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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Day of the Dead ~ 8th Annual Tribute

The Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is about honoring those who have passed on - every year, I take a moment on this day to remember the Southern Residents we have lost in the previous year. You can see the whole series of blog posts here. Over the years these posts have gotten harder to write, as the population continues to decline. But now more than ever, as we continue to fight for the survival and recovery of the Southern Residents, it's important not to forget the stories of the whales we have lost along the way.

J2 ~ Granny

We all knew we would lose this great matriarch one day, but that didn't make it any easier when the day finally came. The oldest living Southern Resident Killer Whale, Granny's estimated birth year was 1911. While we will never know her exact age, we do know she lived through all the major changes the Southern Residents have experienced in the last many decades, including the live capture era, the commercial fishing boom, the rise of whale-watching, and the crash of Chinook salmon. Of all the whales, how I most wished I could have a conversation with Granny.

The iconic J2 Granny, with her half-moon notch
Granny was a leader in a the true sense of the word. We suspect she held and shared important communal knowledge for the Southern Residents, such as where to travel and forage in different times of year and different seasonal conditions. We know she was often out in front, literally leading the way as her pod traveled from place to place. It wasn't uncommon to see Granny a mile or even several miles ahead of everyone else as they went up and down Haro Strait.

While at times she seemed to be "all business", other times she definitely showed that even an old gal can "kick up her heels" and play, too.

Inverted tail slap by Granny
 For many years Granny's most constant travel companion was J1 Ruffles. The two were so close, it was assumed they were mother and son. Genetics have indicated this may not be the real story; it begs the question what kind of relationship they had, and if J1 wasn't finding in Granny something similar to what the orphaned L87 Onyx would find from her years later.

For many years, J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny were the symbols of the Southern Residents
Granny regularly associated with many different whales. Whenever whales from outside of J-Pod would travel with Js for a period of days or weeks, it was often Granny's group they were associated with.

Granny, the foremost whale, was a central figure in Southern Resident social networks

Granny wasn't only an important whale in her whale community, she was an important whale among the human world as well, including to me personally. She was the first whale I saw swimming through the kelp at Lime Kiln, an image forever etched into my memory. She was the whale I chose to get tattooed on my arm, and the one I painted a mural of on my family's houseboat. When we bought our boat and had our first-ever Southern Resident encounter, she was the one who came out of no where and circled around us, giving us what felt like a proper "christening".

On our first whale encounter aboard Serenity, Granny came out of no where and circled our boat
Even after another full season has passed, it still feels bizarre to see J-Pod without Granny. It will likely take years for us to see what the result of her passing might be, if we will ever know. One thing we can say is that she lived a long life, and we can only hope her descendants get a chance to do the same.

K13 ~ Skagit

Just like the loss of J14 Samish last year, the death of K13 Skagit really came as a surprise to me. She was another productive mother just as the end of her reproductive years, who had the potential to enter to the matriarch role for her pod, and then, out of no where - gone. Because K-Pod was so scarce in inland waters this year, it took a while before we knew for sure if she was gone or not. I held out hope as long as I could, but when her whole family came by Lime Kiln without her, there was no mistaking her loss.

K13 Skagit actively foraging off Lime Kiln in 2016

Having been born in 1972, Skagit likely just narrowly escaped being taken into captivity for the marine aquarium industry. Instead she went on to become a mother of two sons and two daughters, and also lived to see the birth of her first two grandsons. While her daughters are past due to give birth to their second calves, I had really hoped Skagit would be around to see her family and her pod grow.

I'm anthropomorphizing here, but with Skagit's loss I was most worried about her older son, K25 Scoter, who has always been such a mama's boy. He was rarely more than a few body lengths away from her in recent years, and we know that the likelihood of survival for males goes way down after the loss of their mothers. It was good to see Scoter this summer, and according to the photogrammetry research team he was looking pretty plump, but it must be a hard adjustment for all the remaining K13s.

K13 Skagit and her oldest son K25 Scoter
I wonder if Skagit's loss had anything to do with the fact K-Pod was barely around this year? Will their travel patterns completely change without her?

J52 ~ Sonic 

Sonic was the first-born calf to J36 Alki and part of the amazing stretch of births that occurred between December 2014 and January 2016. Sadly, in recent months he became the latest "baby boom" calf not to make it, bringing us down to just five survivors among the ten known births during that time. To me, it felt like his birth was the one that made it a baby boom. We had J50 and J51 after nearly 3 years with no live births, and then within the same 3 month span J52 was born and I remember my reaction was one of disbelief: "No way....another one?!" His arrival was especially hopeful because he came to a young first-time mom. So many young females that should and could be having calves are not, and it was reassuring to see Alki have her first calf at a "normal" age.

