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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Superpod Recording Clip

Okay, I think this should work. It's not quite as beautiful as on some other blogs I've seen, but here is a clip (about 45 seconds long) of the superpod I recorded last Saturday, the 23rd. I was at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, where they broadcast the hydrophones on 88.1 FM. I used my iAudio Mp3 player (which also has a built-in FM recorder) to record the passby, and this is a clip full of lots of vocalizations. How cool that I've figured out how to share this!

Also, as a side note, I'll be out of town over the weekend at the Bumbershoot music festival in Seattle. So there won't be posts for a few days, but I'll be back on Monday!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Carnage On The Rocks

This afternoon Jeanne and I had an amazing encounter with a couple of transients. As I've mentioned before, it's not often you get to see the marine mammal feeding transients from shore. Today, however, was a giant exception. We heard there was a group of 6-8 Ts heading north along San Juan Island. We "whale chased" them along the west side and saw them from several different areas, but by far the most amazing encounter was right in Jeanne's front yard.

Two of the transients - a male and a female - started swimming right at us sitting on the rocks. They came within 100 yards of shore when they began to circle, usually a sign they're on to some prey. Sure enough, a little harbor seal head popped up right between them. We could see the seal for only a couple of seconds before the whales circled once more. The seal was gone, and the whales continued on their way, all in a matter of minutes. Even though there wasn't *that* much to see, it left the adrenaline pumping and both of us in total awe of what had just happened!

I'm sure I'll be able to figure out which two whales it was once I look at an ID guide, especially since the female had a very distinct notch at the base of her fin. From what I gather of which transients were there, the male was likely T30A.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Wildlife Hat Trick

Remember what I said yesterday about everything being "whale dependent"? I really didn't think the whales would come back today, but they did! And as a result my long to-do list for this afternoon got tossed aside and instead, after working in the office I hopped on the Western Prince as a tag-a-long.

We got some fantastic views of most of the L-Pod family groups, but one of the most memorable moments was hat I'll call a "wildlife hat trick". It's getting close enough to the hockey season, so I figure I can start using my sports analogies. In hockey, a hat trick is when a player scores three goals in a game. It's often a phrase used by hockey fans to refer of three of anything that's relatively rare. Well, when we got out to the Salmon Bank marker and cut the engines, we could see maybe a dozen L-Pod whales, a minke whale, and a California sea lion - all at the same time!

The minke is the small one that's been hanging around a lot lately and has been designated "Ivan" by researcher Jon Stern after Captain Ivan of our very own Western Prince. It turns out its a juvenile that's just been born this year! The California sea lion was swimming around the Salmon Bank marker, and I was hoping it would jump up onto the buoy but no such luck.

While Ls were off the south end of the island, and actually off Lopez Island when we were with them, Js and Ks had headed up north past Turn Point. Usually, once they get this far they keep going north, but today they faked like they were going up Swanson, then deked like they were going Boundary (there are those hockey analogies again), then turned and came back south! So, when we got back to port, I grabbed a snack and headed to the west side where my timing was perfect to see Js and Ks heading south from Lime Kiln. They were in one large group offshore, they were very active, and it was cool to hear how loud their blows were as they surfaced in the very calm, very gray water. It actually started raining again this afternoon, but conveniently not while I was on the boat or for the few minutes when the whales passed the lighthouse.

I didn't have my camera on the boat because I wasn't expecting to be going out, but I did have my camera at the lighthouse. Like I said, they were kind of far offshore, but here's a backwards breach:

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Wrong Way

The Southern Residents are still out to the open ocean, which means I have time to post more photos from two days ago. I find this next one pretty darn funny. I wish I had gotten a better composition with the kayakers, but the breach was so unexpected that I just whipped my camera around and clicked. You think from a kayak you would be even more in tune with the whales' movements, but quite often you see them missing the best parts altogether.

