For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fall Colors

I went out to Hillsboro today in search of a rare emperor goose that has been sighted in the area. Unfortunately, it ended up being a "wild goose chase" - literally - but it was worth the drive just to see the beautiful fall colors out there. Here are a few of my favorite shots from walking around in the rain this morning. Tomorrow, it's back to the island!

Happy Halloween!

I'm down in Portland this week to celebrate my birthday with some family and friends, but from what I hear it sounds like the whales have still been around the islands quite a bit. K-Pod has been around pretty consistently, and Js and Ls showed up yesterday to make it two consecutive years there's been a superpod on my birthday (that I've missed, of course!) Oh well, you just can't see them all, and I've been having a fun time down in the city as well as getting a lot of "mainland" chores done that you just can't do on the island.

This photo is of some pumpkins we carved on the island last week. When we turned all the lights off with candles inside, it was amazing to see that the pumpkins themselves glowed bright, even from behind on the uncarved side! By balancing my camera on the back of a chair with a long exposure time I was able to get a picture that shows how eerie the effect was. I wonder if these pumpkins had a thinner rind than normal? I don't ever remember the pumpkins themselves glowing so much! In any case, I hope everyone has a happy Halloween!!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Northern Grasshopper

This past summer, this beautiful grasshopper held still long enough for me to take some cool macro shots. She (I learned you can tell male and female grasshoppers apart by the shape of the base of their abdomen) was perched on a bench, basking in the sun, something grasshoppers apparently like to do. By scouring through internet grasshopper field guides, I determined which of the hundreds of North American grasshopper species she is: she's a member of Melanoplus borealis, a species whose scientific name translates directly into their common name, Northern Grasshopper.

The Northern Grasshopper inhabits much of the northern United States, dipping down a bit in the central US, as well as occurring across a large portion of Canada. The bright red hind tibiae (lower portion of hind legs) are one of the characteristic field marks. I like this labeled sketch of grasshopper anatomy. I do a lot of bird identification, but it's always interesting and challenging to try and identify a species of a genus or family I'm unfamiliar with, whether it be a tree, insect, flower, or mammal. Some of my favorite labs in my college biology courses dealt with taxonomy and using or developing identification keys to narrow down species IDs. The true biologist and naturalist in me emerges, since thinking about species variation and taxonomy raises questions not only about evolution and species diversification and the processes that cause speciation to occur, but also about how we see and classify the world around us.

This grasshopper is just another one of the many inhabitants of the Mar Vista grasslands. The petition to preserve Mar Vista is only 19 signatures shy of our goal of 500, so please sign if you haven't already and encourage your friends to sign today so progress on protecting this special property can be made!

Monday, October 27, 2008

40% Off Zazzle Calendars

If you're waiting til closer to the new year to buy your calendars, here's a head's up for you: early bird buyers on Zazzle can get a 40% discount on their calendar order if they purchase between now and October 31st! Just enter the coupon code "CALENDARSAVE" at checkout. Here's a link to my 2009 Zazzle calendar, Wildlife of the San Juan Islands, featuring photos of whales, foxes, deer, and more, all taken this summer. They make great holiday gifts!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

When the Stars Align....

As a wildlife photographer, there's always certain holy grails you're after, or ultimate goals for that perfect photograph. Some common ones for local whale photographers are "double" behaviors, where you get two whales doing the same thing at the same time, like a double spyhop; a resting line of whales, where you get lots of dorsal fins all lined up in one shot; or, that perfect breach shot.

One photo I've always dreamed of getting is an orca breaching in front of Mt. Baker. The circumstances have come close several times, where I have my camera and I'm on the boat in a place where we see the whales between us and Mt. Baker in the distance, but the breach has never happened....until now!

