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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Western Explorer Trip: J-Pod off Eagle Point

This morning I went out as naturalist on the Western Explorer, and we truly experienced the full range of wildlife the San Juan Islands have to offer. On our way down San Juan Channel we saw three adult bald eagles, and then many dozens of harbor seals hauled out on Whale Rocks. As we pulled out into the straits we took a wide berth out and around before heading towards the known location of the orcas, hoping to pick up some minke whales. Indeed, we saw at least two: one small one near Salmon Bank, that we found again on the way home with a group of harbor porpoise, and another one just off of Eagle Point. In terms of sea birds, throughout the day we saw glaucous-winged gulls, pelagic and double-crested cormorants, rhinocerous auklets, a pair of oystercatchers, and a common murre. The highlight of the day, however, was, not unpredictably, the orcas.

We met up with J-Pod on the west side of San Juan Island heading south between False Bay and Eagle Point. They were pretty spread out and doing some foraging - lunging, circling, and diving in pursuit of fish. What was cool was that the little groups of foraging whales also seemed to throw in some socializing, as we saw lots of splashing and rolling around at the surface, too.

The first whale we came across was the young adult male J27 Blackberry, who is 18 years old. He was the first whale I adopted way back when, and I always enjoy seeing him because he and his pod-mate J26 Mike are the first two young males I really watched grow up. When I first started coming here years ago, they were still juveniles, but since I've been here they've gone through puberty and reached maturity, which involves the characteristic "fin sprout" of young males where their fin grows from the three-foot-tall dorsal fin of females and juveniles to the 5-6 foot-tall dorsal of the adult male. It's so cool to see how tall his fin has gotten!

J27 Blackberry

Oftentimes, the adult males aren't as surface active as some of the other whales, meaning you don't see as many breaches, spyhops, cartwheels, etc. from them. Today, however, we saw four big spyhops from Blackberry. Our best guess is that they spyhop to see what's going on above the surface of the water. I wonder if he was checking us out, while we were checking him out?

Spyhop by J27 Blackberry. He looks nice and fat which is great to see! Hopefully he's getting lots to eat.

One more shot of J27 Blackberry, just breaking the surface as he comes up for a breath.

After Blackberry went by, another group of 3 whales, including a smaller youngster, headed towards us. The lighting wasn't the best so it was hard to get IDs on them, but I'm pretty sure it included J38 Cookie, who is six years old, and Cookie's cousin J32 Rhapsody, a 13 year-old female who most often hangs out with her aunt and cousins since she lost her own mother as a calf. They were a rambunctious group today, and although the picture below is a little blurry, it was the only breach we saw today so I thought I would include it.

Breach by J38 Cookie

Cookie is kind of an interesting whale. I hate to call a whale "it", but we still don't know if it's a male or a female. The only way we can tell is either by the whale reaching sexual maturity and getting the fin sprout of a male or giving birth to a calf, or by seeing the whale's underbelly markings, since the black and white patterns are slightly different on males and females. Cookie isn't old enough for the former and the latter hasn't happened yet so we just don't know. Additionally, Cookie is pretty small for a six-year-old, and just doesn't seem to be growing as most other whales that age have. Just like people, different whales are different sizes, so maybe J38 will just have a late growth spurt.

Finally, right before it was time to leave, the last group of whales we were going to view passby turned and started porpoising (speed swimming) in our direction! They ended up passing right by us pretty quickly, but one did a couple lunges right near us. It's always hard to get a good photo of a whale porpoising because it happens so fast (they're swimming up to 35 mph!) but this one turned out pretty good, if a little off-center:


Unknown said...

This should have been an amazing sighting and experience. I enjooyed this post throughly, Thanks for sharing it with us...Thomas

Heather said...

That second photo is absolutely incredible, and I also love the photo of the breach. They are just so beautiful! Lucky you to observe them so closely.