And no, I haven't forgotten about posting clips from my hydrophone recordings! I've figured out how to do it, I just need to have time to sit down and select a nice clip and get everything loaded. My goal is to get a clip up tomorrow - but just like everything else around here this time of year that statement is whale dependent!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More Superpod Photos

The word this morning was that the Southern Residents were heading west out the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I still have plenty of photos to go through from yesterday's encounters, though - I haven't even starting IDing the whales in them, which is something I love to do. Here are a couple more photos from the superpod yesterday. The first one is of a whale breaching right next to Ruffles (J1) as he surfaces.

Here is another shot from the superpod passby, of an orca doing a tail slap. I love how the splash is coming right at you, and covers the top left corner of the frame.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Three Star Day

Nico, a fellow orca lover, used to always rate whale passbys on a scale of 1-3 stars. He was stingy giving out three stars, saving them for the very best of days, but I'm confident today would have been a three star day. I saw J and L Pods from the Western Prince this morning, where we had a beautiful look at Mega (L41) and his sisters Calypso (L94) and Matia (L77), who did two big breaches and a cartwheel. Js and Ls were heading south to meet up with the incoming K-Pod, and I was able to get back, pack a lunch, and head out to Lime Kiln to see them.

First, all three pods passed north close to shore, then, an hour later, they turned back and came south again. I took a whopping 442 photos - 10 of which I would classify as "three star" photos. There are tons of good photos, as it was hard to take a bad shot with whales that close, but I'm pretty ecstatic with 10 fabulous shots in one day! I'm sure most of them will make their way onto this blog, hopefully most of them in the next couple of days, but I only have time to post one right now. I'm still trying to figure out who all the whales are in the above photo - the one in the back is Spieden (J8), and at the age of 75 it's surprising to see her swimming with a few year old calf!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Run, Monika, Run!

The Southern Residents have been out of the area since last Friday. I called Jeanne this morning to see if she wanted to work on one of our photography projects. When she didn't answer, I should have taken that as a sign that something was going on. Luckily, she called me right back. The entirety of our phone conversation was: "Hello?" "Get here. NOW!" "Okay!"

I grabbed my camera bag and rushed out the door. I drove to the lighthouse (just 5 mph over the speed limit) telling myself that if I miss them, I miss them. It's happened before, and it will happen again. As I approached Hannah Heights, where I get a good view of the water, I saw three dorsal fins heading north. I can still make it! I zoomed on (10 mph over the speed limit now). I could have pulled out at land bank, but something compelled me to go all the way to the lighthouse. When I pulled up at Lime Kiln, the lower parking lot was full so I made my own parking space, grabbed my bag, and rushed towards the trail.

Someone yelled "You better hurry Monika!" I don't even know who it was! But I called back over my shoulder, "I know! I know!!"

I had already missed the first group going north, but I got there in time to see the vast majority of L-Pod (and some of J-Pod!) pass the lighthouse heading north. They were so close together, and so close to shore, that it was breath-taking to see that many dorsal fins. There are actually 11 whales in this picture:
It seemed like the entire pod swam through the kelp in one large group. It happened to fast, but I was clicking the entire time and got some awesome photos. Here are a few of my favorite kelping shots. The first one is Ophelia (L27) with kelp hanging over her nose!

One of the coolest parts of the experience was that this was the first time I got to listen to the whales live over my MP3 player. Inspired by others, I bought an MP3 player that has an FM receiver and FM recorder, so in addition to hearing the whales vocalize on 88.1 FM from the lighthouse while they're going by, I was able to make a recording of what was a very talkative group of whales today! It looks like I can upload audio onto this site if I make it work like a podcast, so my goal tonight is to figure out how to do that and put a clip up for your listening pleasure by tomorrow. It was amazing how abruptly the vocalizations stopped after they passed the hydrophone - I guess their calls are really directional!

