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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Orca Watcher Returns to Watching Orcas

Despite my fascination and plethora of blog posts featuring all the creatures and plants great and small I've been observing, the original species that drew me to the San Juan Islands is the killer whale. I first saw wild orcas on a family trip to Alaska in 1997, and it was love at first sight. I grew up in Portland, Oregon and did some research to see if I could find orcas closer to home, and that's when I discovered the San Juans off the northwest coast of Washington. Our first family trip here was in the summer of 2000, and I have been back every summer, pretty much staying longer and longer each year until this year when I never left and stayed the whole winter.

The Southern Resident orcas, made of J-, K- and L-Pods and totaling some 85 or so whales, are not migratory in that they do not travel to and from a breeding ground and feeding ground. That is how they got their name "resident", because the core of their range is always centered around the San Juan Islands, or more accurately the Fraser River where their primary food source, salmon, is centered. The whales are within 40-50 miles of here pretty much every day from sometime in May until sometime in October. In the winter, they still visit occasionally, but spend more time in the Pacific Ocean, and as we've learned recently, K and L Pods travel down to off the Oregon and north-central California coasts with some regularity. Columbia River salmon stocks probably make up a large portion of their diet, as well.

This year was a bit of an anomaly in that it was the first April since 1977 that J-Pod was not seen in the area, and were in fact gone for 44 days before returning to the area May 4th with the K13 matriline in K-Pod (also odd, since K-Pod rarely splits up in this fashion). While the whales have been in the area daily since then, they have spent a lot of time north of San Juan Island closer to the Fraser River, and I have missed my few opportunities to see them from shore. (If you want to orient yourself a little bit, check out this map I made. The whales come in from the ocean via the Strait of Juan de Fuca and have spent a lot of the last two weeks in the south Strait of Georgia at the top of the map, which is near the mouth of the Fraser River). But today, I finally got to see the residents for the first time this season when I was out at Lime Kiln!

A very, very spread out J-Pod took no less than two hours to pass Lime Kiln. The whales were in no hurry at all, and it was very peaceful just to watch them slowly surfacing between their long dives. There are hydrophones you can listen to on the web, but the cool thing about the hydrophones at Lime Kiln is you can listen to them live on 88.1 FM within a mile or so of the lighthouse. I bought an Mp3 player with radio recording ability solely for this purpose, and made a four minute recording of their echolocating before the batteries died (Whoops, never thought to recharge it after it sat in the closet all winter....). You can hear the recording here.

J19 ~ Shachi ~ 30 year old female

I also got my first look at the two new J-Pod calves that were first confirmed in February, so are just a few months old. J44 was born to J17 Princess Angeline, and J45 was born to J14 Samish.

Three month old calf J45 surfacing in front of big sister J37, Hy'shqa, who is eight years old.

I knew I missed the whales during the winter, but I never really realized how much until seeing them again today. It's a unique place to watch wildlife here, because literally every animal is known, named, and recognizable. There are no population estimates - we know the exact numbers, and even their ages and family trees. Seeing them again is truly like being reunited with old friends, and I'm glad they're back.


Unknown said...

Some day I will get lucky to see this in person, wow, it should be an amazing experience watching these wonderful Orcas

Warren Baker said...

it's thanks to people like you, with your dedication, that we all can find out about these special creatures. Well done Monika, keep up the good work

Michele Wassell said...

Great posting.. I have been home sick since I left there last July.. I can't wait to be back in less than a month! I just hope they are around during my visit... :):)

Monika said...

I'm glad to share these amazing critters with all of you who haven't seen them before or can't be here right now. Michele, how long do you get to spend up here? I would love to meet you!

Unknown said...

Hi Monika,
I am arriving on June 14th and leaving on June 21st. It would be great to meet!