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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Explorer"ing in the Rain With Js and Ls

This morning we went out on the Western Explorer, our zodiac style boat, with an adventurous family that didn't mind the drizzle. We donned ski goggles in addition to our anti-exposure suits and off we went in search of wildlife. On the way down San Juan Channel we saw both adult and juvenile bald eagles as well as a bald eagle nest, and several hundred harbor seals hauled out on Whale Rocks. As we pulled out into the Straits we were surprised to see that the whales we had heard about were much closer than anticipated - right in front of us in fact!

The first two whales we caught up with were brothers J39 Mako (six years old) and J27 Blackberry (18 years old). I've mentioned before about these two brothers and their sister J31 Tsuchi having lost their mother last year, and I'm always glad to see them still sticking tight together despite her loss. Mako is old enough to survive on his own, but it's a lot nicer (for me, and I'm assuming for him, too) to see him traveling right next to his big brother.

Soon the drizzle stopped, and we stopped the boat to observe what would happen next. There had been whales both offshore and inshore of us, but it looked like two groups were starting to converge in front of us. We watched as Mako and Blackberry met up with some other J-Pod whales. As they got together they stopped traveling and started doing this bizarre circling and logging (just hanging out at the surface like a log). Then they all surfaced together facing back the way they had just come:

"Hmm, what are they doing?" we wondered. A moment later, however, Captain Ivan spotted another line of whales coming up from the southeast. They must have decided to wait for the rest of their pod to catch up! Here's the further group of whales heading towards us:

As they neared each other, both lines of whales stayed at the surface for a moment, then they all dove, and where there had once been more than a dozen dorsal fins there were now none. We waited and waited, wondering just what they were up to under the surface. As the minutes dragged on we started scanning farther and farther away wondering if they were traveling some distance underwater before coming back up. Finally we spotted them - both groups had met up and were now traveling north together. It is absolutely one of my favorite things to see when you witness this many orcas all surfacing together:

By looking at my photos I was able to confirm that we were actually with ALL of J-Pod - every single family member was present in this group that was traveling tightly together. That's 26 whales!

There were several neat things that stood out to me today, and both of them are captured in the photo below. One is seeing the oldest male (58 year-old J1 Ruffles) and oldest female (98 year-old J2 Granny) in the Southern Resident Community traveling together. They are speculated to be either brother and sister or mother and son, and it's always a treat to see them together. The other neat thing was seeing so many tall male fins in J-Pod. Not too long ago, Ruffles was the only adult male in J-Pod. Not so any more! Here are Ruffles and Granny seen surfacing with young male J30 Riptide, who now has a fin almost as tall as Ruffles':

It was drizzly out, but it wasn't windy, which allowed their blows to just hang in the air. With the dark trees of Lopez Island behind them, the spouts really stood out. Here are, from back to front, J28 Polaris, J1 Ruffles, an unknown J-Pod member, and J2 Granny:

Not only was all of J-Pod there, but "honorary" J-Pod members L7 Canuck and L53 Lulu were also traveling with them. Other L-Pod whales were spread out offshore of us, but Canuck and Lulu have spent more time with J-Pod over the last year or so than with the rest of their family. It's unusual for whales to travel with another pod in preference to their own for any length of time. Canuck is Lulu's mother, and they aren't known to be closely related to any other L-Pod matrilines, so perhaps this gives them more "freedom" to roam away from their pod. We just don't know for sure. Lulu and then Canuck are the left two whales in this photo:

Usually when the orcas travel across Cattle Pass between Lopez and San Juan Islands, they do so quickly and a ways offshore. Not so today - they did just the opposite. Here you can see a line of J-Pod whales with the houses of Cape San Juan (which is a housing community at the southern most tip of San Juan Island) in the background:

They continued surfacing slowly together as we passed Cattle Point Lighthouse, making for one more fantastic photo op before we headed back to Friday Harbor after an interesting, if a little damp, morning on the water:


Warren Baker said...

Blimey! Whales everywhere. Was this an unusual number ?

PS I want an anti-exposure suit, it would come in useful for the english summmer :-)

The K said...

Since not all 3 pods were together I assume it's not called a superpod. Is there a name for 2 pods meeting up? A macropod?

Monika said...

Warren - It wasn't an unusual number, but usually they're more spread out and you don't see them all tight together like that. We usually see somewhere from 10-85 whales in the area at a time. I know! I was thinking it would be handy for a the wet and windy Washington winters (that's a lot of Ws...)

The K - You're right, it's not a superpod, but I can start the trend on the macropod vernacular.

Unknown said...

I envy you for having a job that is also your passion Monika. You like in a paradise as well. WOW.

Michele said...

Great photos and postings... Love the blue flower... It's been a strange year, but I am glad the pods are around.... :)