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Saturday, September 24, 2016

September 18-22: Whales Every Day!

This is why we love September - beautiful lighting, fewer tourists, dramatic weather, and ALL the Southern Residents hanging out! The last few days have not disappointed, with a lot of all of the above.

It started on September 18th when we caught some J and K Pod whales heading north past Lime Kiln. Some might consider this shot of J41 Eclipse a "miss" but I like these bizarre off-angle shots sometimes. She and J51 Nova were zipping north and hard to catch with the camera.

J41 Eclipse

Many of the whales were quite far offshore, but we got a nice pass from L87 Onyx and his newest traveling partner - J45 Se-Yi'-Chn. It's been an interesting new combo, but one I think is probably good for both whales! L87 had taken to traveling mostly by himself, and J45 has just lost his mom J14 Samish, so it's nice to see them buddying up.

L87 Onyx approaching

J45 Se-Yi'-Chn
The trailing group on this day was the K13s:

K13 Skagit and her daughter K20 Spock

On September 19th, we just watched distant whales off the south end of San Juan Island. They were too far away to take photos, but it was still cool to see a huge resting group, even from that distance! More whales had come in on this day, though, bringing the entire population of Southern Residents into inland waters. That meant things were perfectly aligned for a magical superpod morning on the 20th of September! The southern group of Js, Ks, and Ls must have gone north before first light, as not long after daybreak all the SRKWs were southbound in Haro Strait. We caught up with the slow moving trailing group on the west side, and spent two tranquil hours watching and recording them with our hydrophone.

There's nothing I don't love about this photo! Jason tuning in to our live hydrophone feed, with a whale surfacing offshore and a great blue heron flying by!

K21 Cappuccino kept going back and forth foraging just about the entire time we were there, as did that great blue heron. That gave me a couple chances at getting both in the same photo!

Speaking of K21, it had been a while since I had spent some time with him. It was nice to get a good look at him again as at one point he surfaced right off the kelp.

K21 Cappuccino
L92 Crewser came by several times, too:

L92 Crewser
While Cappuccino and Crewser spent the morning foraging, L85 Mystery seemed to have other things on his mind. He was in hot pursuit of J35 Tahlequah, and spent the rest of his time rolling around and playing with a mix of the J17s and L4s.

L85 Mystery in the middle socializing with whales outside of his family group
L85 Mystery with J35 Tahlequah and J47 Notch - I thought Notch was getting big until I saw him next to Mystery! ;)
All in all it was a very tranquil morning!

On September 21st, we again got to Lime Kiln in the middle of J and K Pods heading north. Again, they were mostly pretty far offshore, and again, they were going fast!

It was such a beautiful day out and with whales spread all over Haro Strait we decided to hop in the boat. The first whales we caught up with at Open Bay were some of the J17s.

J17 Princess Angeline and J53 Kiki

Following behind these two whales were the J28s - all of them! She's still looking thing, but our fighter J28 Polaris is still with us.

J28 Polaris - I breathe a sigh of relief every time I see her!

We saw a lot of blows to the south of us, so drifted back to see what was going on. We caught up with a group of about 15 whales including the K13s and a few other members of all three pods. They were swimming in a tight group, and kept changing directions, seemingly without vocalizing at all. They were so close to one another they may have all actually been in physical contact. It was amazing to watch as they swam in a circle....we could only guess at what they were doing!

First facing one way...
....then the other...

...then turning around again!

They seemed really undecided on whether to go north and south, going on long dives and surfacing first in one location facing one way and then somewhere totally different facing the other.

Which way should we go?
  Finally it seemed they decided to go north:

And finally we heard a few vocals from them, too! Check out a short clip here.

As the Js and Ks continued north, a couple whales held back...and it turns out it was the L22s! We jokingly say they always hang out at Eagle Point, because it's rare for them to ever come up north of Lime Kiln, but here they were!