The last time I was on the Western Prince, when we figured out K42 was a boy, I was so excited about the rambunctious youngster that I decided to dedicate my post fully to that. But, the stars also aligned so that we saw a whale breach right in front of Mt. Baker - not once, not twice, but four times in a row! Here's one of my favorite shots from the sequence:

It's exciting to finally have the "Mt. Baker breach" photo checked off my goal list after years of hoping for everything to come together at the right time. It's an awesome image....but the mountain is a little faint from the haze that afternoon. And it would be more dramatic if shot from a closer angle. So, really, the Mt. Baker breach will stay on this photographer's wish list, because I'll still be hoping to refine it and capture an even better shot of the same behavior. But that's kind of what keeps us going back as photographers, isn't it? Always in pursuit of that perfect photo.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Good Old Fashioned "Whale Chase"

When I went to work in the Western Prince office this morning, I heard that K-Pod had last been sighted west of here heading west, looking like they were heading back out to the open ocean. I was invited to go out on the boat, and I was tempted because it's one of our last trips of the season, but I had some things to do in town so I declined. As soon as I got home from my errands, however, I got a text message saying that you could hear K-Pod over the Lime Kiln hydrophones! Sure enough, as I tuned in I could hear the characteristic high-pitched S16 and S17 calls of K-Pod. Knowing I might be too late, I quickly gathered my stuff, rushed to my car, and drove to the west side of the island to try and see them.

Big adult male Lobo (K26). As the rest of the pod grouped up, he broke off and started traveling parallel to the group but further offshore. We often see another big adult male (Ruffles J1) do this same thing.

As I reached Land Bank, I pulled over to scan Haro Strait. Nothing. As I stood there with binoculars however, another car pulled over, then two, three, four! It turns out I wasn't the only one who had gotten word on the whales! I ended up being joined by a local homeowner and whale lover, a research scientist, a whale watch boat captain, and a couple on vacation from Idaho. As we talked about where the whales could be, we got word that they had already traveled quickly north. So, most of us decided to caravan in our cars up to San Juan County Park further north to see what we could see. This, by the way, is exactly how I define a whale chase - driving from point to point along the island to try and catch up with the whales!

At San Juan County Park we could see the whales in the distance heading away from us. "Oh well, at least I got to see them at all," I thought. But then Jim Maya, the aforementioned whale watch boat captain, offered to take us out on his boat for a short visit with the whales. How could I refuse?!

As we met up with K-Pod, the first two whales we saw were Georgia (K11) and Onyx (L87), a male who has been traveling with K-Pod this year. Soon after we arrived the whales grouped up. and started heading back south. The lighting was perfect and I got a chance to get some great ID shots, so I figured out we definitely saw most of the K-Pod family groups including:
  • Mom Lea (K14) with son Lobo (K26), 5 year old Yoda (K36), and little K42
  • Mom Sequim (K12) with daughter Sekiu (K22), grandson Tika (K33), and 5 year old Rainshadow (K37)
  • Mom Spock (K20) with her little one Comet (K38)
  • Brothers Scoter (K25) and Cali (K34)
Noticeably absent was Cappuchino (K21), the biggest adult male in K-Pod, but he has been known to travel with L-Pod at times and I suspect that's where he and his sister Raggedy (K40) may be. The only other K-Pod whales I didn't identify in my photos are, coincidentally (haha), some of the ones that are most difficult to identify with fairly non-descript solid saddle patches - so I suspect the other four of them could easily have been in there.

I love seeing whales in October! We even got to see three breaches in a row before we headed back to the harbor:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Autumn on the Island

We don't quite get the spectacular fall colors they do in some other parts of the US, but autumn is still a beautiful time of year here. The big leaf maples in places like British Camp National Historic Park, where I went for a walk today, are at their peak of vibrant yellow. I took the above photo from the little dock in Garrison Bay, looking back towards some of the historic British Camp buildings. It was a pretty gray day so a lot of my photos were turning out dark. In order to use some longer exposure times to brighten the pictures, I decided to use some "natural tripods" by resting my camera on logs, fences, etc. One of my favorites is the one above, where I ended up really liking the effect of seeing the wood from the dock where I was resting the camera.

It turned out to be a very peaceful walk. I didn't see anyone else on the trail, and the only sounds I heard were of the birds all around me: the peeping of golden-crowned kinglets flitting around in the bushes, the rattling sound of an irritated kingfisher, the high-pitched cry of a bald eagle perched atop a tree, and the guttural yelling back and forth of the ravens.

Before I left, the sun even poked through the clouds, casting a beautiful golden light and long shadows over the landscape:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

K42: It's a Boy!

I got a call this morning from the Western Prince office saying they had spotted orcas - did I want to come out on the trip this afternoon? Sightings really start to dwindle this time of year as the whales spend more and more time out in the open ocean, so the answer was easy: of course!! Little did I know when we left the dock what a special day it would end up being.

