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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Whale Season

Since getting back from our epic west coast road trip that took us from Baja, Mexico all the way up the California and Oregon coasts, I've had some great whale sightings back home in the Salish Sea. In fact, our first full day back on the island (April 17th) included a boat trip out to see both transient and resident orcas. First, we met up with the T11s over near Kelp Reef.


Just a few miles behind the Ts were a very spread out J-Pod. Some of the Js were even on the same side of the strait as the Ts, but we headed back across and met up with the J16s and J19s near Mitchell Bay.

J16 Slick and J50 Scarlett

J19 Shachi

Tail wave from J41 Eclipse

On several occasions over the last few weeks, just the J16 matriline has been around in inland waters without the rest of J-Pod.  I met up with them for the first time on the evening of May 3rd, where they were also in an uncommon location for resident orcas: in San Juan Channel.

The J16s

The J16s

J26 Mike

I saw them again on May 8, when they were blasting down Haro Strait.

J36 Alki and J52 Sonic

On the afternoon of May 11th, we had a special double header encounter. It started with a pair of humpback whales - a whale seen often locally known as Big Mama, and her newest calf.

Big Mama fluking in Open Bay
These two humpbacks have been around a lot lately, and the calf especially is known for being very active at the surface with all his breaches, tail slaps, and cartwheels. He was relatively subdued on the night we saw him, just rolling at the surface a couple of times, but after one long dive we got a particularly good look at mom and baby.

Humpback calf (left) surfaces next to a diving Big Mama
As the humpbacks cruised north, I heard report of some transient orcas further to the south. It sounded like they were quite far away, but with flat calm waters we decided to go for it. Surprisingly, we met up with them pretty quickly, as they were also swimming north at a good clip. It was the T123s, a group of three whales I've only seen a handful of times before. We followed them as they quickly traveled around Henry Island and through Spieden Channel.

The T123s: from left to right young adult male T123A, mom T123, and four year-old T123C.

Mama and son - throughout the encounter T123A, would swing wide and then come back to his mom's side

The T123s are one of the few transient killer whale family groups that have also been given common names. T123 is known as Sidney, and her two living offspring are 16 year-old T123A Stanley and T123C Lucky.

Stanley and Sidney in Spieden Channel

As the sun sunk towards the horizon, the lighting got especially beautiful while the whales swam through Spieden Channel.

T123A Stanley

Mostly the trio seemed to be in quick travel mode, with just one short stop to either check something out or perhaps make a kill. Little T123C Lucky got excited during these few minutes, and created this splash by doing a tail slap right by his mom and big brother.

As they entered San Juan Channel, T123A again split off from his mom and younger sibling and went wide, giving us one nice last look before we headed back to home port.

T123A Stanley
The whales sightings just keep increasing, and while I haven't seen them there's been some large congregations of transients, and part of K-Pod also made their first appearance of the summer season a couple days ago. Who knows what I'll see next?!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

West Coast Wildflowers

Our trip up the coast in late March and early April was timed perfectly to enjoy abundant wildflowers along the whole way. I wanted to share some of my favorites:

Yellow Bush Lupine

Mules Ears

Pussy Ears

Fiddleneck species

Sticky monkeyflower

Purple sand verbena

Bermuda buttercup

Sea fig

Seaside daisy

California golden violet

White African daisy

Scarlet pimpernel

Wild radish


Douglas iris

Creek monkeyflower

Beach primrose

Forget-me-not species

Prickly pear

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Journey of the Gray Whale

I was very grateful to get the opportunity last month to return to Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur, Mexico to visit the friendly gray whales for the third year in a row. The lagoon remains just as magical with every visit. If you ever want to make this journey for yourself, I can't recommend Baja Discovery high enough. Not only is their camp in *the* prime location where you can and hear gray whales and bottlenose dolphins at all hours, but their staff is knowledgeable, accommodating, entertaining, and continually go above and beyond on all levels.

There's nothing quite like coming face to face with a gray whale mom and calf, especially when the size of the mother dwarfs the size of the panga you're on.

It's a rare thing to have wild animals, let alone an animal as intelligent as a whale, seek out interactions with people. While some may be skeptical this can be done safely for both whales and people, the whole scene is incredibly well managed by the local fishermen in the lagoon who have strict regulations in place and self-police each other. What goes on in San Ignacio is an amazing phenomenon, and also a prime example, in my opinion, of ecotourism done right.

After having encounters like these with gray whales, it's no wonder that people who live or visit San Ignacio Lagoon love these animals. They also tend to have negative feelings towards killer whales, because coastal transient orcas from Mexico to Alaska prey upon gray whale calves as they make their first migration up the coast after leaving the protected Mexican lagoons. I've heard people say that a third of calves or more might be taken by orcas before making it to their summer feeding grounds. Indeed, in the two weeks or so since we saw orcas in Monterey Bay, at least 3 gray whale kills have been observed there, as between 20 and 30 orcas are feeding there!

The whole view is quite a contrast to the San Juan Islands, where orcas (admittedly it's mostly the fish-eating ones) are beloved and gray whales are seen as boring. It's pretty interesting to go back and forth between these two places. Having had the Baja encounters, it's safe to say I'm not in the "gray whales are boring" camp!

This year, I also had the opportunity to follow the gray whales on part of their migration, as after returning to San Diego from Baja, I got to road trip up the coastal highway back to San Juan Island. It gave me a new appreciation for just far these whales are traveling. They make the longest trek of any mammal - 10,000 to 12,000 miles round trip - from the Baja breeding lagoons to the Bering and Chukchi Seas where they feed during the summer months. That is a long way to travel at 2-6 mph, especially considered it's believed they make the trip mostly without eating.

Here's a map showing where I got to see gray whales on their northbound migration this year, in 7 places ranging from San Ignacio Lagoon to Cape Meares, Oregon.

Thinking about the whales traveling all those miles we drove (and flew, to get back to San Diego) was amazing. Even more astounding was thinking that for some whales, this represented just half the distance they had to go!

Another thing that I noticed on my travels is how beloved the gray whale is along the entire west coast, even where people aren't having close encounters with them. For the most part, when the whales are migration, all you get to see of them is, at best, the small puff of their blow and maybe a little back:

Two gray whales off Big Sur, California

This is why they're thought of as boring (or at least less interesting) in the San Juans, where killer whales surface a lot, have impressive dorsal fins, and tend to be very surface active. (To be fair, the Puget Sound gray whales - a small group that returns every spring - do have a devoted following as well.) Along a lot of the coast, the above photo is all the casual whale watcher will get to see of a  whale. Perhaps it's because during the peak of the migration you only have to spend a few moments scanning in any given location to find a whale, but everywhere we went up the coast from Mexico to California through Oregon there were various tributes to the gray whale:

Gray whales painted on shells in Mexico

Gray whale mosaic globe at a cafe in Laguna Beach, CA
Gray whale painting in Big Sur, California
Life size gray whale model at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California

Gray whale drawing at Point Reyes, California

Gray whale mail box near Yachats, Oregon

Gray whale mural in Depoe Bay, Oregon

While I don't dislike orcas - even the ones who make their living eating gray whales - after experiencing these amazing whales in so many places, you can certainly count me as another gray whale admirer!