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Sunday, November 10, 2019

November 10: A memorable day on the water

Things have been changing so much and so quickly in the Salish Sea; the transformations are astounding. When I first started spending time up here 20 years ago, both humpback and transient killer whales were rare sights. Now, they are around almost daily - even in November! With a friend up visiting for a long weekend, we headed out on the water with Maya's Legacy today and our sightings rivaled a good day during the "peak season" (whatever that is anymore!)

Early in the morning a report came in of the T18s near Orcas Island, and luckily they didn't travel too far too fast. We caught up with them at the west end of Spieden Channel, where they were first split into pairs with T18 Esperanza and T19 Spouter together, and T19 Mooyah and T19B Galiano about a mile further to the west.

18 year-old male T19C Spouter
A little while after we got there, the two groups merged and started making their way northwest up Haro. 

From left to right T19B Galiano, T18 Esperanza, and T19C Spouter

They were zig-zagging a bit, but their final surfacing before we left was perfectly lined up with the Turn Point l=Lighthouse. What a sight!

The T18s in front of the Turn Point Lighthouse
As we reversed course back through Spieden Channel we slowed down along Spieden Island. With its exotic wildlife, it rarely disappoints, but it was exceptional today. There were hundreds of Mouflon sheep, sika deer, and fallow deer out; more sika deer than I had ever seen, in fact!

Sika deer buck
It's also rutting season, which means there's plenty of drama unfolding! This male was bleating at these two very unimpressed females.

Male fallow deer bleating
We were distracted from the exotic wildlife when we spotted a family of river otters running along the hillside! They darted down into the water but 7 of them tried to all climb out on this little rock at the same time, some of them sneaking a curious look at us as we looked at them. One of the collective nouns for a group of otters is a "romp", and watching them today, you could see why!

A romp of sea otters

Down at Green Point there weren't any Steller sea lions hauled out, but there was a gang of them in the water. This one looks vicious in the photo, but he was just yawning.


We only got a quick look at the sea lions, because just across San Juan Channel was a humpback whale! We were shaking our heads in bewilderment at so many sightings on a chilly November afternoon! It was BCY0160 known as Heather, who seemed to just be doing circles.

BCY0160 Heather
It was just a short ride back to Friday Harbor from there, but I kept my camera out anyway, and I was glad I did! Eight ancient murrelets were flying amazingly fast, keeping pace with us for about a minute!

Ancient murrelets in San Juan Channel
By the end of the day, by my count, we had seen eight mammal species and about another dozen marine bird species - not too shabby!

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Day of the Dead ~ 10th Annual Tribute

Today is Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), where every year I take a moment to remember the Southern Resident killer whales we've lost over the previous year. You can find all my previous Day of the Dead tributes here; it's hard to believe I've been doing this for a decade! I think it's so important to both remember the stories of the whales we've lost and to honor them; so many of them, both in life and in death, fuel our fight for a brighter future for this unique population of whales.

J17 Princess Angeline

J17 was one of the iconic whales of J-Pod from the very first day I met them, and it's still hard to picture J-Pod being without her, even after a season with her absent. With distinct saddle patches on both sides (one with a possible healed gunshot wound) and a distinct slope to her fin, she was one of the first whales I learned to identify. Her namesake was Chief Seattle's daughter.

Close pass from J17 at Lime Kiln in 2005
For the first 10 years of my knowing her, her family group was made up of herself and her two daughters, J35 Tahlequah and J28 Polaris. I always thought of them as a curious and playful threesome with whom I had many memorable encounters over the years.

J17 as I knew her for a long time: flanked by her two daughters J28 Polaris and J35 Tahlequah, shown here in 2007.

J17 was always good for a cartwheel - this one in 2016

It was such an exciting few months at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 when their family group doubled in size, with all three females having calves. First J17 gave birth to J44 Moby, followed by J28 giving birth to J46 Star and J35 giving birth to J47 Notch. I have one of those orca mobiles I bought at The Whale Museum many years ago, that has three females, each with a calf. Ever since this spate of births in their family group I have always thought of the mobile representing the J17s and their three little ones at the beginning of 2010. For J17, this was her first living calf in over a decade.

J17 with her son J44 Moby in 2010
Five years later J17 became a mother again during the "baby boom" year, giving birth to another daughter, J53 Kiki. (Kiki's name also comes from Chief Seattle's daughter Princess Angeline, who was also known as Kikisoblu.) With J28 also having given birth again, for a brief time this family group was at its largest size with 7 whales: Princess Angeline as the matriarch, her three daughters (J28, J35, J53) and a son (J44), and two grand-offspring (J46 and J54).