Even after the whales were continuing north through the cove the acrobatics weren't done. This young whale did four breaches in a row:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Great Blue Heron

This great blue heron was hanging around the marina today, mostly under the walkways or near the shoreline to be under the branches to get out of the rain. This is one of my best close-up shots. I also got some really neat reflection shots, but for some reason the bird comes across as a bit bright in them. I'll take this as more incentive to learn more about both my camera and about Photoshop (one of my projects for this fall anyway). Add to the list learning more about Blogger, as I'm not entirely satisfied with the posted picture quality or the layout of my blog. So, look for updates in the future when I have time to get into all of that (read: September). For now, here's one of my favorite reflection shots:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Harbor Seal Diagnosis

Remember the harbor seal photo I posted a few weeks ago, with the eyeball completely popped out of his socket? I shared it with Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society to see what he made of the whole thing. Was it an infection, or an injury?

He said this was most likely caused by trauma to the eye, an injury that is fairly common in small dogs with short faces. It is very rare in harbor seals, however, since they have very large eyes and well-formed eye sockets. Because of this, he said it must have been pretty severe trauma, perhaps even causing a broken bone in the head as well which would facilitate the eyeball coming all the way out.

You really do learn something new every day!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Lots and lots of Ts

This afternoon we out-chased a thunderstorm as we headed way up north to the southern Strait of Georgia to meet up with a large group (10-15) of transients. Usually small transient pods travel separately, but today several families met up and were being very playful and social. You don't often see a lot of surface activity from the opportunistic transients that are usually passively listening for food, but today was an exception. We even dropped the hydrophone in and heard a few quiet vocalizations, which sounded so much different from the residents I'm used to listening to. This was the first time I've ever heard transients live.

This last photo is a breach by T20, a big adult male. My friend Jeanne was standing right next to me and took a very similar shot, just a fraction of a second later than this one! Check it out on her blog at Whale-Of-A-Porpoise.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The T101s and a Transient Kill

With all the Southern Residents heading out to the ocean today, it was great news to hear that the T100s and T101s were in the area. This afternoon we met up with T101, T102, T101A, and T101C near the coast of Lummi Island in Rosario Strait. While all transients have solid saddle patches, there are still some striking differences between them. Many transients have distinct rakes or scratches, such as the big male T102. When you first see him, it looks almost like he's dragging a piece of kelp, but it's actually a thick black line across his saddle patch.

I also saw my very first transient kill today. Female T101 and male T102 were apart from each other when all the sudden there was a bunch of splashing near T101, which looked just like what a harbor seal does this time of year when it's attracting a mate. T102 headed straight over to her, and soon after blood was visible in the water (I didn't see this part). Soon after, presumably after they finished eating, T101 did two spyhops and then two breaches.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Spider With Cricket

This afternoon, while at American Camp to get a glimpse of the whales in the distance, I saw this strangely colored orange spider that had captured and was eating a cricket (or grasshopper?) while hanging from a piece of grass.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

New Baby! L111

Always great news for the Southern Resident killer whales, a new baby was born to L-Pod on August 12th. The calf, designated L111, was born to Marina (L47). This is Marina's sixth known offspring. Her oldest, Moonlight (L83), made Marina a grandmother for the first time one year ago with the birth of L110. She is also the mother to Muncher (L91). Unfortunately, Marina's last three calves have not survived their first year of life.

Interestingly, while the majority of the Southern Resident superpod left the islands early in the morning on August 12th, only this group of Ls with the calf stayed in. While I haven't seen them yet, I hear that there are only females and juveniles in the group, and no adult males. It's an unusual group of Ls, too - mostly whales that haven't even been seen much inland at all this summer. I wonder if they're staying in because of the young calf?

