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Friday, August 11, 2017

August 1-4: Camping on Malcolm Island

Early in the morning on August 1st we woke up to the sound of killer whale blows. Luckily they were just beginning to pass by, and we saw about 40 whales from A and G Clans very spread out and heading west.

The only Northern Residents I had seen before were the A34s and A36s, so all the whales present on this morning were new to me: the A23s, A25s, A30s, I15s, and I31s. For some reason I've always particularly wanted to see I-Pod, perhaps because they were the original before what most people think of when they hear "iPod" today.

I51 in the background, then from left to right I16 with her three year-old grandchild I144 and child I128
Interestingly, only 6 of the Northern Resident pods seem to have been given names like our Southern Residents. They're named through the orca adoption program at the Vancouver Aquarium, but none of the I-Pod whales I saw have names. Additionally, many of the whales up there are of unknown gender, at least until they get a fin sprout to show they're male or have a calf to show they're female. Down here, so many people are watching the whales that the gender of a new calf is usually figured out within a year or two, by people seeing it breach or roll over at the surface to see its underbelly markings, which can also be used to determine gender. I think it's cool that up there we don't yet know the gender of many of the whales!

In general, keeping track of the whales up there is more complicated/confusing than down here, because there are so many more whales. The Southern Residents are considered one clan (J-Clan) with three pods (Js, Ks, and Ls) who are made up of approximately 6, 4, and 7 matrilines respectively. For the Northern Residents, there are 3 clans (A-Clan, G-Clan, and R-Clan) sorted into 16 pods, but the pods aren't just given single letter names. For example, the original A-Pod proved to really be multiple pods, so there's A1 Pod, A4 Pod, and A5 Pod, each with several matrilines. So the whales we saw can be classified this way:

From A-Clan:
  • A1 Pod
    • A30 matriline
  • A5 Pod 
    • A23 and A25 matrilines

From G-Clan:
  •  I11 Pod
    • The I15s, currently made up of the I16, I27, I4, and I65 matrilines (these 4 whales are the daughters of I15, who is now deceased)
  • I31 Pod
    • I35 matriline
Did you follow all that?! I barely did, after looking through the ID catalogue many times!

Eight year-old I128 in the foreground with other whales from its family, the I16s
The whales passed us by so early in the morning and in such misty conditions that an hour or two later it already felt like it had all been a dream. We didn't know whether they would come back or not, so we decided to go for a hike through the forest along the shoreline. There were some massive trees!

And some not so massive, but equally photogenic, mushrooms:

Near the end of the trail was a (very steep!) staircase down to the beach.

It was pretty special to be the only ones down there at the time, so we had some fun taking self-portraits.

Every day we were there started out foggy, cleared up by mid-day, and then became windy in the evening. We spent many hours on the beach hoping for whales, with short breaks to go explore the rest of the island.

Looking over towards Vancouver Island
Pulteney Point Lighthouse
On our last full day there, we woke up to the best sunrise yet:

Unfortunately the amazing colors were because the smoke from the wildfires in interior BC was getting closer. We later learned that back home the smoke had already arrived, but thankfully it didn't drift this far north until our last day. On this particular calm morning, we saw many marine mammals on our first beach visit of the day: half a dozen Pacific white-sided dolphins, a Steller sea lion, a few harbor porpoise, and even a sea otter, which is pretty rare up there! Also a humpback whale:

In the evenings, when the wind really picked up, it made for good wave action at the beach, which along with the late-day lighting made it fun to take lots of photos:

A close up wave abstract
Unfortunately, the whales didn't come by within sight for the next several days. (They did pass us twice - once undetected by anyone so presumably far out in the late evening, and once on the other side of the Strait.) We thought the August 1st orcas might be all we would see, but on our last morning in camp we woke up even earlier - at 5:15 AM - to the sound of blows. It was too dark to see anything at first, and even once we could make out the whales, still too dark for photos, so we took the opportunity to drop our hydrophone in the shallow waters off the campground. You should have seen my face light up when the first vocalization came through our speaker! Here's a clip of what we heard:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

