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Monday, July 21, 2014

July 15 ~ Close Pass By Js

On Tuesday, July 15th I headed out to the west side after work, with most of the whales slowly, slowly inbound from south of Discovery Island. I met up with a couple friends of mine, and while we watched Js, Ks, and Ls meander their way across Haro Strait, K16, K35, and K21 - a somewhat rogue group of K-Pod whales - came by heading south to join up with the group. How odd of them to be traveling on their own while everybody else was together!

The big group of whales "hit the island" south of where we were at Land Bank, but as the first few began to round the point heading north, we all agreed we should head to Lime Kiln. Good decision! They angled in towards shore as they passed Land Bank, ending up way inside Deadman's Bay at they approached us at the south end of Lime Kiln Point State Park.

Whale coming out of Deadman's Bay
It was "Group A" of J-Pod....sort of. All our old standard groupings are falling by the wayside this summer, as the whales are mixing and matching in all sorts of new combinations. Not that we're complaining! It's just harder to keep track of who is where. In this case, we had J2, the J14s, and the J16s traveling together. (Interesting side notes: Usually J19 and J41 are with this group, but perhaps due to the death last year of J8 - who was the grandmother of J19 as well as a close companion to J2 - the J19s are now going to start traveling with their closest living relatives, the J11s. Also, L87 is usually with J2's group, but seems to be wandering a little further afield lately. On this day, he followed behind this group heading north, by himself, an hour and a half later.)

As the whales approached, they were down on a slightly longer dive, and we all waited with anticipation to see where they would pop up. It ended up being RIGHT in front of me!

J2 Granny

I was extremely lucky to have my friend Barbara with a camera behind me. I've often taken, and shared, photos of others and whales, and always hoped one day to get a great shot of me and whales. I've had a few given to me over the years, but this is the kind of shot I was dreaming of! Thank you Barbara!

I'm so low on the rocks it looks like I'm standing on the kelp bed! That's typical me - wanting to get as close to the water as possible when the whales are close. Here's the photo I was taking at the same second the above shot was clicked:

From back to front: J14 Samish, J2 Granny, and J37 Hy'shqa

Moments like these are why I go out there as much as I do, but they're always over so fast!

J49 T'i'lem I'nges - the last calf born to the Southern Residents in August 2012. It's hard to believe it's been almost two years since we've had a new addition to the Southern Residents - not good!
After J2 passed surrounded by the J14s, the J16s weren't far behind, but they were racing like they were trying to catch up:

For a dedicated (crazy, fanatic) group of us, whale-watching is an addiction. We forgo things like food and sleep to get more of it. We get anxious when we go too long with out it. We feel an overwhelming sense of happiness and peace when we get it. Yup, this today provided a much needed "whale hit". :)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Westside Sunsets

When I used to visit the island for a week or two every summer, the hour before and after sunset were my favorite hours of the day. Once I moved here full time, got a job, etc. it became easier to just stay in at night, but I've been reminding myself just how great it is to be out and about around 9 PM on these late summer days. This past week in particular I've made it out to take in more than one west side sunset.

On Thursdays and Saturdays at Lime Kiln, you can take a free guided tour to the top of the lighthouse. Years ago, I used to volunteer and help give these tours, but it had been several years since I'd been up in the lighthouse. It's a spectacular view, even more so in the golden hours of the evening.

The light inside the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, looking south

Sunset as seen through one of the windows in the lighthouse stairwell

It also allowed me an aerial view of my favorite rock to watch whales from. Many of the photos on this blog were taken while sitting on this rock!

The whales have been around a lot at sunset, and after striking out on the 10th, I went back on the 11th to try my luck. Success! I got to Land Bank in time to see the second half of J- and K-Pods head south. Actually, it's easy to say "Js and Ks were there", but in actuality, it was only part of each pod. Since the whales dipped out west on the 8th, present in inland waters have been J2, the J14s, the J16s, and L87 (J-Pod "Group A" without J19 and J41), and K-Pod (minus K21, K16, and K35 - the roamers).

I just love seeing the blows illuminated in the evening light. There's just nothing like seeing whales at sunset....

After the whales passed by, I just sat for a while, taking in the beautiful scenery.