J36 Alki and J52 Sonic

Sonic was a spunky little whale, and he regularly found willing playmates not only in his mom, but in his sisters J42 Echo (who liked to babysit him) and J50 Scarlet, who was just a few months older than him. His faint saddle patch was just visible enough to see that it was an open check-mark shape like several of his other family members, and I had been excited to see what it might look like as he grew older.

It took me nearly a year and a half to get the photo I was hoping for after these two calves were born into the same matriline - J50 Scarlet and J52 Sonic, seen here passing near the rocks at Lime Kiln this summer
Sonic's decline was pretty rapid. In my last few encounters with him he looked okay, but the photogrammetry team documented him with peanut head in September and the Center for Whale Research has a final encounter with him where he was very lethargic and clearly malnourished. His mom Alki had looked skinny in the spring of 2016 (not totally unusual for a nursing mom) but recovered, and I was thankful at least that the photogrammetry team thought she looked "okay" this fall. The fact that he was so thin and she wasn't makes me wonder if a disease or something played a complicating role in his demise. As with most orca deaths, we will never know for sure. What I do know for sure is that the J16s won't be the same without him.

Breach from J52 Sonic in summer 2017

When will the next birth happen?

Usually in these blog posts I also take a moment to acknowledge the new whales that have joined us, but there are no new Southern Residents to welcome this year. After the birth of J49 in 2012, we went over 2 years before another live calf was seen, and over 3 years until the next calf survived. We had the baby boom from the end of 2015 through 2016, but again we're coming up on 2 years without a live calf seen. Meanwhile the population has dropped to just 76 whales, a 30 year low. The situation is dire.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the state of emergency the Southern Residents are in is beginning to be acknowledged on both sides of the border. In October, the federal government of Canada held a workshop to assess actions to be taken on behalf of the Southern Residents. The San Juan County Marine Resources Committee also held a workshop to brainstorm immediate actions that can be taken at the County level. Two days later we had our 5th CALF (Community Action - Look Forward) workshop, also focusing on citizen actions to help the whales. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has indicated his concern, and willingness to take unprecedented action. The first action to come out of all this was Canada adopting at 200 meter vessel rule to match the 200 yard limit in the US; additionally the Canadian government promised lots of funds towards continued ocean noise monitoring. While dealing with vessel noise may help the whales hunt more efficiently, the fact is that even silencing our oceans entirely won't give the whales enough fish to eat. If the Southern Residents are going to have a fighting chance, major actions need to be taken to address Chinook salmon recovery. It remains to be seen is what concrete actions will be taken regarding salmon. Yesterday, the Puget Sound Partnership  passed a resolution to accelerate Chinook salmon recovery efforts on behalf of the whales. Let's hope this is just the first of many such efforts in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the whales continue on, and so must we. The writing of this blog post was delayed by the unexpected appearance of the Southern Residents in Haro Strait this evening.  After hearing them on the Lime Kiln hydrophones, I went out to the west side. Even though they were several miles offshore, it was obvious they were in party mode, as there were breaches and tail slaps galore. When it got too dark to see, I came home and am still hearing all three pods (and many more percussives) on the hydrophones right now as I finish this post. We didn't have a true superpod all summer, where the entire Southern Resident community was together, but I wouldn't be surprised, with all the crazy vocals and surface activity, the first Salish Sea superpod of 2017 is underway today. 

Day of the Dead isn't part of Southern Resident Killer Whale culture, but how fitting if today they too are coming together in celebration. It never ceases to amaze me that despite their losses, they still carry on and clearly still know how to have a good time. I have no doubt they remember their ancestors, and here's hoping some new calves are being conceived among all that partying tonight!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October 28-31: An Abundance of Salish Sea Wildlife

The weather this October has just been spectacular, right up through today, the last day of the month. We've had a few windy days and some heavy rain, but the number of clear, sunny days is certainly more than I remember having in recent years. This has provided a lot of opportunity to get out and enjoy this amazing place we live, and in the last few days the wildlife viewing has just been awesome.

On the evening of October 28th, we went out to Lime Kiln for sunset and enjoyed seeing all kinds of bird life passing by over the flat-calm seas.