July 30-31: Northern Vancouver Island

For many years I've dreamed of making the trip to northern Vancouver Island to explore as well as try to see the Northern Resident Killer Whales. It hasn't happened in part because, though their peak season is a bit later up there, the best time to see the Northern Residents overlaps with the best months of seeing the Southern Residents so I find it hard to leave San Juan Island. I've read about places like Alert Bay, Telegraph Cove, and Johnstone Strait since childhood, the home of some of my whale heroes (both humans and cetacean). In 2010 we traveled through those waters on the Alaska Marine Highway while taking a ferry from Ketchikan to Bellingham, and in 2011 I made it as far as Campbell River in August and up to Johnstone Strait by boat, but this was the first time I've been on land on the northern part of Vancouver Island.

On our way up we stopped at Little Huson Caves, a hidden gem several miles up a washboard logging road. (This would not be the last logging road we would drive this week - they're used as the main source of access to many places up there!) While the part that was open to the public wasn't really a cave, they were still impressive and beautiful rock formations.

Alongside the logging road, the fireweed was in full bloom in the clear cut areas. We stopped to take a picture, and the first plant I approached had this interesting insect on it - a new one to me! A yellow velvet long-horned beetle (Cosmosalia chrysocoma):

Next stop was Telegraph Cove - a hotspot for tourists, but very scenic!

There's a boardwalk around the marina with restaurants and historic buildings restored as lodgings, and the Johnstone Strait Whale Museum!

We spent the night, however, a little further up the road in Port McNeill, in a cottage on top of a hill overlooking the straits. When we woke up in the morning there was a lot of bustling bird activity just outside our front door, including maybe 10 rufous and Anna's hummingbirds!

Anna's hummingbird
I was surprised to see a couple of Townsend's warblers, too - probably the best views I've ever had of this often secretive species!

A little later in the morning we caught a ferry from Port McNeill over to Sointula on Malcolm Island, where we spent four nights camping. I love the BC Ferries, and this one was especially cute.

While waiting for our ferry we bird-watched the waterfront, where the most exciting sight was a couple of gulls harassing a bald eagle:

Eagles would be a highlight throughout the trip, as a pair of immature eagles were right at our campground to welcome us, too!

On the evening of July 31st we spent our first few hours at the beach where we hoped to see Northern Residents. We didn't have any luck that night, but stay tuned for the next post to see what we saw when they woke us up the next morning!

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Rubbing Beach

I had heard about a place in British Columbia sacred to both killer whales and the people who watch them. A rubbing beach, where the shape and size of the rocks and slope of the beach are just right for orcas to come and glide against the bottom in shallow waters in a behavior part ritual, part massage, part mystery. There are many such beaches for this northern community of resident whales, the only ones known to engage in this behavior, but this one is more accessible than most. It is marked on a map, but not much information is out there. A few photos and videos from more than a decade ago, mostly. Is it still used? Are the whales still there? The only way to find out is to go and look. So that's what we decide to do.

Even to the inexperienced eye the beach is perfect. Smooth, round, evenly shaped stones pleasurable to the touch; I pick one up and run the palm of my hand over the cool surface again and again. At this point of land the beach is also mysteriously clear of debris - no driftwood and wrack as is found in the coves to either side. And the westerly winds of summer have created a sharp slope on an otherwise flat beach. Our first evening we sit and wait, but all is silent, not even a seal or bird make an appearance.

But the next morning we awaken to the familiar sound of blows. Before we can get out of our tent the sighting is confirmed by our neighbor waking up his wife with the whispered words, "Orcas. Orcas." The air is misty and the waters gray and glassy calm. It always feels like this is the weather killer whales are meant to be watched in. They are heading to the point and so do we.

