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Friday, July 31, 2009

Anacortes Ferry Terminal and a Close Look at L41

On Wednesday we headed to the mainland to meet up with some friends from Portland and catch the Seattle Mariners game versus the Toronto Blue Jays. Still in the middle of the heat wave, we ended up being part of the hottest game in Mariners history on the day where the city Seattle set a record for the hottest temperature ever reached at 103. Thank goodness for air conditioned hotel rooms!

Yesterday we got caught in traffic on the way back north (that's one thing I don't miss at all while living on the island - here in the San Juans we don't even have a traffic light, let alone rush hour) and we ended up just missing our ferry by three cars. We had a lengthy 3.5 hour wait for the next ferry, but luckily it was finally cooling down and there is a nearby beach and marsh to explore. So, camera in hand, I decided to see what I could see.

There were a lot of ring-billed gulls in and among the glaucous-winged gulls, including this one that wasn't too skittish at all:

I think there was a gull on every single piling in the bay:

Some of the pilings also have nest boxes mounted on them, which have become the residences of purple martins, two of which I could see flying overhead. Another bird highlight was a single Caspian tern. After walking the beach I decided to follow the trail into the marsh, where there was an abundance of cattails:

I also found this flowering plant that was hard to photograph in the breeze, but this shot captured it pretty well. It's bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcmara):

There are also a lot of thistles and teasels in bloom right now. These first two shots of thistle species were taken at American Camp today, and the next two are Fuller's teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) photos that were taken at the Anacortes ferry terminal:

This one had a bumble bee on it!

Today the heat wave finally broke and temperatures are back to their normal summer range of the the 60s and 70s. It was a beautiful day to get out on the water, and I did just that while working on the Western Explorer. All three pods were headed in after looping way out west last night, and we met up with the lead group. It was the L12 subpod, and strangely they were more than 8 miles ahead of the other whales!

When we got on scene they were all nicely grouped up and moving quickly towards San Juan Island. We followed them for a while, then jetted off to look at a minke whale feeding near Hein Bank. Then, before heading back to Friday Harbor, we met up with the whales again just off of South Beach. They had all spread out and were foraging, and we got a nice look at L41 Mega as he zig-zagged on by:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Magnificent Minkes and Outstanding Orcas

A real summer heat wave has hit us here in the islands. While we've "only" reached temperatures in the 90s compared to the mainland that is topping out at over 105 degrees, its certainly hot enough that it was a real pleasure to get out on the water and cool down! I never thought I would wear just a T-shirt and not the anti-exposure suit on one of our zodiac trips, but today was one of those days.

This morning on the Western Explorer trip we saw no fewer than three different cetacean species: harbor porpoise, minke whales, and orcas. For whatever reason there seems to be more minkes around this season, and Captain Ivan has a spot marked on his GPS where he's been reliably seeing them just about every day a little ways south of Salmon Bank. Today we saw three minkes out there, and got good looks at two of them. Here's the first one:

Minkes are among the smallest baleen whales at about 30 feet long. They are common worldwide but are often overlooked by whale watchers in favor of larger, more charismatic species. It does take patience to watch them - they are affectionately known as slinky minkes by the locals since they are hard to track and can go down for long dives - but they are really cool animals if you take the time to observe them. The second minke we saw was a bit smaller, probably no more than about 18 feet long indicating it was probably a young animal:

After surfacing a little ways off our starboard side it showed definite curiosity about us, as it swam along the length of the boat before surfacing right off the bow. Its not often you get to see the entire body of a whale and observe it as it swims. This little whale showed us how beautiful minkes are, with some swirled white marks on their sides and white chevrons on their pectoral fins. I just held up my camera and clicked with no idea what I would get, but in the shot below you can see one of our young passengers looking at the minke underwater. The head of the whale is to the left, and the brightest white marking you see is the chevron on the pec fin:

As we left the minkes the orcas weren't far away. All three pods were in the area this afternoon and we met up with a very spread out L-Pod. The whales were foraging in ones and twos and we got the chance to check out several different groups. The L12 subgroup spends a decent amount of time around the San Juan Islands in the summer, but the "big part" of L-Pod doesn't come in nearly as often so its always exciting to see them since we don't see the whales nearly as often.

L92 Crewser, a 14 year-old male, with his mother L26 Baba

L12 Alexis

L72 Racer, who had five year-old calf L105 Fluke close in tow

Just as I was getting home at the end of the day, I noticed a pair of hairy woodpeckers flying around the buildings above the marina. I only see this species a couple times a year around here, and had never seen one this close to home, so it was a cool sighting! They were down in the shade and a little ways off so it the photos didn't turn out great, but here's proof anyway that they were here:

Monday, July 27, 2009

K-Pod and L-Pod Sunset Trip

Tonight we had a rare evening charter aboard the Western Prince, and if this is what sunset trips are normally like we should do more of them because it was fantastic! Glassy calm waters, golden yellow skies, and, of course, fantastic whales.