We met up with K-Pod (and the honorary K-Pod member this summer, L87) in Rosario Strait slowly traveling north. It was a beautiful afternoon on the water....crisp, cool fall air; calm seas; a few sun breaks here and there; and only one or two other boats on the water. We quickly spotted the tall dorsal fin of a male, and soon saw that he was traveling with a little calf. After a few viewings, we determined it was Lobo (K26) with his youngest sibling K42, a calf that was first seen in early June of this year.

K42 traveling with big brother, Lobo (K26)

We don't often know the gender of young whales for some time. While adults can be told apart by the size and shape of their dorsal fin, this sexual dimorphism doesn't become apparent until the whales hit puberty around 12 years of age, when males get what we call a "fin sprout" and start growing a taller fin. The only other way to tell genders apart is by their black and white belly markings, but as you can imagine its not too often you get a good look at their underside AND know which whale it is you're looking at. Today, though, this little calf was very rambunctious, and we soon realized we may have a chance to see its belly and figure out if it was a boy or a girl. Sure enough, as it did a backwards breach with its belly facing us, and as the camera snapped we all realized that K42 is a boy!!

K42 showing us his belly

The differences in belly markings between male and female orcas. Males have a long, narrow white marking with a single black mark in the middle indicating the genital slit. Females have a wider, rounder white marking, with three black marks in the middle indicating the genital slit and the two mammory slits (hard to see in this photo - two faint dots).

It's really a rare experience and an honor to be the first ones to figure out the gender of a new baby whale. All the population data on the Southern Resident killer whales is kept by the Center for Whale Research, the group that conducts the official census of the population, so while it won't be "official" until the Center confirms it, we all will pass our photos along so our sighting can be confirmed.

K42, who breached dozens of times throughout the course of the afternoon, left us all with a sense of optimism as we departed to head home: surely if the youngest member of this endangered population has the spunk and energy to be so playful on this October afternoon, there's hope that everything will be all right for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Adult males don't usually play as much as calves, but K42's spirited attitude must have started to rub off on his big brother. Here, Lobo (K26), on the right, rolls at the surface with his big pectoral fin in the air while little K42 completes another breach off to his left.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Potential Good News for Lolita

You may or may not have heard of Lolita, an L-Pod whale that has been in captivity for an astounding 38 years. The local Southern Resident pods that I post about were subject to many live captures during the 1960s and 1970s, taken from their stable family groups to be put into marine parks and aquariums around the world. During this time more than 40 animals were removed from this population, and more killed in the capture process, leaving barely over 70 whales when population studies began in the early 70s. While local wild orcas can live to upwards of 50 years for males and upwards of 90 years for females, captive orcas rarely survive longer than a few years. Between small tanks, poor social situations, and boredom and depression, it simply isn't a stimulating life for them. Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida (also known as the Miami Seaprison), has somehow defied all odds and survived as the longest-lived orca in captivity, in a tank not even as deep as she is long, and since 1980, without any other orcas. She still makes L-Pod's unique vocalizations.

While it is unknown who Lolita's mother was, we do know that she was a member of the L25/L12 subgroup. Several of her immediate family members are still alive, such as L25, L77, L94, and L41, pictured above.

There have been efforts over the last few decades to "Free Lolita", removing her from her captive life and preparing her for reintroduction to the wild, much like occurred with Keiko, the star of the Free Willy films. Her owners in Miami haven't even been willing to enter in discussions about this proposal, refusing even when millions of dollars have been offered for her freedom. This battle often seemed futile, even despite support from many actors in Hollywood as of last winter, but yesterday something happened that may ignite the calls for her release. A young college student in Miami worked with Orca Network to report on Lolita's situation on iReport, where members of the public can generate and post their own news stories. The stories that get the most views and comments have a chance to be aired on CNN.

Within a day, Lolita's story got hundreds of hits, and not only was it shown nationally on CNN, it was shown every hour, on the hour, all day yesterday. Hopefully, this coverage will lead to more coverage, and the public awareness of her plight will generate enough pressure on the Miami Seaquarium to finally release her and give her a chance to make it back to her family members in L-Pod. Again, a lot of the money is there via donors from Hollywood - the Aquarium just has to agree to let her go.