J17 Princess Angeline and J53 Kiki - a photo I always felt was a symbol of hope for this population. Apparently others have felt the same, as the photo has since been used by Greenpeace, Oceana, and shared on social media by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Sadly, before the end of 2016 the J17s were struck by tragedy, and it has followed them in the years since. First was the loss of both J28 and her son J54. Then last year was the infamous 17 day-vigil by J35 carrying her deceased calf, which undoubtedly took some type of toll on Princess Angeline herself, who was still a nursing mother at the time. Her body condition declined after giving birth to Kiki, and never recovered. By the end of 2018 she had "peanut head", and by summer of 2019, she did not return to inland waters with J-Pod.

My last photo of J17, taken in March 2019

She's one of the most prolific Southern Resident mothers I have known, and the population is extra lucky that her family line seems to be able to produce a lot of healthy females, as there has been a male-bias sex-ratio into the population in the last couple decades. Because of these two facts, her legacy will hopefully be a long one. Despite the matriline having been fractured by recent deaths, her lineage could play a big role in the future and potential recovery of the Southern Residents in the future reproductive successes of J35 Tahlequah, J46 Star, and J53 Kiki. These three seem to be taking care of each other, too, as there was especial concern over Kiki, just 4 years old at the time of her mom's death. But in 2019 she has looked very robust, and has been spending a lot of time with both Tahlequah and Star, with Star having been observed sharing fish with her on several occasions.

Princess Angeline was 42 at the time of her death. While she was likely at the end of her reproductive life, the loss of her as a grandmother will undoubtedly be felt. We've already seen her family group become less cohesive after her death, but we hope her descendants carry on her strong maternal skills and that the J17s again become a matriline of seven whales or more.

K25 Scoter

Scoter was the eldest son of K13 Skagit and a true mama's boy, never far from her side. He's one of the first young males I got to watch grow up, but was notorious for his broad but relatively short dorsal fin.

K25 Scoter in 2005 at the age of 14. He was a real "late bloomer", with a shorter dorsal fin than most males his age.
K25 Scoter (with a much taller dorsal fin 10 years later in 2015) following close behind his mom K13 Skagit

Scoter seemed to enjoy the years L87 Onyx spent with K-Pod, as Onyx was particularly associated with the K7 matriline. While Onyx associated a lot with K7 Lummi, Scoter's grandmother K11 Georgia, and K13 Skagit, the two young males were also regularly seen together.

K25 with L87 in 2008

One of my most memorable encounters with Scoter happened in 2010 when I was aboard the Western Prince. We were parked and watching foraging whales when suddenly he appeared out of the depths right off our port side, carrying a salmon in his mouth. This sequence of photos remains the best I've ever taken of a Southern Resident with a salmon, and this photo was used in the book Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.



Scoter was satellite tagged by NOAA at the end of 2012, and his tag transmitted for an impressive 97 days, supplying the first detailed insight into the winter movements of K-Pod. While we knew Ks and Ls spent a lot of time on the outer coast in the winter, occasionally making trips to California, for the first time we had daily or near-daily updates on where exactly the whales were and how they were using the outer coastal habitat. The data from Scoter's tag was key in finally getting the critical habitat for Southern Residents extended to include the outer coast, and I believe will also be key in demonstrating the continued importance of the Columbia-Snake River Basin to K and L Pods, as it showed how much time they spend near the mouth of the river. Unfortunately, part of the tag remained embedded in Scoter's dorsal fin, leading to an extensive tag re-design by NOAA, but leaving Scoter with a permanent scar for the rest of his life.

K25 with satellite tag in December 2012 - Photo by NOAA
When his mom died in 2017, we knew K25 was an "at risk" whale. Adult males often perish shortly after their mothers, and with his strongest female associates being his two sisters who already had offspring of their own, Scoter was a perfect example of the social context playing such a key role in an individual Southern Resident's prospects for survival. Like J17, Scoter was observed with "peanut head" by the end of 2018, and failed to return with his family group when Js and Ks finally returned to inland waters in July 2019.

My last photo of Scoter, taken September 2018
Scoter was 28 at the time of his death. He leaves behind a brother (K34), two sisters (K20 and K27), and two nephews (K38 and K44). The K13s spent so much time in inland waters over the years that I feel like I've gotten to know them as well as I know J-Pod. His one-of-a-kind dorsal fin will be missed, as there is truly no other whale quite like Scoter.

L84 Nyssa
 
Nyssa was part of the so-called "back page whales", the portion of L-Pod who traditionally appeared on the last page of the Center for Whale Research ID guides and also spent the least amount of time in inland waters of any of the Southern Residents. Despite rarely visiting the Salish Sea, he was one of the easiest of all Southern Residents to identify with a single large notch, a bold check-marked shape saddle on the left, and finger marking on his right side saddle patch. He was often the first whale from this elusive group of whales I would ID, leading me to exclaim, "The back page Ls are here!"
 