We met up with K-Pod and at least part of L-Pod off the southwest side of Lopez Island. The whales were spread out and with the flat waters small groups could be seen all over the place. Many groups were active, and we were seeing lots of breaches and tail slaps. I missed photogrpahing the first five breaches we saw, but then I captured this unbelievable shot...I don't think I have ever seen a whale completely clear the water like this:

Here's a tail wave from the same little group of orcas. L72 Racer was in this group, but with the backlighting it was tough to get any other IDs:

We followed alongside L79 Skana for a little while, and got several great looks at him. With the big males you always get a "tip" (literally) of where they are going to come up since you start to see the top of their dorsal fin before they surface. It allows one as a photographer to get shots like these, where his blow is just starting to erupt from his blowhole:

What came next was truly amazing. We got a look at ALL of K-Pod traveling in one tight group together. In my photos I was actually able to ID every single whale of the pod - all 19 members of K-Pod plus honorary K-Pod member L87 Onyx. I have seen J-Pod travel in one close group like this before but I believe this is the first time I've ever seen Ks do this. It was breath-taking to watch so many dorsal fins come to the surface one after another after another.

From left to right are K13 Skagit with son K3 Cali and K40 Raggedy with brother K21 Cappuccino.

K22 Sekiu with K27 Deadhead

L87 Onyx

I shot enough close-up photos to get IDs of everyone, and then I tried to zoom out a bit to capture the sight of so many whales surfacing in a line together. The late afternoon lighting and lack of wind left the blows visible and hanging in the air, which just added to the scene:

We followed the whales all the way back to Cattle Pass, our route back home. We got one last look at them as they headed north past Cattle Point Lighthouse:

Did you join us on this or another trip with Western Prince? We always appreciate your reviews on Trip Advisor.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Foggy Mornings, Five Gulls, and Cookie in the Sunshine

During the summer we always get some mornings with fog, but it seems like there have been a lot of them lately. For our charter this morning on the Western Prince we were driving through what Captain Hobbes called "sea smoke" - very dense, low altitude fog. We couldn't see any other vessels, although we could see the blue sky above us.

Luckily, we happened to be in the right place at the right time and we got a glimpse of the southbound J-Pod in Boundary Pass in a clear area. As the whales continued on past Turn Point and back into the densest fog (one boat reported visibility of 30 feet!), this huge freighter emerged from the mists:

Here are a few more shots of recent fog, taken from Lime Kiln Lighthouse the day I saw K-Pod whales in the fog there. The first shot is looking to the north, and the second to the south:

By this afternoon's trip the fog had all burned off and sunny skies prevailed. J-Pod had made it to the south end of San Juan Island and were heading north again when we caught up with J38 Cookie, a six year old whale. We followed along him/her for quite a while, and got some nice looks at this whale that seems a little small for its age:

The other cool thing today for me as a birdwatcher was the gulls I observed. Often the only gull species we'll see is the glaucous-winged gull, but today there were four other species as well. The highlight was seeing my first Bonaparte's gulls of the season, and still in breeding plumage with their black heads! Also observed were Western gulls, immature mew gulls, and Heermann's gulls. Very cool!

Did you join us on this or another trip with Western Prince? We always appreciate your reviews on Trip Advisor.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Part of J-Pod Off Turn Point

This morning on the Western Prince we saw part of J-Pod off Turn Point, at the very northwest corner of the San Juan Islands. I thought we had a lot of whales around where we were, but I guess J-Pod was actually spread out all the way from Swanson Channel down to False Bay - well over 10 miles! We did get great looks at both J2 Granny and J1 Ruffles.

J2 Granny

J1 Ruffles surfacing with kelp trailing off his dorsal fin in front of Turn Point Lighthouse - what a nice photo op!

This is a full frame (uncropped) shot of J1 Ruffles, the oldest male in the Southern Resident Community at the age of 58 and so named because of the wavy trailing age to his dorsal fin

Ruffles was doing lots of tail slaps, including this one that flung a small piece of kelp into the air. Check out how ragged his tail looks at the edges! This guy has obviously lived through a lot.

On the way back to Friday Harbor we checked out this eagle nest on Spieden Island that has a juvenile in it who is full-sized but not quite ready to fledge.