I'll be back out on the water the next three days, so hopefully if these whales are still around I'll have some first-hand updates.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mt. Baker Sunrise

For those of you that know me, you know I don't get up early enough to take sunrise pictures very often. This morning I had to be on the 6 AM ferry to Anacortes, however, and this view of Mt. Baker from right above my house reminded me of the perks of waking up early. You don't get beautiful, colorful views to the east like this one later in the day. This smaller image is much less orange than the original and doesn't quite do it justice - but it gives you the idea and I'm too tired to figure out why the color is showing up so different. ;)

Monday, August 11, 2008

L12s in San Juan Channel

This morning on the Western Prince we heard the Southern Resident superpod had made their way as far north as Passage Island - way north of the northern arm of the Fraser River! We were afraid it might be a "no whale day" when Captain Ivan got a call about a potential transient report between Lopez and Shaw Islands. Then he got another call about 3 whales in San Juan Channel near Cattle Point. After picking up our charter, we raced down to catch up with what we assumed were transients. At first we just saw two whales, but then more fins appeared. Hmmm, these whales seemed to be awfully spread out for transients, and look at all those adult males! Definitely not transient-like. Then we saw the open saddle patch of Skana (L79) and we knew this was part of L-Pod. This was the first time I'd ever seen residents *in* San Juan Channel!

Here Mystery (L85) surfaces in front of Cattle Point Lighthouse at the southern tip of San Juan Island as the whales move out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was traveling with Alexis (L12) and Skana (L79), a couple of whales I hadn't seen yet this year until the big superpod came in yesterday.

A little bit later Skana did a huge cartwheel!!

The glassy calm waters were beautiful this morning, which made it easy to spot this minke whale from maybe a mile away. Mega (L41) and his sister Calypso (L94) were foraging right near the minke. It was very neat to see these two species so close together. While we were stopped watching them, you could see hundreds of silvery bait fish under the water right next to the boat - probably why the minke was in that area. Jon Stern's minke research vessel was out on the water as well, so it would be interesting to find out which minke it was and how long it spent with the orcas.

It's so hard to catch a photo of the whales porpoising at their top speed of up to 35 mph, but this male came out of the water just as I was aiming my camera to take a photo so I got lucky!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The L-Pod Boys

While the majority of the superpod went north this afternoon, on the Western Prince we came across a smaller group of L-Pod whales off of False Bay. This turned out to be very exciting because the group was made up of whales none of us had seen more than once, if at all, this summer. Included in this group were several of the big L-Pod males, and it was awesome to see that many tall dorsal fins around again.

Saanich, L74

Flash, L73

Race Rocks Web Cam

Word is all three pods are inbound together from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I'm out on the boat this afternoon (I can't wait!), but since I heard they were near Race Rocks I decided to check out their web video cams to see what I could see. There is a 360 degree camera that you can control, and using that I saw a huge family group of whales pass close to Race Rocks! It's a very user friendly camera, and they even have a nifty screen capture button so you can download stills to your computer. Unfortunately due to the delay I was unable to capture a photo of the orcas all surfacing together, but I did manage to get a shot of a slightly more cooperative Stellar sea lion.

I'm sure there will be more to post later after (hopefully) encountering the superpod this afternoon!!!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Eclipse ~ J41

Eclipse (J41) has been a very special whale to me ever since I first saw her when she was only a couple days old. On June 30th, 2005 as the sunset there was no baby with J-Pod, but first thing in the morning on July 1st, 2005 there was a new baby with Shachi (J19). When I saw her for the first time, Eclipse was still a bright orangey-pink, and her forehead was still bumpy with fetal folds.

My book, Orca Encounters, was dedicated to Eclipse, partially because during 2005-2006 (the years photographs were taken for my book) I had many awesome viewings of her and her mom, and hence several photos of them in the book. Also, though, Eclipse symbolized for me the future of the Southern Resident killer population that I hoped (and hope) to do my part to protect.

While I don't believe Eclipse has any special awareness of me, I continue to have fantastic encounters with her. When kayaking with the whales a couple of weeks ago, it was none other than Eclipse and Shachi who circled the kelp bed we were rafted up in.