L84 off San Juan County Park in 2016
When I first met Nyssa in 2000, he had just lost his mother L51 Nootka the year before. Her body washed ashore near Victoria in September 1999 and she had a prolapsed uterus, having recently given birth to L97 Tweak. Being a neonate, Tweak had virtually no prospects for survival, but his/her big brother Nyssa along with L74 Saanich were seen trying to take care of and feed the little calf in the days after Nootka's death. They were not successful, but Nyssa maintained a close relationship with his closing living relatives in his uncle Saanich and great uncle L73 Flash over the next decade.

L84 Nyssa (right) with L73 Flash in 2007
The 2000s have not been kind to the "back page" Ls. Since 2012, Nyssa has been the last living member of the L9 matriline, one doomed to extinction after his mother died leaving no females capable of reproduction. He beat the odds and continued to survive by finding a surrogate mother figure in the living matriarch of the other "back page" matriline, L54 Ino, who took in both Nyssa and another orphaned male L88 Wavewalker. Despite the fact these whales have such strong matrilineal ties, these whales collectively taught me that they will "create" their own families if need be, making a matriline of their own when their direct relations have died out. 

L84 Nyssa with Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research in 2015
My most memorable encounter with Nyssa happened in November 2014. My friend Julie and I had just bought our first boat Serenity a couple weeks prior. We weren't confident enough to take it far off the dock and thought for sure we would have to wait until spring to have our boat "christened" by an encounter with orcas. When word came in of members of all three pods milling off Kellett Bluffs, however, it was too great of a chance to passed up, and despite the choppy sea conditions we braved heading out as far as we had yet gone to see whales.

The whales were very spread doing long dives with unpredictable surfacings, and it was very fitting that the first whale to come close enough for us to identify was J2 Granny. We tell the story that Granny christened our boat (and our fledgling research efforts at the Orca Behavior Institute), but the part of the story that doesn't often get told is that on that day Granny was traveling with L84 Nyssa. Truly, he was part of the christening as well, which is also fitting, since his story gives us so many different glimpses into the social complexity of the Southern Residents that fuels all of our research questions at OBI. 

Nyssa on the day he and Granny christened out boat Serenity in 2014, with Lime Kiln lighthouse in the background
While both J17 and K25 had look malnourished in the months preceding their deaths, Nyssa's loss came as more of a surprise, as he had appeared to be in good health in recent encounters. A unique whale til the end, even the announcement of his death was unusual in that the Center for Whale Research declared him missing before they had ever encountered L-Pod in 2019, basing their announcement off photos provided by others on the outer coast. Sadly, it would true to be accurate, as Nyssa failed to return to inland waters with the L54s and L88 when they did finally make a rare visit to the Salish Sea in September. Nyssa was 29 at the time of his death. As the last living member of the L9 matriline, he leaves behind no living relatives and with his death leads to one of the several impending matriline extinctions within L-Pod.

New Additions

Since it's a bittersweet process to remember the whales we have lost (one from each pod this year), I traditionally end these posts with a nod of welcome to the newest members of the Southern Resident Community as well. In 2017 and 2018 there were sadly no whales to welcome, but thankfully this year we have had two new little ones born to help spark some hope among the continued losses.

One of them is L124 Whistle, the third offspring of L77 Matia. In a likely first, this little whale was first identified by helicopter, when a local news time broadcast footage of the Southern Residents in Puget Sound back in January. There had been no calves born since 2016, so it was clear this was a "new" whale, too tiny to be any of the others! Incredibly, Whistle's natal group (the L12s) has not been confirmed in inland waters since the end of February, so I have yet to meet this little whale! The L12s used to spend so much time here, and I hope in 2020 they do again so I can meet this little guy before he gets too big!

The other new addition is even sweeter, being a female calf born to J31 Tsuchi in May. Tsuchi has always loved spending time with calves, but her first in 2016 was stillborn. Fortunately, this pregnancy was successful, and it has sure seemed like we humans aren't the only ones excited to welcome J56 Tofino, as J31 and her rambunctious baby have spent time with whales from many other matrilines, and it truly seems as though all of J-Pod is enamored with this little calf. Thankfully both mom and baby appear robust and energetic, and we hope this is just the beginning of a long life of successful motherhood for Tsuchi.

One of my all-time favorite whale photos (and that's saying something!): J31 Tsuchi with J56 Tofino in the foreground and J47 Notch behind, taken in August 2019.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Fall in the San Juan Islands

With all the education and advocacy efforts that I'm involved in year round now, there no longer seems to be a "slow season" to my year. Even as the days start to get shorter in the late autumn and fall and the whales around a bit less, there's plenty to do with writing articles and public comments and giving presentations, plus continuing to do book talks and other work with the Orca Behavior Institute. Regardless of the time of year, however, it's so important to me to regularly make some time to get out into nature with my camera, whether it be on the water or on land. And regardless of the time of year, there is so much to see and observe in the Salish Sea. Here are some highlights from the last six weeks or so.