As the sun was going down, the "Super Moon" was rising:

It was hard to know which way to look - watch the moon come up, or the increasingly orange sun go down? Ah, the difficult decisions we face.... :)

As amazing as this sunset was, the one to follow a couple days later would blow this one out of the water. I've seen a lot of sunsets in my day, and the evening of July 13th was one of the best I've ever seen. So good, it deserves its own blog post.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

July 6th: Superpod - and lots of boats

Sunday, July 6th was a bit of a repeat of the previous day. Out at Lime Kiln, very spread out whales started heading north. After an hour and a half or so, before all the whales had passed, they flipped and went back south. And again, members of all three pods were present - the first three whales my friend Melisa and I identified were L27 Ophelia, K26 Lobo, and of course, J2 Granny:

J2 Granny
Being the end of a holiday weekend, there were a lot of private boaters out on the water. Thankfully, most of them were pretty respectful, and either kept their distance or stopped when they realized there were whales. On several occasions, whales headed right for boats! Here's K26 Lobo approaching the classic yacht Summer Wind. Completed in 1940, she was commissioned to create the first modern nautical charts of the Aleutian Islands. She's now privately owned.

K26 Lobo and the Summer Wind
Another Southern Resident and the Summer Wind
And another example - L92 Crewser making a close approach to a private boat. Look at the size of that dorsal fin compared to the boat (the fin is the black line about a third of the way down the length of the boat)!

Of course, not all the boaters were respectful. This one went cruising a full speed right through the whales. It's hard for us humans to watch, unable to do anything. But it's also important to remember the whales' perspective may be entirely different from our own. For instance, less than a minute after this photo was taken, L82 Kasatka was surfing the wake of this yacht, seemingly having a grand ol' time.

Even knowing they enjoy the boats sometimes, though, doesn't make things like this much easier to watch:

My favorite shot of the day is this one, of L118 Jade breaching by mama L55 Nugget as the whales went south:

It was interesting to watch what happened next. While the whales had been all mixed up, it was like they suddenly decided it was time reorder themselves, perhaps because the groups were about to split. Everyone had to go back and find their family group, which meant for some time there were whales traveling every which direction. For example, while the L-Pod whales who had gone north went to join the others in the south, part of J-Pod stayed up north. At the same time, the J16s, who typically travel with Granny's group, emerged from the south and headed up north to meet up with those Js. Sound confusing? It kind of was! It was hard to figure out who was going where, but as I said, I'm pretty sure it was everybody "unshuffling" themselves - something that I've never actually seen unfold before!

While all this was going on, though, there was one boy who didn't want to say goodbye to his pal. As J36 Alki tried to follow her family north, L105 Fluke did not want to let her go. At first I only knew it was a male that was hounding her, and couldn't figure out who, because he would only surface upside down, with sea snake in full view!

L105 Fluke (upside down) and J36 Alki
At first she seemed to be evading him, but then she apparently gave in, as they rolled around together and he lifted her up out of the water. What was a bit surprising to me is that while Alki is potentially of breeding age at 15 years old, Fluke is a bit young to be playing the love interest at the age of 10. (It's not uncommon for juvenile whales to engage in sexual play, however.) But hey, I guess in the whale world, anything goes!

Apparently, a parting was soon imminent, as the groups did split, and Ls would leave the following night, taking some of the other whales with them. It's been getting hard to keep track, as after a day of no residents in inland waters, we ended up with part of J-Pod and part of K-Pod here! More on that in the next post.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

July 5: Superpod!

This morning I headed out to Lime Kiln to see what I could see, and my first glimpse of the water as I walked down to the shoreline included a tall dorsal fin. "Residents!" I thought. Turns out, it was a family of four transients! They were offshore heading north/northwest in Haro Strait. (Possibly the T49As?)

See the dorsal fin??
It was a beautiful morning to hang out, at first...

The weather slowly deteriorated until three hours later it was raining pretty good. Hungry, and with still no sign of residents, I decided to head home to get something to eat. I was only home about an hour when I heard that residents were crossing Haro Strait, having swept out west the night before. Time to get back out there! I got to Lime Kiln just as the whales did.

I've seen some very lucky kayakers get some great experiences with orcas this week. While many have the dream of kayaking with orcas, it's important to remember that moments like these are not typical!

K27 Deadhead and K44 Ripple near a kayaker

While I had been one of only two cars in the parking lot first thing in the morning when the Ts went by, when I arrived at Lime Kiln this time, there were no parking spaces open at all! The shoreline was packed on this holiday weekend, despite the continuing drizzle.

Shore-based whale watchers at "Whale Watch Point"

Shore-based whale watchers at the lighthouse

All three pods were around, and I saw members of every pod, but it was mostly Ks I was seeing off Lime Kiln. As K20 Spock came by, she did three spectacular breaches!

K20 Spock

K20 Spock

I love this next shot - while she's facing "away" from the camera, you can see both of her open saddle patches!

K20 Spock

A bit later Spock's younger brother K34 Cali came by really close to shore! I love the reflections.

