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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.

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