Bald eagle in Spieden Channel

Ollie the sea otter at Race Rocks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Looking UP at the T46Bs in big swells in the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Laplong longspur - a life bird! - at American Camp

Close visit from a great blue heron at Land Bank's Westside Preserve

K33 Tika off the west side of San Juan Island

K34 Cali off Eagle Point with the Olympic Mountains in the background

One of the many hairy woodpeckers that visits our feeders year-round

Trumpet lichen, Cladonia spp.

Tiny mushrooms in the yard

Harbor seal pup at Roche Harbor

Gorgeous fall colors everywhere this year!

Bonaparte's gull in Mosquito Pass

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Northern Vancouver Island Part 2: A Whale Watch to Remember

On September 4th we headed out on a whale watch out of Telegraph Cove, and with lots of recent whale reports and flat-calm waters I was hopeful for a great trip. Now I have been on a lot of whale watch trips over the years, both while traveling, while working as a naturalist for 6 years, and while riding along with friends from here on San Juan Island. In terms of wildlife and whale encounters, there have been some pretty great trips, but this one definitely ranks among the top few that I have ever experienced. Over the course of just three hours we saw transients, Northern Residents, humpback whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall's porpoise, and Steller sea lions!

As we headed out of the harbor we were making our way down Johnstone Strait towards a report of Northern Residents when I spotted a small killer whales along the shoreline across the strait. (This would actually be one of three times on this trip I found killer whales with no reports or other indication that they were in the area! While I often go out looking for whales, it's usually following up on another sighting, and it has been years since I spotted whales totally unexpectedly. For it to happen three times on this single trip to Vancouver Island was crazy!)

This trio of orcas turned out to be the T69Ds, who are rare visitors to the Salish Sea but who I coincidentally met for the first time earlier this year when they were with the T90s in Haro Strait back in February. As would be the case for all the transients we encountered while up north, their behavior was quite different than we typically see today from Ts around the San Juan Islands, and more like what they used to be like 10-20 years ago: long dives with sporadic/unpredictable surfacings, making them hard to track and view. After one dive, however, they unexpectedly popped up close to the boat, giving us a nice look after a lot of patiently scanning the water.

T69D
By this time the Northern Residents were within sight to the south of us, and the T69Ds had likely heard them as well, because they did a 180 to head back in the direction they came and we continued on our way towards the Residents. We had heard the whales were spread out in ones and twos doing long foraging dives, but we got on scene, several of the small groups merged, and we were treated to an amazing sight of 15+ whales traveling in a tight group and surfacing all together.


I would later learn these were the I4s, I65s, and G27s - all new-to-me whales - and just a fraction of the whales who were "in" that day. Also around (and some of whom we got distant looks of) were at least the A42s, I16s, I27s, and I35s.


We used to the Southern Residents like this more often, though in recent years they tend to spread out a lot more. It was hard not to keep taking photos, as regardless of how much you see it, that many dorsal fins at the surface together is a breath-taking sight.


The whales split into two groups as we followed them around the eastern side of Hanson Island:


We had the light against us when viewing the whales from the left side, and my Northern Resident ID guide only shows left sides, so it was tough to piece together many individual IDs. The only adult male in the group was 22 year-old male I76, seen here with another sprouter - maybe I122?

I76 on the left
If you follow orcas in the region, you know about the iconic Orca Lab on Hanson Island - it was pretty cool to get to see Northern Residents go by there!

Northern Residents passing Orca Lab
We left the Northern Residents heading west through Blackfish Sound and went north through the narrow passage between Swanson and Crease Islands. No matter which way you turn up there, the scenery is awesome! There are so many little islands and channels to explore.



Next up we spent some time with some humpbacks, with easily half a dozen or more individuals spread out in the same area.


As we slowly started transiting back towards Telegraph Cove, it was a scene I will never forget. The Northern Residents were back in view, there were still humpbacks in every direction, and some Pacific white-sided dolphins came by as well. I felt like I was dreaming, with multiple species of cetacean surrounding us. 




It was an unforgettable whale watch, and we returned to the dock beaming, immediately making plans to go out on the water again before the end of our trip. I made a conscious effort to try and lock the scene and the emotion inside me - the joy, the excitement, the peace of being in such a place and having such an experience. You can't bottle it, but it's moments like those that rejuvenate the spirit and keep you going through things like whale politics, dreary winter days, and stressful times at work.