlife Refuge, near San Juan County Park|
All the youngsters were definitely in a playful mood. Here's cousins J46 Star (4 years old) and J47 Notch (3 years old) hanging out together:
This group was traveling pretty tightly together, meaning at times there were lots of dorsal fins up at once - a sight I love!
Sure it's anthropomorphizing a bit, but the whales seemed happy to be back. They certainly weren't in a hurry to go anywhere and were doing lots of spyhopping, tail slapping, and rolling around at the surface. We dropped the hydrophone in and heard lots of great underwater vocalizations, and on numerous occasions when the whales were logging at the surface we heard some above water vocals too!
There was a light but steady rain falling while we were watching the whales. We were bundled up with sweatshirts, mustang suits, and then rain gear over that so staying warm wasn't a problem. It's funny how you don't notice the wet when watching whales. Here's Sarah looking at whales off the bow of the boat:
Can whales wrestle? I don't know, but there was a lot of roughhousing behavior going on - it was fun to try and visualize what was going on under water with all the splashing and various whale body parts we saw at the surface. This young one has a piece of kelp in its mouth - maybe playing keep away from its friend? The other small whale behind it proceeded to surface on top of and push the one with kelp back underwater:
It's really hard to capture in photos what it was like to watch these whales just goofing around at the surface!
Notice anything unusual in this photo?
The whale on the left actually has its mouth open! I think this is the first time I've ever been able to see killer whale teeth in one of my pictures. Here's a closer look:
I love the more abstract whale photos - many times those are my favorite shots, the sort where unless you're really familiar with the whales you're not even sure what you're seeing. Can you sort out the body parts of the three whales in this shot?
On Thursday J-Pod pulled a disappearing act again and they weren't seen, but word is now on Friday afternoon that they're on the west side of San Juan Island right now - so off I go to try and catch up with them again! Now the summer season in the San Juans can really begin!