You can learn more about Lolita's situation from Orca Network's captivity page. I also highly recommend the compelling and very emotional movie, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nutty Crows and Bluebird Update

Over the last few weeks, as I've been walking to and from town, I've noticed crows flying around with large green nuts (they look like walnuts to me) in their mouths. They angle up high, drop the nuts onto the asphalt, and then chase them along the pavement, presumably hoping that the fall cracked the outer shell to reveal the tasty insides of the nut. I always love to see innovative crows in action, but I just haven't seen them have any success with this particular endeavor. So one day, when a crow was flying up my street and dropped his nut just in front of me, I decided to help him out. I walked over to the nut (he flew off to watch from the safety on a nearby roof) and stomped on it to open it up. I thought it would be harder than it was, so I flattened it pretty good, but I hoped the crow would still be able to enjoy it. After walking a ways up the street, I turned back to check, and sure enough, the crow was back on the ground, scooping up and swallowing the flattened nutty insides.

In other birdy news, I reported my recent sighting of western bluebirds to the local recovery project and heard back from them. They were very glad to hear of my sighting. Apparently, bluebirds tend to flock up before migrating, and while early-mid October is near the end of the time frame, its still within the window that bluebirds may leave for migration. It was good to find out that it was "normal" to see them at this time, and I look forward to following the bluebird recovery on the island and hopefully see more of them next season.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Canadian Government Sued Over SRKW Protection

In an unprecedented action, eight Canadian conservation organizations have collectively filed a lawsuit against Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, claiming the government is allowing destruction of critical habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) despite the population being listed on the Species At Risk Act (SARA). One of the roles of SARA, which is similar to the United States' Endangered Species Act, is to prohibit the destruction of habitat that is vital to any of the listed species. The conservation groups, lead by Ecojustice, are filing the lawsuit in reaction to the federal government's recent claim that killer whale habitat is already protected under previous legislation and guidelines. According to an Edmonton Journal article, the response from enviornmentalists is that "the legislation is too broad and the guidelines are without teeth".

With the recent drop of the local killer whale population, this lawsuit couldn't be any more timely. Chinook salmon runs aren't recovering and some whales are showing reduced blubber reserves; the water is full of toxins, some of them on the rise; and anthropogenic oceanic noise is increasing - so it will be interesting to see how the government responds to these facts that plainly show there are major threats that need to be dealt with in terms of vital killer whale habitat.

This lawsuit will have huge impacts on many other species listed under SARA as well. The government is obviously looking for ways to avoid its obligations to listed species, and if this effort to protect such a clearly threatened population is derailed, it is unlikely any other species will fair better.

This is a critical time for these orcas, and the result of this lawsuit will be a huge factor in whether or not they are able to overcome the current threats they face. Undoubtedly, Canada's actions will also play a role in what the US does, either by giving them an excuse to opt out of further conservation measures, or, hopefully, by putting pressure on them to take action to protect killer whale habitat as well.

You can find more articles about this lawsuit on Orca Network's news page.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Porpoise Tails

Recently I was reading the Audubon Society's guide to Marine Mammals of the World, one of my favorite texts covering basic details of all cetacean species. From this I learned that you can supposedly tell the difference between male and female Dall's porpoise by the shape of their tails. The tail flukes on a female are relatively straight across, whereas the tail flukes on a male become convex along the trailing edge as they reach sexual maturity. Adult tails of both gender s have varying amounts of white "frosting" along the edges of the otherwise black flukes. Juveniles, by contrast, have uniformly gray tails that are concave along the trailing edge.

How cool! I decided to go through my photos of Dall's porpoises to see if I could spot some differences between males and females. This photo to the right seemingly shows an adult female. The tail is black with white frosting and the trailing edge is more or less straight across.

However, as I went through my photos, it looks like I only have pictures of female Dall's. This is entirely possible, since I have a fairly small set of photos where the tail shape is distinguishable, so maybe they just all happened to be females. This got me wondering, though: do females for some reason tend to bow-ride more? Or do males and females really not look all that different?

The graphic in the Marine Mammals of the World book is very distinct, but maybe it isn't that clear in wild animals. As I was researching this question further, I came across this paper, which suggests that while animals with convex tails are nearly always males, both males and females have straight tails, and little is known about how reliable this feature is at determining the age and sex class of wild animals. There are, however, other more reliable sexually dimorphic traits, such as the slope of the dorsal fin and the size of the hump in the caudal peduncle (tail stock) that gives the porpoise the look of having a "broken tail" when diving.