Today on the Western Prince we had another neat encounter with Eclipse. J-Pod was very spread out and doing a lot of foraging, which means the whales are off in ones and twos and swimming in all different directions. All of the sudden, a little juvenile came zooming past the stern of the boat. Who was that, and why weren't they closer to mom? As the juvenile continued to lunge at the surface and swim at high speed, I spotted the distinct tall, thin fin of Shachi inshore. That was Eclipse, several hundred yards offshore of mom!

We watched the J16 family group for a while, and as we started to pull out to head back to Friday Harbor, another little whale came zipping over to the port side of our boat. "That's the same little whale!" the captain called from the wheelhouse. Sure enough, it was Eclipse again, still hundreds of yards from mom, this time twisting and turning at the surface, like many of the larger whales do when they're in hot pursuit of a fish. I grabbed my binoculars to get a better look at what she was doing, and on the very next surfacing Eclipse surfaced facing our boat with a fish in her mouth! While other people see this behavior from time to time, this is the first time I've clearly seen an orca with a fish, and it seems fitting that it was Eclipse.

It was so cool to witness Eclipse off and foraging on her own, since now at the age of 3 she's definitely stopped nursing and is on to eating fish. Shachi probably still catches some for her, but it's exciting to know she's able to capture her own prey! Once a calf stops nursing around two years old, it starts to make some exploratory trips away from mom, but I've never seen such a young whale off foraging on its own. It looks like we've got a spunky and independent little whale in Eclipse. Shachi, watching from the shoreline three hundred yards away, should be very proud.

J-Pod has been in essentially the same place for the last few days, and have been "in" from the ocean for the last two weeks. Hopefully that means there is plenty of salmon for Eclipse and the others to eat!

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Silent Disappearance of Local Marine Birds

I was inspired to return to writing about marine birds since this week I saw my first Bonaparte's gulls, marbled murrelets, and Cassin's auklets of the seasons. (The photo below is of a Bonaparte's gull flying around off my deck last fall.) Back on July 23rd I attended a lecture at The Whale Museum by Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society. Here are some highlights:

First of all, what exactly is a marine bird? The broad definition is any bird that relies on the marine habitat for part or all of its diet is a marine bird. Using this definition, we have 128 species of marine birds in the Salish Sea, 24 of which are listed on the Endangered Species List.

Secondly, it's important to note that marine birds travel great distances. Some surf scoters tagged in Puget Sound, for instance, were documents as far away as Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and Alaska. So when talking about local bird declines, it's important to consider that we're looking at just a small piece of a species' overall range, and that they could simply be shifting the usage of their habitat.

One thing I learned that surprised me is that people hunt sea ducks. Not only that, but people may be hunting enough sea ducks to have an impact on local population abundances. Hunters can take only one Harlequin duck a year, but surf scoters are a different story and the state of Washington is currently reviewing its hunting regulations regarding this species due to up to a 50% decline in numbers in the last 25 years. How does one retrieve a seabird after its shot, I wonder? Is hunting done from a boat or from shore? I'll have to look into this at some point to satisfy my curiosity.

Another alarming fact was that as of this lecture, no one in the room had seen any marbled murrelets this year. Usually they are most abundant in August, and indeed pairs have been sighted in the last week, but it's kind of weird that no one saw any in June or July.

Here are few other interesting species-specific notes:
* Unlike many other seabirds, bufflehead populations are doing quite well. This is probably due to the fact that, unlike many other species, they have a very diverse diet and eat many small marine creatures instead of a select one or few. Terns, geese, eagles, and cormorants are among the other species experiencing a local increase.
* Pigeon guillemots are the one alcid species that is here year-round. Because of this fact, they may be a good indicator species for the health of the region.
* The highly sought after tufted puffin is a species so rare in the area many conservationists think our efforts would be better focused on birds that have a realistic chance of having a substantial population locally. Puffins used to breed on Bare, Skipjack, Flattop, and Puffin Islands. Now, there are probably a few on only Smith and Protection Islands.
* Species definitely experiencing a decline include the common murre, rhinoceros auklet, long-tailed duck, all three scoter species, goldeneyes, and loons.