Great blue heron
Tranquil autumn sunset
On the evening of October 29th, the transient killer whale family the T2Cs were making their way up San Juan Channel. A friend offered to let us hop aboard their boat out of Friday Hrabor, and the result was another memorable sunset!

T2C1 Rocky
When we had a view of Mt. Baker, we got two photo ops of two different cetacean species under the mountain. First, the orcas....

T2C1 Rocky under Mt. Baker
And then a pair of humpbacks passed by heading in the opposite direction!

Humpback whale under Mt. Baker
Then when we were stopped to get our last look before heading back to port, the whales surfaced after a dive right off our bow. 

T2C2 (the whale with scoliosis) and calf T2C4

Calf T2C4

The sunset on our way in

Then on October 30th (my birthday!) we took a hike down at Cattle Point. We came across a harbor seal with a huge salmon.

Nearby was a pair of river otters who were chowing down on forage fish. When one of them caught a larger rockfish, they both came ashore for a bit.

Otter on the upper right has a rockfish

While watching the otters, we also saw some harlequin ducks in perfect lighting.

Then today, the 31st, the sun continued and the waters were calm so we headed out for an afternoon boat trip. We originally thought we might see some sea lions, but they were the only thing we didn't see! We did find several groups of Bonaparte's gulls, which are one of my favorite birds to photograph.

This one has a little shrimp-like creature

A lot of the other winter birds are back too, including bufflehead, red-necked and horned grebes, and surf scoters. But the species that stole the show was a total surprise - the harbor porpoise! Don't get me wrong, I like harbor porpoise just fine, but more often than not they are very difficult to view. You may get just one or two glimpses and then they're gone. The one exception is when you get a large group actively foraging, and today we found just that with more than 100 of them off Green Point on Spieden Island. There were porpoise surfacing in every direction you looked.

We even saw some porpoise porpoising in the distance!

We shut down for a while to listen to their "chuffing" blows, and were rewarded with several close looks.

I've never seen (or photographed) a harbor porpoise swimming straight at me from such close range!

So concludes another beautiful month in the Salish Sea!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The North Cascades and Methow Valley

Last weekend we decided to take a trip east of here through the North Cascades and into the Methow Valley. We thought we would be enjoying autumn, but it ended up turning into winter! We also thought we would be focusing on birding, but it was the stunning landscapes that ended up stealing the show. Click on these pictures to view them larger, as the small versions don't quite do them justice!

First up was the drive along Highway 20 through North Cascades National Park. Glacial silt makes the color of the river an amazing turquoise!

The rain was falling but the roads were clear, with just a touch of snow at the top of the highest pass.

As we reached the Methow Valley, the sun came out in the late afternoon, and the colors were just amazing every direction you looked.

We hardly saw any birds at all in our first day of travels, but the deer were everywhere, as were the deer hunters. The deer over there as well as our deer on the island are all considered mule deer, but they're very different looking sub-species. The ones on the east side of the Cascades are much larger, more gray than brown, and even their morphology is different - their faces look like those of kangaroos!

On the second day, last Saturday, heavy rain started falling in the morning and turned into heavy snow as the day went on.

Despite the precipitation, the fall colors were spectacular, and really seemed to be at their peak.

Again, we hardly saw any birds, with the best sighting of the day being an American dipper.

By the time we went to bed, about 6-8" of snow had fallen. Overnight it turned to rain again, which compressed things a little bit, but there was still about 4" on the ground when we woke up. We were thankful we had the foresight to park our car at the bottom of the hill our cabin was situated on, or we might not have gotten out at all! It was such a beautiful sight to wake up to, however, though I kept having to remind myself this was October - amazing!

 I kept the camera on me all day and loved how this one turned out, which I took as we were walking down the hill to our car.

We headed into Winthrop for breakfast and afterwards had to take a walk along the Methow River, because the combination of fall colors and freshly fallen snow on an already stunning landscape was just breath-taking.

Back to pick up our things at the cabin, we again parked at the bottom of the hill, and a flock of birds caught our eye. We spent 45 minutes just walking the neighborhood road and finally saw more than a dozen bird species, including these two year birds that were definitely on our "hoped for" list for this trip!

