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Sunday, August 21, 2016

August 20th: A Whale of a Day With All Three Pods

On the evening of August 19th, after a day with no whales in the area, we heard about a large group of residents heading in from out west. With hopes of perhaps our first real superpod of the season, we headed out to the west side on the morning of August 20th with word of whales heading up towards Lime Kiln. The first marine mammal sighting of the day, however, wasn't an orca but this harbor seal pup in the kelp:

With the potential for all the whales to be in the area and no idea at all who's out there, it always takes a bit to figure out just who we're looking at. The whales being all mixed up makes it a little bit harder, too! The first whales we saw were some members of the K13s with some members of the L47s.

K25 Scoter and L47 Marina

If you were surprised like I was to not have J2 Granny in the lead group as usual, turns out that's just because she was so far in the lead she passed Lime Kiln before sun-up. I heard later that Granny's group of J-Pod was way up in Swanson Channel already with the L4s at this time.

The mixed group of Ks and Ls hung out for a long while in front of Lime Kiln, apparently actively foraging. They were spread out, but we saw lots of surface activity, including some impressive lunges as they presumably pursued a salmon.

Awesome surface lunge by K13 Skagit
Even though they weren't as close to shore as a couple days ago, the morning light was again awesome for seeing photographing all their surface behavior.

Tail slap by K25 Scoter
As a few more whales came north to join the group, they all converged and were zipping around in tight groups. They don't really cooperatively hunt for salmon as far as we know, but it sure looked like the feeding was good in that spot for everyone!

An odd combo: K20 Spock and baby L122

A couple of foraging whales zoomed past this boat (who had cut their engines - the whales approached them), wowing the people on the board. I particularly love the look of disbelief from the woman on the left as she experiences a moment she'll never forget! The girls on top look pretty thrilled, too.

K27 Deadhead and another whale thrill these onlookers
The photos didn't really capture the excitement of the foraging whales, but we had our hydrophone in the water, and the vocalizations sure did. Check out a clip of what we heard here

After a time this group of whales continued north, and next to pass us were K38 Comet and K34 Cali to complete the K13 family group.

K38 Comet heading north to catch up with the rest of his family

Next came some more L-Pod whales, including a couple I haven't seen much of at all this year, like L72 Racer and L105 Fluke!

L105 Fluke - who has grown so much since last year that I had to do a double take when I saw him!
After a few more Ls went by, we thought that was probably it, as no other whales were in sight to the south. Perhaps all the whales that were coming in the night before hadn't stayed? We headed home to have a late breakfast, and then heard from a friend that other whales were heading towards the south end of San Juan Island from offshore! We headed back out to the west side, but the only whales that made it north past Lime Kiln were the J16s - all the other Js, Ks, and Ls stayed near False Bay or further south.

J16 Slick and J50 Scarlet make a mid-afternoon pass by Lime Kiln

In the evening, the seas remained flat calm as they had all day, so after an early dinner we decided to head out on the boat to see if we could meet up with the whales off False Bay. Surprisingly, we ended up finding whales right near Open Bay! The J16s were on their way back south. But even more surprisingly, they weren't alone! I had seen all the members of the J16s when we spotted another male offshore. I took a photo to figure out who it was, and you should have heard my excitement when I realized it was L84 Nyssa, a member of the greater L54 sub-group of L-Pod who don't generally spend much time here at all.

You wouldn't think this average photo would cause so much excitement, but....L84 NYSSA!!!

After he passed we swung around to the outside of him to get a better shot of his other side lit up by the evening light.

L84 Nyssa about one and a half miles offshore of San Juan County Park
I figured it was unlikely he would be there without the others in his sub-group, and sure enough we found two more of them. (The other two were apparently well to the south with the other whales - it's a mystery how these guys made it up to the J16s seemingly undetected, though they were so far offshore maybe it's not surprising.) I love getting to spend time with these guys, the members of the Southern Resident Community that I know the least well.

L108 Coho with the Lime Kiln Lighthouse in the distance
We dropped the hydrophone a couple times, and while they were mostly just echolocating we did get a few vocals from L108. He stopped a couple times to actively forage, and we saw more surface lunges much like we saw from the other group first thing this morning.