Local marine birds are probably declining due to decreasing fish populations, but why is no one noticing? Why is the decline "silent"? Gaydos' suggested that unlike very distinct animals like the orca, the Stellar sea lion, or the bald eagle, most marine birds are very difficult to tell apart, especially in the winter. If a pigeon guillemot looks like a murre looks like a murrelet to most people, trends are not as easily observed.

Reportedly, local bait fish have been especially abundant in the last few weeks. It will be interesting to see what, if any, affect this has on local marine birds.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

It's easier to watch transients from a boat

This morning on the Western Prince we departed from Canoe Island (with the French Camp aboard for a charter) without an orca report - but as we headed south down San Juan Channel, we got a report of whales inbound from Trial Island. We headed out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca without finding out which whales were there, since we were excited enough to get an orca report at all. We assumed it was some group of residents, since they've been split up into 4 or more groups in the last week or so. As we approached though we heard over the radio that they had "just made a kill" - something that definitely refers to the marine mammal feeding transients! It turns out we were looking at a group of what us whale-watchers affectionately call "Ts".

As the whales came into sight they were breaching and tail-slapping, unusual behaviors for the otherwise low-profile transients and something they usually only do after completing a kill when stealth is no longer necessary. The one big male in the group, later identified as T20, repeatedly raised his large, curved flukes in the air and slapped them down on the water.

T20 travels with female T21, who was also seen in the group. There seemed to be about 4-5 other whales, and other whale-watchers had told us the T124s were there. The T124s refers to a large family that currently travels in four separate groups. Based on the presence of a very small juvenile, I'm assuming that we had the four T124As, and the little calf was T124A3, who was born in 2006. Did you follow that? (I think they need to come up with a better method for naming transients, although that would probably just add to the confusion at this point.)

Resident and transient orcas are the same species, and to the casual observer look entirely the same. After looking at residents day after day for many summers in a row, however, I'm amazed at how different they really are. Transients sound different when they breathe at the surface (shorter, quieter breaths, probably part of their stealthy instincts). They also have distinctly pointed dorsal fins. Look at this comparison between a sharply pointed transient fin on the left and a rounded resident fin on the right:

The transient eyepatches also struck me as being larger than those on the residents. Juvenile T124A2 (looked to be a few years older than 2006 born calf T124A3) in particular has an amazing eyepatch. Not only is it especially large, but its oddly shaped and has a black mark in it:

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Who says you can't watch transients from shore?

You can - the opportunity just doesn't come very often and they'll probably be reeeaaaalllly far away.

The above photo was taken last night from Cattle Pass, looking across towards Lopez Island. Despite there being three groups of residents in the area, the best opportunity for shore-based whale-watching was actually of this relatively large (~8 animals) group of transients that were making their way south down San Juan Channel.

For those who aren't familiar, residents refers to our fish-eating Southern Resident Community of killer whales, which are called residents because they spend a lot of time in the area from May-September feeding on the salmon that are spawning to the Fraser River. Transients refers to another type of killer whales. They occur in much smaller groups, roam much farther with much less predictability, and feed primarily on marine mammals. Residents and transients are all part of the same species, Orcinus orca, but despite inhabiting the same geographic area they do not interact, socialize, or breed with one another - and genetic evidence suggests this has been the case for the last 10,000 years, or since the glaciers receded from this area.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Birds Watching Whales

Last night was one of those peaceful, beautiful, early evening encounters with the whales. In contrast to the dozens of boats and crowds of people watching the whales from Lime Kiln State Park earlier in the afternoon, it was a quiet shoreline with calm waters so you could hear the whales' every breath. I noticed a lot of sea gulls flying around while I was taking pictures of the whales, but only realized after I got home how comical they made some of the photos. They were just begging to have captions.

