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Friday, June 26, 2009

Western Explorer Trip - J-Pod in Swanson Channel

This morning we had an awesome trip on the Western Explorer. We knew J and K Pods had headed north last night, but when we left the dock no one had spotted anything yet this morning. That quickly changed, as before we even pulled all the way into San Juan Channel Captain Ivan was getting phone calls about whales southbound from Andrew's Bay. Wait, there's also whales at Turn Point, heading north! And something about whales at Active Pass? With all these conflicting reports no one was really sure which whales were where. All that was clear as we pulled out of Spieden Channel into Haro Strait was that at least some of the residents were heading down the south side of San Juan Island. So our choice was - pursue seeing these residents, or try to catch up with the mystery whales up north, which were now reported to be heading up Swanson Channel towards Active Pass. (Confused about all these locations? Check out my map, which has most of them on it. The one that's missing is Active Pass which is at the north end of Swanson Channel.) Ivan, who always has a sense of adventure, decided to take us north. It turned out to be a great decision!

As we started seeing whales in the distance Ivan said, "Okay, let's get some IDs!" We weren't even sure if we were viewing the fish-eating residents or marine mammal-feeding transients at this point, and we were prepared to use bincoulars to try and get close looks at saddle patches. It turned out not to be that difficult, however, as the very first whale that we saw was big male J1 Ruffles - the oldest and most easily recognizable whale in the Southern Resident Community.

J1 Ruffles with J14 Samish

The orcas had been spread out, but soon after we got on scene they started grouping up. The other two boats that were there left shortly after we arrived, and we ended up having J-Pod "all to ourselves" for most of our visit. It was pretty special to see them in tight groups, surfacing all together, and slowly traveling northward.

Our best looks were definitely of the J14 family group who was traveling with J1 Ruffles, J2 Granny, and J8 Spieden - who at estimated ages of 58, 98, and 76, respectively, are among the oldest members of the community.

J1 and the J14 family group, with one whale giving a tail slap. The J14s are made up of mother J14 Samish, son J30 Riptide, daughter J37 Hy'shqa, daughter J40 Suttles, and newborn calf J45.

What made it especially cool was that these "elders" of J-Pod were traveling with the group's youngest member, calf J45 who was born to J14 Samish and was first documented in February of 2009.

The three dorsal fins in this picture belong to, from left to right, J1 Ruffles, J2 Granny, and J14 Samish. You can just see the head of calf J45 poking up in the back of the group. When born, this calf was probably about six feet long and 400 pounds, but it sure looks tiny next to its full-sized relatives!

We were able to ID most of J-Pod. "The Cookies" - J22 Oreo and her two offspring J34 Doublstuf and J38 Cookie - were definitely there. I saw J19 Shachi and her only calf, four year old J41 Eclipse. The three siblings of J27 Blackberry, J31 Tsuchi, and J39 Mako were also traveling together, which was good to see since they lost their mother J11 Blossom last year. It really seems like Blackberry, an 18 year old male, has taken younger brother Mako, who is 6, "under his wing". There was a small group of whales close to shore and pretty far away from us which I think was the J17 family group, so the only family we didn't see for sure were the J16s. They are a bit of a rebel matriline as over the last few years they have spent some time traveling separate from the rest of J-Pod, so I'm not sure whether they were there and we just missed them or if they were off somewhere else.

A youngster, perhaps J40 Suttles, does a half breach in front of male J30 Riptide.

Not too long ago, there weren't many fully adult males in the Southern Resident Community - just J1 in J-Pod and two L-Pod males. It is great to see so many tall male dorsal fins these days. here J1 Ruffles is seen with J30 Riptide, and Riptide's mom J14 Samish.

The whales didn't make much progress while we watching them, traveling basically from Moat (spelling?) to Otter Bay. They were fighting against an ebb tide as they headed north, but were most likely heading for Active Pass. The last I heard, it ended up being K-Pod who went south, and they were hanging out off the south end of San Juan Island.

J1 Ruffles (featured in so many photographs because its hard NOT to snap the camera when his impressive dorsal fin comes to the surface) traveling with J8 Spieden, with her characteristic stubby dorsal fin.


Staci said...

Thanks for the great blog Monika - this is awesome and your pictures are fabulous

Got to see about 30 last Sunday on southwest side of San Juan island and still feeling the after effects.

I look forward to more of you posts and blogs - thank you so very much for sharing your passion


Monika said...

Staci - Thank you! I'm glad they were around when you were here. It really is an experience that stays with you, isn't it? I know so many people who make the trip to the San Juans from all over the country/world each year in order to "recharge their batteries", and a lot of that has to do with these very special whales.

Unknown said...

Just wanted to leave you my thanks for your wonderful photographic updates. Being a midwesterner I have never been to the Washington State/BC waters. My story about how the top predeator of planet earth's oceans worked their way into my heart is a long one. Suffice it to say J2 (Granny) and her brother J1 (Ruffles) have held a very deep interest for me for over 16 yrs. Thank you once again for the leaps and bounds my heart takes when viewing your photos!
JoAnn Benedix

mt1912 said...

hi monika,
im tey from the philippines... i like your blog.. i love orcas too.. good thing i stumble in your blog.. looking forward for you other blogs regarding killerwhale...
thank u!!!!