The encounter here is very different than one back home, where the Southern Residents can also pass close to shore at Lime Kiln. there, there is usually much fanfare. Screaming, squealing, clapping, cheering, and a trailing fleet of boats. People run to the water's edge or motor or paddle closer. There is a prevailing attitude and expectation of more, better, closer, more active, breach, show off for me. Here the scene is taken in quietly, with even the children standing hushed with wide eyes. All the people stay at the top of the beach near the vegetation line, so if the whales want to use the beach they can do so on their own terms, without any disturbance from us. In this almost ceremonial behavior, research has shown the whales will cut short their beach rubbing activity if people get too close, either by water or on land.

Today the whales cruise past us, breaking off occasionally to chase a salmon but not to rub on the beach, though a mom and calf and another female and juvenile do pass excitingly close to shore. There are more than 40 whales present from A and G Clans, but they are spread out and on the move.  I later learn that they are doing a lot of this, just like the Southern Residents. I had hoped things were better up here for the Northerns, whose population has fared better in recovery. But the parallels are many, and sad. Both groups are spending much more time looking for food and less time resting or socializing. They're returning to their native summer fishing grounds later and later, and staying less long with each passing year. Superpods are rare, and here, beach rubbing less common.

But rubbing does still happen here. There is an independent researcher who monitors this beach and he shows us a video of some of these same whales beach rubbing just 5 days earlier. I'm glad to know this beach is still being regularly used, and that those patient and lucky enough to sit and wait can still witness this, as I hope to do.

It feels right that this place is not more highly publicized than it already is. The San Juan Islands and Salish Sea are so well known for whale-watching and whale research, but what has that done for the Southern Residents? So many people have seen them and learned about their plight and we have learned so much about them, but their population continues to decline and we do nothing. We enjoy their presence, profit off it even as a society, and then turn our backs and let them starve. Sitting on this remote island in this comparatively undeveloped and less populated landscape, the crimes of our species against theirs hit me harder than ever before. We have gained so much from them and given them nothing in return. This beach, at the very least, deserves to remain secluded and relatively unknown, it's location passed like a gift via word of mouth among those who see the killer whale as a kindred spirit.

There is still time for this tragedy to be reversed. The clock is ticking quickly for the Southern Residents, but the Northern Residents are more quietly experiencing many of the same things. How easily we forget that they, too, rely on Fraser River Chinook. I don't know what I can do to help reverse the trend. We have tried the route of interference - over-management, over-publicizing, over-studying, over-fishing. I get the sense now that we need to do the opposite. I watched A and G Clan whales swim through these tranquil waters with no buildings behind them or cities nearby, no tankers or commercial fishing vessels in sight, no Navy activity. Just a few sportfishermen here for the same reason as they are and a few whale lovers watching from a distance. We need to just let them do what they have always done.

I often hear, "If they aren't finding enough Chinook why don't they just eat something else?" My answer is, what right do we have to ask that of them, after all the concessions and adaptations they have already made on our behalf. They were here first, following the fish. Let us find a way to back off and let the old traditions continue. The salmon will return, the whales will thrive, and they will once again have time to rub on the rocks of this sacred beach.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

July 23rd: Epic Day With Js and Ls

On the morning of Sunday, July 23rd, word came in that some residents were inbound from Sooke. Then, we heard about whales off the south end of the island - some of them were already here! It turned out that the same 19 whales from L-Pod had snuck in overnight, while all of J-Pod was heading east in to join them. L-Pod hung out near False Bay until J-Pod made their way across Haro Strait around noon. Then, in the early afternoon, they made their way north far enough that we could see them from the shores of San Juan Island.

We've all been curious who might take the "leader" role for J-Pod with the passing of J2 Granny at the end of last year. So far, it looks to be J19 Shachi, who has not only regularly been in the lead, but does it in Granny-style, far out ahead on her own in a no-nonsense kind of way.

J19 Shachi leading the way
Everybody else wasn't in such a hurry, and in fact they spent the next hour and a half basically milling right off Land Bank.

The largest group was a ways offshore, seeming playing around in a tide rip, but suddenly a group of half a dozen whales popped up closer to shore.

This close group then made a turn to come even closer - this is the kind of surfacing I just love to see!