I always love abstract whale shots with cool lighting/reflections, so check out this heavily cropped photo of L108 and the water in the amazing evening light:

The tip of the dorsal fin of L108 Coho as he submerges
We saw our first whales of the day around 8 AM and our last whales of the day around 8 PM! By the time it got dark out we were exhausted, but not complaining in the least! We wondered if we would be in for another whale-filled day today, August 21st, but what a difference a day makes. Yesterday there were whales on the west side all day and flat calm seas. Today, no whales nearby, and heavy winds with rough seas! A good time to stay at home and go through all the photos, data, and recordings we collected yesterday!

Friday, August 19, 2016

August 17th: The Morning We've Been Hoping For

It's a good thing I caught up on my other recent whale encounters on a blog post a few days ago, because my "off" streak definitely ended on the morning of August 17th, with an encounter that most definitely deserves its own dedicated post.

We dream of mornings like these. They're the reason we set our alarms from 6 AM on summer Saturdays, the reason we drive out to the west side extra early before going to work, the reason we spend hours sitting on the's because we hope for encounters like this. Calm waters, hardly any people, gorgeous lighting, and whales right off the kelp, so close you can see them swimming underwater.

It started like several other such mornings this summer, with Jason and I arriving at the west side before anybody else, sitting on the rocks eating cereal and straining our ears for that hoped-for sound of a whale breathing. Soon, the sun rose over the island behind us, and a few other dedicated friends gathered along the shoreline. As I chatted with one, Jason continued scanning with binoculars, until he exclaimed, "Whales. We have whales!" as the first dorsal fins came into view off the coast to the south of us.

They - Js and Ks - were swimming north against a strong ebb tide. It was slow progress for them, and they stopped to mill a little ways south of us, which had us all holding our breath against the possibility of the dreaded "T-word" (turnaround). But then, in characteristic fashion, J2 Granny led the way north.

J2 Granny

Behind her, one after another, came members of the K14s: K14 Lea, K26 Lobo, and K42 Kelp. Last year, the K14s were nearly always with Granny's group, but as seems to often be the case, each year brings different association patterns and it's not a group we've seen together too much yet this year.

With a few whales going north, we were hopeful the rest would follow, but it still wasn't guaranteed - we often see Granny and a few others pass Lime Kiln but then come back south before everyone makes it up to us. We anxiously watched the action south of us off Land Bank, where it looked like many whales were quite close to shore. It can be hard in these moments to sit still, when you know if you were somewhere else the whales would be right in front of you and have no guarantee they'll keep swimming to where you are. But, more often than not, patience pays off, as it did on this day.

Two "waves" of whales approaching
The whales were, as we say, "right off the rocks". If you wonder what this phrase means, here's the asnwer:

J26 Mike and J42 Echo
J40 Suttles

The first group to pass including members of the J14s and J16s. The morning light was so perfect, making for awesome reflections and the ability to see the whales underwater.

Awesome reflections

Underwater whales are the best! Prints of this photo available here. <3 br="">
J37 Hy'shqa. Prints of this photo available here.
So many photos, it's hard to narrow down which ones to share....

J37 Hy'shqa
J40 Suttles. Prints of this photo available here.
Prints of this photo available here

While some people have a hard time figuring out what part of the whale they're looking at in photos like these, I tend to love the abstract whale shots the best:

How many whales are in this photo? At least three!

Of course this shot, featuring the two loves of my life, is a contender for favorite of the day, too:

My husband Jason with J16 Slick and her son J26 Mike

On second thought, on days like this, there are too many favorites to pick just one:

Prints of this photo available here.

Closely following the J14s and J16s was another group made up of the J11s and J19s. Interestingly, the J17s and J22s were not present - just another chapter in the constantly changing association patterns! It was a special moment to check in with my favorite whale J41 Eclipse and her one year-old son J51 Nova. (Maybe this one is my favorite? ;) )

J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova. Prints of this photo available here.

J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova. Prints of this photo available here.

J19 Shachi

I feel like I haven't seen this big guy in forever - I was pretty excited to see him emerging from the depths!

J27 Blackberry

Following behind this group, but further offshore, were the K16s and K21. Then bringing up the rear was L87 and his new buddy, J45 Se-Yi-Chn (I've seen them together several times recently, which I love, because Onyx had been on his own a lot lately and J45 can feel like one of the big boys now (in my head anyway, haha).

The close passes like this only last a couple of minutes, but the images stay etched in your memory forever and leave you smiling for days! It's nourishing for the soul, that's for sure.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

July 22 - August 14: Playing Catch Up on Whale Sigthings!