Clark's nutcracker
Pygmy nuthatch
Unfortunately, even though the temperatures were warming, so much snow had fallen in the mountains that the highway we came over on was closed. This meant we had to drive the long way around, which was about twice the distance, but it was a route I had never driven before and the scenery was amazing! We just enjoyed it while driving but there's clearly plenty more new places to explore in Washington that will have to be featured on future blog posts when we get a chance to spend more time there!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Residents in the Second Half of September

After a season where the Southern Residents were scarcer than ever, I had feeling the season might continue to wind down with few sightings of Js, Ks, and Ls. Luckily, September, which has always been my favorite whale month, did not disappoint, and the Southern Residents were around more this month than any other month in 2017. They weren't always nearby, spending some days down in Puget Sound or up at the Fraser River or even further north, but that was okay - just knowing they were in the Salish Sea again for a longer stretch of time made everything feel more "right"!

On September 23rd, J-Pod and the Greater L4s (19 L-Pod whales) came down Rosario. The question was whether they would head west out the Strait of Juan de Fuca or up Haro Strait once they rounded the bottom end of the San Juan Islands. Jason and I waited at Cattle Point to see what they would do. They took their time reaching us, but once they did they sped up, and in the direction favorable for us - up Haro Strait!

Porpoising past Salmon Bank
Some whales were way too far offshore to ID, but the last group to pass us was the J16s. Sadly, it was clear their family had gone from six whales to five. We had learned earlier in the month from the photogrammetry team assessing whale body condition using a drone that J52 was very emaciated and appeared to be in "terminal condition". Indeed, by the 23rd he was no longer with us, bringing the total number of Southern Residents down to 76 - the lowest since the mid-1980s. I have no doubt the whales grieve, but they show amazing resilience, and so must me.

As the whales continued north, the waters were so glassy calm that we decided to hop in the boat and meet up with them north of Lime Kiln. The first whale we encountered was J19 Shachi, who seems to often be in the lead these days. We stopped to watch her forage while other whales were visible to the south. Eventually it looked like the whales decided to head southwest, and before she turned around she surprised us with one big, beautiful breach! Luckily I happened to have the camera ready, and snapped one of my favorite photos of the year.

Breach by J19 Shachi
Before leaving we saw some of the J17s, too, including a very active J53 Kiki.

Cartwheel from J53 Kiki
From their trajectory, I was afraid the whales might leave that night, but they snuck back north during the middle of the night and were found the next morning making their way back to the Fraser River. I caught up with them again on the morning of September 27th when they had looped back to Haro Strait again.

For a couple hours the whales were very spread north to south and east to west, all just milling. It was great to see so much active foraging behavior, with lunging whales in all directions.

I was having trouble figuring out who was who, and later when I took a closer look at my photos I realized why - the whales were all mixed up! By that I mean they weren't in their matrilineal family groups as they are most of the time, so there was no making assumptions about who was traveling with whom.

L82 Kasatka and J31 Tsuchi

Eventually the whales decided to head south, but very slowly against the strong flood tide. I was debating whether or not to leave (I was playing hooky from work, the whales were mostly very far offshore, and the wind was very cold!) when I spotted some blows just past the point to the north of the Lime Kiln Lighthouse. That decided it! I wasn't going anywhere.

The best sight: whales heading strait at you across the cove north of the lighthouse

 It was well worth the wait in the cold for this close pass by another mixed up group of Js and Ls including some of the J19s and J16s, the L72s, and L87. Moments like this are always special, but even more so this year when they were few and far between.


L87 Onyx

Tail slap from J36 Alki

L105 Fluke - getting so big!
Kelp on Onyx's tail
I love my versatile 18-300mm lens that can capture those close-up shots of kelping whales but that I can also quickly zoom out to capture more of the scene to show you the feel of just how close these whales are.

My friend Jimmie with J19 Shachi, J42 Echo, and J50 Scarlet
The day after this the Js and Ls split after nearly two weeks together, with Ls heading west and Js heading down for a quick visit to Puget Sound. Yesterday, September 29th, I was surprised to hear a late day report that J-Pod was at Salmon Bank off the south end of San Juan Island heading north in rough seas. We headed to Lime Kiln in hopes that they would make it that far before sunset. Some of them did, though they were still passing as darkness fell. It's always impressive to see the whales in big seas.

J16 Slick and J50 Scarlet
J42 Echo on the move
They continue north as night fell, meaning they're spending at least another couple days in the Salish Sea. As October arrives, I can only hope that we're treated to another great month of having the whales around. It seems to vary a lot from year to year how much they're here in October, but with the Southern Residents being scarce all summer, we're more than ready for a whale-filled fall!