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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.


WB6NAH said...

Great shots Monika

Howard Garrett said...

Fascinating stories and great photos, Monika. It's hard to describe a typical day in the lives of the orcas because they're so different every day. This gives some great glimpses.
The calf breach shows a little flexibility in the neck. It looks like he or she is looking at you.

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Hi Monika

All this amazing activity and behaviour and the 'Orcacam' still isn't working....ARRRRGGGHHHH. Might have to book a day or two off, pack my tool box and come and fix it myself! Our reserve is investigating an underwater camera to spot the fish, diving ducks etc - should be interesting, live feed to visitor centre only at the moment; don't know if it'll ever go on the web - hope so.



Vickie said...

Awesome images! Especially the close breach. Beautiful. It must be breath-taking to see so many and all that action. Delightful. Thanks for all the interesting info.

Warren Baker said...

That ''leaping'' killer whale really is a stunning photo Monika. I bet your well pleased with that.

Unknown said...

Beautiful and GREAT photos you got. I love the breach of the Orca facing you. The sunset and foggy photos are lovely too... Thanks for sharing...

Unknown said...

You have some wonderful material here, Monika. Nice work all around. I'll take it a step further than a previous poster, and say that the whale-in-air shot in particular is nothing short of amazing.

Monika said...

Thanks Richard!

Stormboy - Thanks for stopping by and commenting! That's always been my goal, to give a glimpse into the lives of the orcas through photography.

Dave - No idea what's up with Orcacam this year! If you come out to fix it yourself you might as well stay long enough to see the whales in person ;) An underwater camera to watch diving ducks sound amazing!

Vickie - The whales are pretty much breath-taking on a daily basis! Thanks for the compliments.

Warren - Most definitely! There's a whole sequence of 4 photos that go along with it.

Thanks Michele! I'm always glad to share.

Brient - Thanks so much. That always means a lot coming from a fellow photographer!

D. Peter Boucher, Kt. SMOM, Dip. LA., MM (Ret.) said...

Wonderful photos, greatly enjoyed a visit to your Blog. Please keep up the education it is the only way to make effective change.
Good Watch