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Friday, July 10, 2009

Double Trip, Double Superpod

This morning was one of those days we left the dock without an orca report. The word was the resident orcas had all headed out to the open ocean, as they do from time to time throughout the season, and no one had seen them coming back in. We decided to head south to check out an area where several minke whales have been seen lately doing a lot of lunge feeding at the surface, but just as we pulled out of Cattle Pass we got the word we were all waiting for – there was a large group of orcas heading towards San Juan Island! The bad news was they were still quite a ways off, well west of Victoria on Vancouver Island, in fact, but we decided to move towards them in hopes of catching up with them.

No one was quite sure which orcas they were, or if they were even residents or transients, but by the time we got on scene it was quite apparent we had all three pods (a superpod) traveling together. There were groups of dorsal fins no matter which direction you looked! We got a nice look at the J14s traveling with J1 and J2, along with the K11s and K12s traveling together with the city of Victoria in the background. We saw a lot of breaches and cartwheels in a row.

The K11s with Victoria in the background - this one's worth clicking for a larger view.

An orca cartwheeling - or launching its tail end up into the air over its front end. The head of the whale is on the right, you can see the dorsal fin on its back, and its tail is concealed in the splash its making.

Of course it was during all this that my camera battery died – and I committed the photographer’s worst sin of not having a back-up with me. So I enjoyed the rest of the experience without the camera, and with a happy boat we headed back to Friday Harbor.

On the morning trip we picked up the whales west of Trial Island - just about as far west as we will ever travel on one of our trips. This is the lighthouse on Trial Island.

As we set off again in the afternoon, we wondered if the second trip could possibly be as good since we saw so many whales traveling together in the morning. I had a feeling because my camera was out of commission, however, we would see something good, and I was right.

The whales had still been traveling closer to San Juan Island and by the time we pulled out of Cattle Pass they were right in front of us, hanging out just off South Beach. The first whale we came across was K21 Cappuccino, who seemed to be hanging out by himself doing some foraging. He was down on a long dive, and in the meantime his sister K40 Raggedy gave us a really nice pass and we could clearly see the notches on the trailing edge of her dorsal fin that are her namesake. Suddenly Cappuccino surprised us and actually swam right under the boat, surfacing first on one side, then on the other.

K21 Cappuccino - I eked out a few more pictures from my battery, which had rested for a few hours.

As Cappuccino and Raggedy moved on, we started to follow a small group of L-Pod whales. A mother and calf were traveling side by side close to shore, and we watched as the calf breached six times in a row. Then mom got into it, as well, and they two of them rolled and splashed at the surface as they continued towards Cattle Point Lighthouse. “Hmm,” we thought, “They are heading right for Cattle Pass!” I mentioned in my last post how unusual it is for them to travel so close to shore there, but today they did something even more unusual – they actually entered Cattle Pass and started swimming north up San Juan Channel!!

This was especially great for us as this was the route back to Friday Harbor, so we followed along as the first group of whales, including big male L41 Mega, entered the channel. Before long, it seemed like there are L-Pod whales everywhere, all heading up the channel.

It’s unusual to see the whales in San Juan Channel, though it does happen a couple of times a season. Usually they stay out in the larger straits, presumably because that’s where more salmon can be found. An interesting note about Cattle Pass, the southern end of San Juan Channel, is that there is some extreme current action there. The combination of bizarre underwater geography with huge depth changes, up to a twelve foot tidal exchange between high and low tides, and the narrow channel make for some intense and unpredictable currents in that area complete with upwellings, back eddies, tide rips, whirlpools, and every kind of water you can imagine. Today, it really looked like the L-Pod whales were just playing in those strong currents. They were rolling around at the surface, slapping their fins, spyhopping, and it honestly just looked like they were enjoying be pushed around by the water!

L41 Mega in Cattle Pass

Of course I was kicking myself the whole time for not having my camera, while everyone else on board snapped away throughout the entire encounter. Sometimes, though, its special to just take the whole scene in, without looking through a viewfinder. I have to admit, while I would have loved to have more photos from today, it was a pretty special sight just to watch. Humorously, before long, our passengers were starting to complain of dead camera batteries, too…and I should have taken this as a sign that we were about to have a really special encounter before it was time to head home.

Our engines were cut and we spun in the currents watching various L-Pod whales around us. Suddenly a group of three whales we hadn’t seen before came up off the bow, and swam all along the side of the boat. The amazing thing was you could actually see them underwater, which is always a memorable experience. One of the animals actually was swimming upside down, and it was a male (we could tell because we could see his belly markings!), and I think he was with two females. I wish I knew who they were but I honestly don’t know!

It was a truly spectacular day on the water and I wish I had more photos to share. Julie, our other naturalist who was on board this afternoon with a fully charged camera, will send a few shots my way that I will post on here as well.


Dave Miller said...

What a great day you had! I hope I am as fortunate when I take my trip. Now I just have to figure out which day to go. We arrive in Victoria Saturday evening and head back to California Thursday so I should have lots of opportunities.

Is there a better time for the trips, morning, noon or afternoon?

Thanks again for sharing your experiences and photos.

Dave Miller

Monika said...

Dave - There's no real best time of day for seeing the whales. They can be found doing any type of behavior at any time of day or night, so it's pretty much just luck of the draw. I've always wanted to go on a sunset tour since there are fewer boats on the water then and the early evening lighting can be spectacular, but just go with what works best for your schedule. My fingers are crossed that you have a great encounter with them! I hope you'll post about your trip on your blog.

Warren Baker said...

Sounds like one of those ''special'' days you get now and again Monika. They more than make up for the ''run of the mill'' ones. That's what keeps us going!

Holly said...

It was a fabulous day and it was wonderful to be a part of it. Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge, Monica. Some of my photos from the day are on flickr here:

Monika said...

Holly - Thank you so, so much for posting those photos. Your shots are excellent, especially the sequence at the end when we saw those three whales underwater. I've truly never seen anything like that and I'm so glad there are some photos to document that moment.

Based one what I remember seeing, the fins in your photos, and the one partial saddle patch I see in one of your photos, I *think* that may have been L26 Baba with her daughter L90 Ballena and grandson L92 Crewser. I always love to figure out who I have a close encounter with.

I'm so glad we all got to share that amazing experience!

Unknown said...

Great photos! I really like the one with the city in the background.. :)