Eventually even J19 Shachi came back to re-join the party, passing right along the rocks as she headed back south again.

A bit later it seemed like the whales had finally decided to go north, as they grouped up into two large groups and rode the strong flood tide up the lighthouse. We were just getting ready to leave Land Bank and try to catch the tail end of them at Lime Kiln when a splash to the north caught our eye. There was a porpoising whale - coming back south again! We ran back down the hill, this time right to the waterline as ALL 35 whales came back south close to shore. I like this shot (click to see a larger view to do it justice) that shows three lines of whales approaching. Talk about excitement!

A pec wave from J27 Blackberry with Whale Watch Point in the background
It's an incredible sight when the whales tuck into the little coves along the shoreline. We were almost looking behind us to the right to see these whales on the rocks!

The most magical moment occurred when a mom and juvenile stopped right in front of us. I didn't even know the water was deep enough this close to shore, but they turned upright and had just their rostrums above the surface for several moments. I can only imagine that underwater they must have been eye to eye. Why they stopped to do this, and why it happened right in front of us, I will never know, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me!

The day had already earned "epic" status by this point, but it was not over! We had just enough time to grab a bite to eat, download photos of the SD cards, and put on a layer of suncreen before running back out to the west side, this time heading to Lime Kiln and getting there just in time for another close pass by all the whales, going north this time.

Incoming again!
Sometimes it takes a wider angle shot to really capture just how close these whales come to the rocks. That's my husband Jason, and there were more whales around the corner to the left IN Deadman's Bay.

It all happened so quickly because they were almost all in one big group, but for a moment there were whales everywhere, all of them just a few yards away!

L92 Crewser

Conditions were too perfect not to head north and hop into our boat, and we met up with the same large group right off Henry Island.

 It's just indescribable to see that many dorsal fins all together...

....andwhen they're in a playful mood it becomes even more magical...

I just love this shot of the whales in front of my friends Barbara and David's sailboat! Check out the special whale-watch sailing trips they offer at All Aboard Sailing.

And I also love this one, with perfect evening lighting off of Spieden Island:

As good as it felt to have them here, and while they did go north to the Fraser River, their stay was also short. The next evening the Ls made their way back down, heading through Haro after dark and back out the Strait. Js would follow two days later, also bypassing the daylight hours of Haro Strait on their way out and leaving on the 26th. Here's hoping their couple of recent visits are a sign that the second half of the summer will be full of more Southern Residents than the first half was, and that there's plenty of salmon to keep them here!

Next up for me, however, is a trip north. I've long wanted to make a summer excursion to the north end of Vancouver Island, and this year it's finally happening! Fingers crossed I get to hang out a bit with the cousins of the Js, Ks, and Ls I know so well - the Northern Residents!

July 18th: Finally! L-Pod!

After 17 days with no Southern Residents in inland waters (in July!), late on the evening of July 17th part of L-Pod made their way towards San Juan Island, reaching the west side just after the sun set. On July 18th, I got enough of a distant glimpse of them in the morning to confirm they were still here, and then after work saw a few of them foraging offshore, but the patience paid off in the evening when they finally came north as far as Land Bank and Lime Kiln. It sure was nice to see some of these familiar fins again!

L82 Kasatka and L116 Finn
L92 Crewser
The photos don't really do it justice, but the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s (the 19 L-Pod whales present) were in one big, slow moving group doing lots of rolling at the surface, spyhopping, and kelping in the kelp offshore of Land Bank.

They were moving slow enough that we could do the run from Land Bank to Lime Kiln to see them again. As the sun got lower, the light got even more amazing, as it looked like their splashes were on fire:

It's uncommon for Ls to go north much further than Lime Kiln when they're here by themselves, and sure enough, just north of the lighthouse they started milling.

They turned back south before dark, and one whale came and gave us an extra close pass!

A close sunset tail slap was the grand finale on the evening!

Sadly, the next morning Ls were westbound out the Strait of Juan de Fuca again, but this time we only had to wait 5 more days for the next return of the Southern Residents.