I thought that I should be able to differentiate between the sexes, then, using dorsal fin slant, so I went back through my porpoise photos. Unfortunately, whenever you're close enough to a Dall's porpoise to get a decent photo, they are usually speed-swimming as they bowride on the boat. This causes them to kick up a huge "rooster tail" splash, so your view of the dorsal fin is often limited, as you can see in the photo at right. where it is completley obscured by teh splash. Not exactly the best view. I guess that means I have a new challenge: photographing Dall's porpoise dorsal fins. In the meantime, as far as telling the two genders apart in the field, it's back to the drawing board.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Update on Mar Vista Petition

Thanks to help from all of you, the petition I started to help preserve the Mar Vista Resort property has reached 420 signatures over the last month! My original goal was 200, and we surpassed that quickly since so many of you started e-mailing the petition around to others. In addition, several organizations have also written letters of support to the San Juan County Land Bank and San Juan Preservation Trust. My goal is to reach 500 signers, but unfortunately over the last few days the numbers of signers has started to drop off. This means I need YOUR help to reach my goal!

Do you know anyone who loves the San Juan Islands but hasn't signed the petition yet? If so, please send the link on to them and encourage them to sign. Just click here to access the petition. We're almost there!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Saturday Bird List

A male harlequin duck in his beautiful painted plummage, a photo I took by
"digi-scoping", or using a digital camera through a telescope.

My dad surprised me by flying up from Portland to see my talk last night, so we got a chance today to go out in the chilly, but beautiful, fall weather and spend 5 hours bird-watching around the island. We went to Jackson Beach, Fourth of July Beach, Cattle Point, South Beach, American Camp, False Bay, and the docks in Friday Harbor. Altogether we saw 50 species, but the highlights were: a single long-tailed duck, which was a new life bird for both of us; a merlin, a small falcon I don't see very often, perched near Cattle Point (you can see him perched in a tree in the photo below); and a small flock of 8 western bluebirds. The western bluebirds are in the process of being reintroduced to the island, a project that started two years ago. I've never seen any of the birds until today - a surprise, since I figured they'd probably be migrating south by now.

The long-tailed duck, formerly known as an oldsquaw, is the only sea duck with a white head. The individual we saw was a male in winter plummage. It was too far away to get a photo, but my mom, who has recently gotten into sketching, drew this picture to show you what the bird we saw looked like.

Here is a complete bird list for the day:

Greater White-fronted Goose 45
Canada Goose 50
American Wigeon 15
Mallard 5
Greater Scaup 4

Harlequin Duck 14
Surf Scoter 80
White-winged Scoter 20
Long-tailed Duck 1

Bufflehead 1
Hooded Merganser 5

Red-breasted Merganser 10

California Quail 1
Pacific Loon 4

Common Loon 3
Horned Grebe 40

Red-necked Grebe 20

Double-crested Cormorant 30
Pelagic Cormorant 12
Great Blue Heron 2
Bald Eagle 5

Northern Harrier 3
Red-tailed Hawk 3

Merlin 1
Greater Yellowlegs 6

Mew Gull 15
Glaucous-winged Gull 75
Pigeon Guillemot 10

Rock Dove 1

Belted Kingfisher 4
Northern Flicker 4
American Crow 10

Common Raven 5
Chestnut-backed Chickadee 15

-breasted Nuthatch 5
Brown Creeper 1
Winter Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 8
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4
Western Bluebird 8
American Robin 6
European Starling 1

Spotted Towhee 8

Savannah Sparrow 3

Song Sparrow 8
White-crowned Sparrow 1

Golden-crowned Sparrow 2
Dark-eyed Junco 15
Red-winged Blackbird 1
House Sparrow 3

Friday, October 10, 2008

Having an Impact

I recently posted that three more whales have died this summer, making a loss of 7 whales since last November and bringing the population down to 83 animals. Obviously, this is disturbing news, but it was really bothering me for days. I finally figured out why.

First of all, one of the whales that recently died is Blossom (J11), shown in the above photo with her daughter Tsuchi (J31) and son Mako (J39). This one seemed to hit me the hardest, and I realized that its because J-Pod whales have seemed "untouchable" to me. Since I started coming here eight summers ago, the only J-Pod whale that has died was the calf, J43, born last November, a whale I never even saw. While there have been deaths in K and L Pods almost every year, the J-Pod whales are always reliably there. Even though we talk about the unfortunate and inevitable day when Ruffles (J1) and Granny (J2), the oldest male and female in the population respectively, will eventually pass - so far it hasn't happened. Additionally, these are the whales we see most often. This summer especially, K and L Pods were relatively scarce, so we get to the J-Pod whales the most and are most familiar with them.