Don't hit me with your spray! One gull narrowly avoids the spout of Riptide (J30), which on such a calm night plumed up to 20 feet in the air.

Watching me, watching you: a whale spyhops while a sea gull looks down from above.

The race is on: who's faster, an orca or a gull?

Within 100 yards: doesn't this gull know his little boat, complete with a mast, has to stay at least 100 yards away from the whales?

Whoops, not a log: This gull swooped down right over Shachi (J19), Eclipse (J41), and Suttles (J40), almost as if it was mistaking them for a log to land on.

Finally, just before the evening's end, was the "payoff" for hours of watching and waiting - a close pass by young male Mike (J26), his mom Slick (J16), and Slick's youngest calf J42, which just turned 1 year old and will be named this month through The Whale Museum.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Not For the Faint of Heart

Three pieces of bizarre and unwelcome news today, but all definitely interesting and worthy of speculation.

First of all, The Whale Museum reported that the body of a killer whale calf was found on Henry Island. The carcass, much too small for a normal full-term calf, was likely aborted. A necropsy on the remains will help determine the pod of origin (it is presumed to be a Southern Resident) as well as provide important information from tissue samples on things like toxin levels. Unfortunately, the body wasn't immediately reported to the stranding network, so it had decomposed considerably. Remember, if you find a marine mammal stranded, either alive or dead, report it right away to the Museum's marine mammal stranding network at 1-800-562-8832.

Secondly, while watching J-Pod head south from Lime Kiln this afternoon, I was photographing a harbor seal. It looked normal and healthy, until it turned its head. It's left eye was completely infected, puffed up and pink, bulging out of its head. Totally disgusting, but interesting in its own right. I can't believe the seal was still alive.

Finally, it was officially confirmed today that K7, Lummi, is no longer with us. No one had seen her this summer so the official confirmation is not a surprise, but it doesn't make it any less sad. I would write more words about her, but I don't think I could top what was written by Howard Garrett of Orca Network, so I will quote what he wrote here.

We don't really know how important K7 was to her extended family these last nine or ten decades. We do know that K7 was a great-great-grandmother since 2004 when her great granddaughter K20 gave birth to her great-great grand son or daughter, K38. But there's no hard evidence to tell us how orcas treat each other or how their roles develop as they grow in wisdom over the years.

After over 32 years of continuous studies based on Jane Goodall's method called individual recognition, the research community believes that older females guide the entire clan and pass their deep knowledge of habitat and family traditions on to younger generations. K7, aka Lummi, was estimated to be the very oldest of them all. Her calculated birthdate was 1910, making her 98 years old this year, which is essentially equal to J2 (Granny), who lives on at about 97 years old. The next oldest is L25 (Ocean Sun), est. born in 1928, and three other females who were given a birthdate of 1933. J2 and K7 were definitely the elder females of the clan, and now only J2 can be considered to have the longest life and experience among the Southern Resident orca community.

We can only surmise how the other members of her family behaved and felt toward K7. We know that, like humans, females often live on for decades after having their last offspring at around age 40, so it is believed that these mature females must be highly valued by their families for their knowledge of fluctuations in habitat and where and how to find abundant food. But we also know that the Southern Residents' entire vocal and behavioral repertoires are completely unique and distinct from all other orca societies, and presumably it's the grandmother class that carries and transmits all these calls, rules, attitudes and traditions to the younger generations. When every aspect of life, from when and what to eat, when to mate (and with whom), when not to mate, when to split up and travel and when to meet and greet and throw a party, are all determined according to cultural norms, clearly some individuals must play the part of respected guides and mentors.

But our understanding of all those mysterious and intricate interrelationships will have to remain in the realm of informed speculation, because we have no idea what they are saying to one another, and to date there have been no clear observations of discipline or jousting for dominance, or forced behavior of any kind (except when moms corral or command their young ones), and unlike the scars found on humpbacks and sperm whales, there's no sign that they fight at all.