L22 Spirit

Tail slap from L89 Solstice

Late in the day on September 22nd, the Js and Ks we saw go north on the 21st were making their way back down. First came the K12s and K13s in the late afternoon passing the west side in harsh sun glare.

By the time the others made it down a couple hours later, the sun was already low in the sky (at 6:30?! Days are definitely noticeably shorrter!). The wind and wave action had picked up, too, making for a really dramatic backdrop for a whale passby. On top of that, the whales were fairly close to shore and super active! The turbulent waters also seemed to be attracting lots of birds, which were flying around everywhere during the pass. It was a bit chaotic but fun to watch! I ended up with many shots like this one, with gulls flying across as I tried to photograph whales. Can you see the four distant whales in this photo?

The whole pass ended up feeling really magical; the big waves made all the whale surface activity extra splashy, and all the splashes were backlit by the setting sun!

It was hard to know where to point the camera, especially since the first whales were in a pretty large group! I definitely missed more shots than a got, but here are a few more moments I did manage to capture:

J17 Princess Angeline

J27 Blackberry

J35 Tahlequah

It was one of those very memorable passbys, and I try extra hard to soak up moments like these at the end of the season, when you just don't know how many more times you'll see these guys before the long winter months that lie ahead!

Friday, September 16, 2016

August 26 - September 14: Catching Up On Whale Sightings!

Yikes, it's been too long since I've blogged again! Just because I've been super busy in all aspects of my life doesn't mean the whale sightings haven't continued to happen. Here's another catch-up blog with some photos and brief descriptions of some of the black and whites I've seen over the last three weeks...

On August 26th, the J17s and J22s spent the afternoon foraging on the west side of San Juan Island. The J17s were off Land Bank, where I got to see every member of the matriline over the course of an hour - including J28 Polaris, who was reported to be looking very thin. It was hard to see her in this condition, but after concerns that she might be living out her last days, I was very grateful to see her at all! This photo (taken from shore) shows depressions around her blowhole and eyepatches that are signs of a malnourished whale.

An unhealthy looking J28 Polaris on August 26th

Fast-forwarding ahead for a moment, J28 - as well her dependent calf J54 (just named Dipper) and older daughter J46 - are all still with us. While she still shows a bit of a depression, in my opinion she looks a little more rounded out like perhaps she's been gaining some weight. The fact that she's made it this long after looking in poor health attests to her fighting spirit! We're all still sending her and her little family lots of strong healing energy and love.

J28 Polaris (left) and a big tail slap from her daughter J46 Star on September 14

On August 28th, after hearing there were transients nearby, we jumped in the boat to get a glimpse of them near Spieden Island. It was the T36s and T99s, and while we were only with them briefly, we caught a little bit of action!

On the evening of August 29th, nearly all the Southern Residents made their way back into inland waters. They split up and spread out as they neared San Juan, so we only saw a few of them from Lime Kiln, but a small mixed group of Js and Ls gave us a nice close sunset pass:

L82 Kasatka and J31 Tsuchi

It was also cool to see a couple small resting groups offshore; resting is a behavior we're, for some reason, not seeing as much of as we used to. One of the groups was the J22 matriline:

J22 Oreo flanked by her sons J38 Cookie and J34 Doublestuf

On August 31st, I was thrilled to be able to share a short but sweet pass by some Ks and Ls at Lime Kiln with my visiting family. 

L86 Surprise
L118 Jade and the youngest member of L-Pod, L123 who was just named Lazuli

While they seemed to be in travel mode, we got treated to a spectacular cartwheel - I don't think I've ever photographed one from this angle before!

It was followed up a moment later by a big breach from L118 Jade:

L118 Jade

On September 2nd Jason and I headed over to Vancouver Island to visit family and take care of some things over there, and amazingly, some whales followed us! We got lucky to get a glimpse of two transients, T2B and T60D, make their way deep into Saanich Inlet. Then, we got even luckier after we traveled around the other side of the inlet and were in the exact right place at the right time to get a close shore-based pass right in Mill Bay! It was extra special to share it with Jason, who grew up going to that beach, but had never even seen orcas before this year.