K34 Cali

K34 Cali
An hour and a half later, not all the whales had passed us, but there was a turnaround as everyone did an about face and started going south again, I was assuming to meet up with J-Pod "Group A" who was coming down Rosario Strait. (Note: I think the only other whales not present were the L12 sub-group, the L54s, L84, and L88.) As the whales traveled south, L116 Finn (age 4) stopped to do some foraging. I thought it showed up in one of my photos, but it didn't very clearly - he was pushing a salmon around at the surface.

L116 Finn pushing a salmon around on the surface

The whales were really spread out - some were within a few hundred yards of the shoreline:

K27 Deadhead
Others were waaaay out in the middle of Haro Strait, but the setting with the calm gray waters and stunning clouds still made it beautiful to watch them go by:

The last whales that came by did so quickly, perhaps trying to catch up to everybody else. It's hard to get good photos of porpoising whales - they were almost out of the frame on this shutter click!

I heard they did meet up with the other Js off the south end of the island a bit later and they had a big party. They stayed down there until dark, so I was wondering if they would still all be together the next morning, or if some would leave. You know I would be out there to find out! Stay tuned....(I'll give you a hint: they stayed!)

Friday, July 4, 2014

July 1: Up and Down with Js and Ls

When I got off work on July 1st I headed out to the west side and caught up with my friend Katie at Land Bank. I could tell from Hannah Heights that there were whales off False Bay, but Katie felt sure they would make their way up to where we were, and when it comes to whales, you gotta trust these kind of intuitions. Amazingly, it was one of the rare hot days on the west side of the island. We were actually too warm up in the parking area and decided to walk down to sit near the water, hoping it would be cooler there.

It was cooler (though still too warm for my tastes, in a black T-shirt anyway), but the whales took their sweet time meandering north. About an hour or so after we walked down there we started to see a few whale watch boats coming around the corner, a sure sign the whales were getting closer. We weren't even sure who was present until they passed Edwards Point, and we pieced together it was "Group B" of J-Pod (the J11s, J17s, and J22s) with the L-Pod group that's been around. (J-Pod Group A had been up north the day before and was still MIA on this day.)

The lead whales got up to just about where we were sitting when they stalled out. They had already done this once earlier in the day and it looked like they were about to do it again: turnaround and go back south. There was a lot of milling, and one could just imagine the debate going on underwater about which way to go, based on the whales surfacing facing every which way. Finally, it seemed they had come to a decision, and they started making progress south. Ready to give up, we walked back up the hill to our cars, but something kept us from driving away. It only took about two minutes for the whales to turn again and start heading "up island" to the north. Back "down hill" we went to see them!

A group of kayakers in the kelp bed off Land Bank got the thrill of a lifetime:

It was a big, pretty playful group that came by first:

This tail slap turned into more of a head stand, it was so big!

The next group was moving more slowly, and included L92 Crewser chasing after and rolling around with J28 Polaris. Things are much different in the orca world - this presumed sexual encounter was all witnessed closely by calf J46 Star. The whales looked like they were angling in slightly, and Katie could read my mind - "You want to go to the Park, don't you?" she asked, meaning Lime Kiln. Yes, I did. Whale chase again! And it worked out great.

I love this shot from the rocks at Lime Kiln of these two girls watching the whales. It really captures the essence of what it's like to be out there:

The group was a mixture of Js and Ls, but it was a bit hard to get IDs due to the lighting. Sometimes, it doesn't really matter who's who!

L95 Nigel

That's L72 Racer on the left
As I was leaving the Park, I heard that J-Pod Group A was found at the south end of Lopez Island. I wondered if the other whales thought they were going up to meet this group heading down from the north via the route they often take, but would be surprised later when instead the missing group would come up from behind them!

The following day, the 2nd, the exciting news was that K-Pod had returned! Ks made a brief and unexpected visit in mid April, but this time the first superpod of the season was in the works! We call it a superpod when all three pods get together, though in reality the L12s and L54s weren't around, so it wasn't everyone. Unfortunately I missed them, but this morning (the 4th) I went out to Lime Kiln on a whim, despite having heard last night all the whales might be headed out. When I got there I learned J-Pod Group A had already gone north very early, so I stuck around, believing there must be more whales around somewhere!

Sure enough, between 9 and 9:30 a few K-Pod whales made their way up to the lighthouse. They flipped and went back south after just four of them had gone by, however, so I only got to see a couple of them despite seeing many more blows in the distance to the south. It was still nice to say "hi" to K12 Sequim, though!

K12 Sequim at Lime Kiln the morning of July 4th