Over the last couple weeks I've had a lot of distant and/or brief whale encounters, many of which didn't seem worthy of their own blog post during the height of summer when I'm busy with so many other things as well! But now I've gotten so behind on sharing whale sightings that I have plenty of photos to share all in one go.

On July 22nd, the two halves of J-Pod met up in rough seas right off Lime Kiln. Most of the whales were pretty far offshore, but we got a surprise pass by J41 Eclipse and her son J51 Nova.

On August 3rd, all of J-Pod along with the L4s, L47s, and L26s made their way up Haro Strait in the evening. I still say nothing beats sunset whales!

L47 Marina and L115 Mystic

L92 Crewser

It was cool to see one of the biggest and one of the smallest members of L-Pod traveling together:

L92 Crewser and little L122, who will be named this month

On August 5th, the same group came back down Haro Strait, spread all the way across. Only a few were close enough to see from Lime Kiln on another day with wild seas.

Those babies gotta get up extra high to breathe when the seas are choppy!

IDs were especially difficult because of the backlighting, and the fact that the whales were "all mixed up" from our human perspective. For instance, I saw J31 Tsuchi traveling with L83 Moonlight!

On August 8th, K-Pod returned after an unheard of nearly two month absence in the middle of summer!  I just missed seeing them on August 9th as they passed with J-Pod, but did catch this awesome breach by J16 Slick.

J16 Slick

The "just missed" streak continued in the evening as I only caught the tail end of another pass, but got to see J17 Princess Angeline and her calf J53, who will also be named this month.

J17 Princess Angeline and J53

On August 11th, trying to increase my odds, I got up extra early to head out to the west side in hope of whales. My gamble paid off as I spotted J34 Doublestuf in the early morning light, foraging off of Land Bank. Surprisingly, only he, his mom J22 Oreo, and brother J38 Cookie were there. The rest of Js and part of K-Pod went north during the night without them! While for that day it looked eerily similar to when we had the three L22s on their own on the west side for a time during the summer of 2013, the J22s reunited with the rest of their pod by the end of the day.

J34 Doublestuf
On August 12th I finally caught up with the K12s and K13s, whales I hadn't really gotten a good look at yet this year. (In reality, I just missed them again at Lime Kiln, so we jumped out on our boat - enough misses!) We followed the K12s up to Boundary Pass - the K13s were a bit ahead, so I still didn't get a look at them.

K12 Sequim and K43 Saturna

While on the water with the K12s and K13s, we got word from another boater that ALL the other Southern Residents were inbound from the Strait of Juan de Fuca! Could we possibly be in for our first superpod of the year? Anticipating a yes, we got up early again the next morning, on August 13th spent four hours at Lime Kiln before we heard the K12s and K13s were staying up north and everyone else who had just come in the night before after dark was westbound again. Still, those early summer mornings are pretty darn spectacular with or without whales.

Mt. Baker sunrise as seen from Friday Harbor
Black oystercatcher at Lime Kiln
Female belted kingfisher with fish off Lime Kiln

Parent feeding juvenile oystercatcher at limpet

That afternoon, we heard the T65As were heading down San Juan Channel, hugging the San Juan shoreline. We went out to the Friday Harbor Labs in hopes of seeing them. As they approached, they were indeed right off the rocks. Unfortunately right after I took this photo, they went on a long dive and next surfaced around the corner past us to the south!

It was such a hot summer Saturday, that hanging out by the water continued to sound pretty good. We watched the Ts as they progressed down the channel into Griffin Bay, and then caught them as the exited Cattle Pass.

The Western Prince with the T65As passing Goose Island in Cattle Pass
The next day, August 14th, the K12s and K13s did the westside shuffle. We got to Lime Kiln just as they were passing heading north, but could barely see them! I got my first look at K20 Spock on the viewfinder of my camera, where I could see her better than with my naked eye through the fog!

K20 Spock - seen better by my camera than by me
Luckily, the fog lifted before the whales came back south, and I got a proper good look at K20 as she came right near the kelp!

K20 Spock

The whales were fighting a strong flood tide to head south, but seemed to be enjoying the currents, doing lots of breaches and tail slaps as they rolled at the surface.

Today, after having just the K12s and K13s in inland waters for several days, some other Js and Ks made their way back east. Bizarrely, the K12s and K13s went north without waiting to meet up with them, and then this evening just four whales (including J2 Granny) went north without any others, who were still south and milling off False Bay. Every day continues to be different in terms of which whales are where and with whom, so who knows what tomorrow and the coming weeks will bring!