12 year old male T60D
37 year old female T2B

As a result of being away there was then a week gap in whale sightings for me, remedied on September 10th when the Southern Residents came back in. Technically, it was a superpod - with all the Southern Residents here - and not the first such day of the year. But, I feel like I haven't experienced a true superpod yet this year. They've all been in inland waters at the same time, but SO incredibly spread out. For instance, on this day, spread from Trial Island to Active Pass! To me, a superpod brings up images of a party scene of 80+ whales in tight, intermingling groups...still waiting for that this year! Our September 10th encounter was more indicative of what it's been like this year. Over the course of an hour we saw 7 whales representing members of all three pods, but not even all members of a single matriline and no other fins in sight!

L110 Midnight

K26 Lobo
J42 Echo
On September 11th we saw a distant pass from Lime Kiln, the most notable moment of which was when a humpback whale came cruising north while the whales traveled south. The humpback, who I identified as BCY0409 Yogi, seemed to take exception to the fish-eating whales, trumpeting on every surfacing. Earlier in the day, some other whale watchers had documented humpback whales interfering on a transient killer whale attach on a Steller sea lion...I couldn't help but wonder if this was one of the same humpbacks, just ticked off at orcas in general that day even though the resident orcas posed no threat to it.

On September 14th we had an occurrence that used to be common but hasn't been so much any more - ALL of J-Pod and ALL of K-Pod traveling together! That really shouldn't be a shock, but it's because a rarity these days. J53, who was just named Kiki, was super active at the surface as she often is, and did several half breaches with her mouth open! It's not too often you get to see orca teeth!

J53 Kiki showing her teeth

As usual, K25 Scoter was right with mom!

K13 Skagit and K25 Scoter

We only caught the second half of the pass at Lime Kiln, but the vocalizations were so great we decided to hop in the boat to see if we could get more recordings further north. Wow, did we ever! Not only were the whales very vocal, but something about the water conditions made the calls really resonate so we could hear everything very clearly even from far away. At one point we set up about 1/4 mile off shore from whales foraging along the cliffs at Kellett Bluffs, and recorded for about 20 minutes - quite long for a boat-based recording! We hardly saw any dorsal fins during that time, as the whales were doing long dives and were pretty far away, but the calls made it sound like at times they were talking right into the hydrophone! Take a listen here for a sample of what we heard. 

L87 Onyx
It's been interesting to see such an increase in active foraging behavior over the last couple weeks. Whales aren't just stopping to opportunistically catch a salmon as they travel, they're hanging out in one area for long periods of time and regularly pursuing fish, apparent from their fast surface lunges. Hopefully that's indicative that they're finding more to eat, though their pattern has pretty much been one day up to the Fraser, one day down, one day out.

Even though he was far away at this point, I had to crop this photo because I love this perspective so much - the trailing edge of the dorsal fin of L87 Onyx!
K20 Spock
K20 Spock was one of the whales we saw actively foraging, but she took a moment out of her day to roll at the surface and wave her fins in the air while upside down!

As we tried to make our way back to port we were forestalled by the whales grouping up in Open Bay. While waiting for them to pass, it was neat to see them all together again after having been so spread out for the previous hour. There was a lot of intermingling among whales from both J and K Pods, and apparently they were saying their goodbyes? A bit later I heard K-Pod went back south, while J-Pod continued up to the Fraser River.

Some of the many whales together in Open Bay

Okay, last time I posted a blog post providing a mass update on belated whale reports, it was followed the next day by one of the most spectacular whale encounters of the summer that definitely needed it's own blog post! (In case you missed it, you can see that post here.) Fingers crossed the same thing repeats itself for me tomorrow :)

As we reach the back half of September, thoughts of a long, mostly whale-less winter loom ahead, so every whale encounter becomes extra special. You just don't know when it might be your last for the year! But I'm not ready to pack it in yet, as I'm hopeful for at least two more good weeks of "whale season"!