It's apparently all done with subtle suggestions based on the profound influence of the longest-lived, most richly experienced females. K7 must have been highly regarded as one of the most reliable sources of traditional knowledge among Southern Resident orcas. May she be remembered respectfully and fondly by humans and orcas alike.
Howard Garrett, Orca Network

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Bs - Blackberry, Blossom, Belted Kingfisher

Last night I took this photo of a female belted kingfisher right off my front porch. Earlier this year the pair wasn't around much, but I've seen more of them in the last few days. I'd like to get some closer shots, but I took a grand total of one frame before she flitted away last night.

Another beautiful summer day, another beautiful encounter with the whales. My best photo of the day (above) is of Blackberry (J27) swimming alongside his mom, Blossom (J11).

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Close Encounters of the Whale Kind

The whale karma has been with me this week, that's the only way to put it. There are plenty of other things I want to post about - I still haven't even gotten to my thoughts about Joe Gaydo's marine bird lecture - but the whales just aren't giving me a chance. Not that I'm complaining....

This morning was another brilliant encounter with Js and Ls from the boat. We left the dock with no whale report, but came back with one of our most memorable viewings of the season.

We pride ourselves on the Western Prince for not only adhering to but setting an example for the WWOANW guidelines for wildlife viewing, which includes maintaining a 100 yard distance between us and the whales whenever possible. Still, as the whales like to remind us on days like today, it really is up to the them how close of an encounter we have.

As we were setting up to parallel a family group of orcas, two males veered off a little more in our direction. It looked like they would pass alongside and then behind us, so we cut our engines and stayed put. All the sudden on their next surfacing, they were heading directly at us, already within 100 yards. From up on the bow, we could see them approaching underwater. I could see the saddle patch of the first heading right for the middle of our starboard side, then fade as the whale dove a little deeper so his fin could clear our boat as he swam underneath us. I could see the eyepatch and white side markings of the second as he swam under our bow, and one customer exclaimed, "He's blowing bubbles!"

Everyone wanted to know which whales had decided to come over and check us out, but they stayed underwater for 50-75 yards as they quickly swam on. Then, just as we were about to lose site of them underwater, one came up and broke the surface, his tall, wavy dorsal fin immediately identifying him as Ruffles (J1). I was amazed at how hard he was to recognize head on as he swam towards us, but from behind there was no mistaking him! The above photo of Ruffles was taken earlier this summer from the Western Prince.

Ruffles and the other unidentified male joined up with another large group of J-Pod, and we followed them for another 15-20 minutes as they began to pick up speed and head towards San Juan Island. My heart was pounding a little faster the whole time as I fully comprehended that two whales had passed right under our boat! The whole bunch was active, porpoising and tail-slapping, and we saw two full body breaches right before we peeled off and headed back to Friday Harbor.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Foggy Morning with Js

This morning on the Western Prince we departed Friday Harbor with a report of an unidentified group of orcas heading north near Eagle Point. It was foggy as we headed out through Cattle Pass and started heading north.

With visibility of about 300 yards, it was a surprise when a tall dorsal fin came piercing through the water off our port side - heading back south towards us! We cut our engines as whales started to appear on all sides of us. The water was so glassy calm in blended in with the foggy gray skies, and the captain dropped the hydrophone in the water. S1s and S7s - it must be J-Pod! How cool: it was one of the few times where I get to identify the pod by the unique sounds of their repertoire before getting a good look at any saddle patches to confirm who I was seeing.

My identification was soon confirmed, however, when Polaris (J28) pulled offshore and passed right by us. She's the one in the photo above with the distinct tear in the middle of her dorsal fin. Swimming just on the other side of her was Talequah (J35), her younger sister.

For the next 45 minutes we got nice looks at two of J-Pod's young males, Mike (J26) and Blackberry (J27). Their family members were around as well as they mingled and foraged, giving us several opportunities to drop the hydrophone on this quiet morning and listen to their clear vocalizations with little to no background noise.