Did you join us on this or another trip with Western Prince? We always appreciate your reviews on Trip Advisor.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Skywatch Friday and J-Pod Off Lummi Island

I've never participated in a Skywatch Friday before, but after last night's sunset it seemed like a good time to start. It started with this spectacular rainbow that occurred during the early evening drizzle:

And turned into this fabulous sunset:

Luckily by the time we left on our Western Explorer trip this morning the sun had prevailed and most of the morning fog had burned off. We met up with J and K Pods off of Lummi Island. Ks were spread out foraging, but Js were in tight groups resting, which made for some spectacular views. Here are the J14s. The big male is J30 Riptide:

Last year it seems like we hardly ever saw the whales in such tight groupings; instead they were often spread out into ones and twos. It's been much more common this year. Here is another shot of the J14 family group, with little calf J45 right in the middle:

J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny used to be off on their own a lot, but this year they've traveled a lot with the J14 family group. They are all directly related as J14 Samish and J2 Granny's grandaughter, but I don't recall ever seeing them together this much in years past. Maybe the new calf has captured the interest of the older whales. In any case, it's always fun to see Ruffles and Granny, the oldest male and female in the Southern Resident community, traveling side by side:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

When the Stars Align

A couple of times a season there are the shore-based passbys where everything just comes together - you're in the right place at the right time with camera (and fully charged battery) in hand when the whales not only pass close to shore but are active and playful. This afternoon was one of those times.

It always starts with a rush of adrenaline when you see a line of whales heading right at you:

Your heart is pounding with anticipation because you know you're about to be just yards away from a killer whale in its natural environment. You don't even dare to hope for more than a close encounter with a wild whale when all of a sudden they erupt into a flurry of surface activity. Often you don't know where to point the camera, or when you do, you're a second too late, so you get a lot of crooked, off-center action shots like this cartwheel:

I'm lucky to have spent a lot of time observing the whales over the last many summers, and that experience has helped me to match my timing to theirs when photographing them. Here is a whale just landing from a breach:

And the splash that erupted about half a second later:

When a Southern Resident orca breaches once, chances are they may breach multiple times. So while I just got the landing of the first breach, I was poised and ready for the second one. This is probably the closest I have ever been to a breaching whale. I had my lens zoomed out to a measly 100 mm for this shot, one of my best of the year:

Sexual activity often accompanies this type of socialization, especially when multiple pods are present. The whale on the right is on his back, pec fins in the air, and his partially extended pink "sea snake" is visible. Interestingly, there was a little calf right in the middle of all of this, who is seen surfacing on the left! Orcas, like most dolphins, are not only promiscuous breeders but social ones as well, being the only group of animals outside of the great apes to engage in sexual behavior for the sheer pleasure of it.

Today J and K Pods had just met up, so instead of traveling in their "set" family groups, the whales were all mixed up. Identification is much more difficult since you can't use typical associations to figure out who you're looking at in a group, but its always fun to see who is deciding to hang out with who. Here, K12 Sequim is traveling with J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny. My second favorite shot of the day:

Even the older Ruffles gave in to his playful side today, as he gave a big tail slap on this dive:

The play continued on this group traveling on. Ruffles is on the right and has a piece of kelp draped from his dorsal fin like a flag. Another whale is swimming upside down and tail slapping:

Sometimes only one or two whales will pass right close to shore, if any do at all, but today group after group of them came right by us. Next was part of the K13 family group traveling with the J14s. The two matriarchs surfaced together here, with K13 Skagit tailslapping right beside J14 Samish.

Sometimes when there are this many whales around its hard to know just how many animals are in each group. You think there's just two or three, and then they all come to the surface together and you're surprised at how many fins there are! Here are the J14s with part of the K13s as they continued on their way. I'm always awed when I see this many fins at the surface at the same time:

Also, since I know not all my blog readers are familiar, I should explain the names of the whales a bit more. The Southern Resident Community of killer whales is a population comprised of J-Pod, K-Pod, and L-Pod, who all together total 85 animals. These whales hang out off the coastal waters of Washington and British Columbia pretty consistently from May-September, feeding on the salmon that are running to the Fraser River just north of Vancouver, BC.

Every whale is given both an alphanumeric designation (J1) and a name (Ruffles). The alphanumeric designation indicates the order in which they were identified in their pod, so J1 was the first whale identified in J-Pod, and new calves are given successive numbers added on to that, so the new J-Pod calves this year are J44 and J45. After a whale survives its first year of life its given a name through The Whale Museum as part of their Orca Adoption Program. Every pod is essentially a family group made up of several related matrilines, and a matriline is a female and all of her offspring. So when I talk about the J14s, for instance, I'm referring to J14 Samish, (the mom) and all of her offspring.