Secondly, when you lost 7 whales out of 80-some that's a big percentage. It was bothering me that more people weren't aware of it - that the public wasn't being told through any of the mainstream media. While talking to Jeanne about this, we realized that we could take an active part in solving this problem: tell the media. So, we wrote to several local news agencies, and low and behold - it appeared as a feature story in the San Juan Journal, and is now being covered on some popular local blogs as well. Maybe there's even more coverage to come.

I hope as people find out about this sudden population decline, that they take is the warning sign it really is. These whales are probably dying because there isn't enough salmon - reports were that some of the late whales were notably malnourished before they went missing, and several other animals aren't looking good either. We don't have forever to get our act together to protect this endangered population. The first step towards getting people up-in-arms about protecting them is keeping them updated on the status of these threatened whales; then hopefully they will become involved in making sure we take action sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion: Talk This Friday

I just wanted to let you all know that I'll be giving a talk and slideshow at The Whale Museum this Friday at 7 PM. My talk will include some tips and tricks, and I will also share anecdotes of all the things you see when you watch the whales as much as I do - some amusing, some intriguing, and some mysterious. I hope to see you there.

The above photo of me and the J16s was taken earlier this summer by Jeanne, and I think perfectly captures me in the way I hope this blog does: as an Orca Watcher.

Mouflon Rams Fight

Today I got a call to work a late-season trip on the Western Prince. We headed out into the windy, choppy seas under sunny skies to see what we could find, and our most interesting encounter of the day actually involved terrestrial rather than marine mammals.

We have a bizarre island just north of San Juan called Spieden Island. A few decades ago, this island was an exotic game ranch, where people could come and hunt trophy species. The business venture didn't last very long, but attempts to round up the animals were unsuccessful so they were allowed to roam free. Three of the exotic species have now established breeding population on the island: Mouflon sheep from the middle east and western Europe, the European fallow deer, and the Japanese sika deer. We see all three species frequently from the boat as they graze on the south side of the island, but today we witnessed something I've never seen before: a fight between two of the male Mouflon rams.

Mouflon are thought to be one of the two original ancestors of all domestic sheep breeds, and are actually an endangered species in their native habitat. In 2001, they became the first endangered species to be cloned and live beyond infancy, a technique that, if refined, could change conservation management of endangered species. During the summer, males and females spend most of their time apart, but in the fall, males battle for access to groups of females.

During the battle we witnessed, the two males circled each other, often headbutting each other in the flanks rather than facing off head-to-head. A few times they descended close to the cliffs near the edge of the island, and we wondered if one or both might slip and fall off. Each time, though, they interlocked horns and walked back up to higher ground. In the end, there was a clear winner and as one ram retreated, the other one chased him far away from the rest of the herd.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Intricate Saddle Patch

I have a rotating desktop image on my laptop, so every time my computer wakes up it shows a different photo. This afternoon, a picture of L72 (Racer) popped up, and I recalled that the reason I like the photo is because you have a great detailed view of her saddle patch. She has one of the most distinct saddle patches in the Southern Resdient population. As I sat and looked at it in detail for a minute, I realized it really is a very intricate and almost artistic design. So, I thought I'd share it for you all to see as well.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"Mystery" solved!

Back in 2004, I witnessed an amazing thing as the L12 family group was traveling south towards Lime Kiln Lighthouse. One whale, either a female or a young male, came into view way ahead of the rest of the whales. It swam directly at the few of us sitting on the rocks, and stopped in the kelp bed just off of the lighthouse. Then, for the next few minutes, it stayed on the surface and continuously vocalized into the open air. It's one of the few times I've been able to identify a call type when a whale vocalizes on the surface (it was S2iii), and the only time I have ever heard a whale vocalize on the surface in succession again and again and again. Whenever the whale submerged, it continued vocalizing (as we heard over the hydrophones), and whenever it surfaced it was completely draped in kelp. It's one of the most bizarre encounters I've ever had with the whales, as it left all of us on shore asking helplessly "What are you trying to tell us?!" As the rest of the L12s came into view much farther offshore a few minutes later, the whale turned and head out, joining up with them and continuing on their way.

My friend Jeanne was there to witness it with me, and between the video she took and the photos I took we tried in vain to identify the whale. It was no use - the whale was backlit, and every time it surfaced it was so covered in kelp it was impossible to discern anything about the saddle patch. We finally let it rest and settled for the fact that we would never know who the mystery whale was.

Well, a recent project of ours has been to start developing an eyepatch guide for the whales. In addition to the saddle patch that sits just behind the dorsal fin, each whale also has a unique eyepatch. We humans don't use eyepatches all that often to ID the whales since the differences can be subtle and we don't always get a good look at their eyepatch when they surface - in the past eyepatches have pretty much just used to confirm a saddle patch ID and that's about it. The whales, on the other hand, may very whale use eyepatch shape to tell one another apart. Anyway, Jeanne and I are slowly building our eyepatch database with hope that we can ID whales who spyhop, and other instances where you just don't get a good look at the saddle. Well, today we had our first ever "eyepatch breakthrough", as Jeanne went back and looked at her video of what we've come to call the "above water vocalization incident" - it turns out the mystery whale is (how appropriate): Mystery L85!! You can watch a short video clip from this incident on Jeanne's blog here.

The above image illustrates how eyepatches can be different. The one on the left is an unusual shape. The one in the middle has some black "beauty mark" spots in the middle of it. The one on the right has indistinct edges - notice especially how along the right side it looks "smudged".

Friday, October 3, 2008

Race Rocks Sunset and Cacophony

A few weeks ago I was visiting the Race Rocks webcam, and I realized for the first time that sound actually comes through the webcam as well! That's what I get for always having my volume turned down....

From the webcam I was watching a beautiful autumn sunset and hearing a cacophony of gulls with some sea lions growling and barking in the background. I had to capture the moment to share, and I did so by taking a still image from the web cam and making a recording of the vocalizations through the built-in microphone on my computer (which picked up the sounds off my speakers).

I'm trying something new here, using iWeb's podcast feature to try and host my own audio files on a page called "Orca Watcher Sounds". This way, you should be able to go click the above link and listen to the audio clip without having to download a file and open an external application. Hopefully I can upload all my audio files there, and you can listen to any of my posted vocalizations from that one site. Let me know how this works for you!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Southern Resident Update

The Southern Residents came back into the area on the evening of September 29th and made their first fall trip down into Puget Sound. They did make their way up to the San Juans, and last night just before dusk I saw them slowly traveling way offshore looking like they were heading back out to the ocean again. It was a peaceful, chilly fall evening with the yellow and purple colors of the sunset just breaking through the solid gray clouds over the horizon. It was quiet enough that I could hear the blows, even from the whales that were too far away to see in the dimming light.

Now that it's October, the Southern Residents will probably start spending more and more time away from the inland waters, so moments like last night are to be treasured even more. The beauty of the experience was overshadowed a bit for me, however, with a rumor I heard the other day. We already know that we lost four whales this year - calf J43 that was born last November, Southern Resident matriarch K7 estimated to be in her late 90s, as well as older female L21 and youngster L101. But the other day I heard that we may have lost three more whales in the last month, with several others looking emaciated when, as the summer salmon runs come to a close, they should probably be robust and ready for the winter.

So much attention is focused on the boater traffic around the whales. Just last night I went to Kari's Soundwatch lecture at The Whale Museum, where she talked in depth about boater trends and the new regulations. It's important that vessel traffic doesn't add an additional stress to the lives of these endangered mammals, and Soundwatch does incredibly important work out there, but I wish some of the energy the public invests in their constant outcry against boats being around the whales could be redirected into the issue that I see as being the most critical to the survival of these orcas: the salmon runs that they depend on for food on a daily basis. I don't like seeing boats drive over the whales anymore than the next person, but I think many people end up getting up in arms over the minor threat they see on the surface instead of realizing the gravity of the major threat that lurks below it.

I literally begin to feel sick to my stomach when I think that we may have lost as many as 7 whales this year, and the reality of the situation is that the salmon declines probably play a major role in that statistic. Two of the orca scientists I admire the most - Alexandra Morton and Rich Osborne - have both rerouted their careers to focus on salmon issues. As I try to figure out my place in the grand scheme of things, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe I shouldn't do the same.