For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Friday, September 4, 2009

Amazing Day!! Greeting Ceremony and Whales In San Juan Channel!

I always say every time you see the whales is a unique experience, and its true, but every once and a while you get a completely unpredictable encounter with them that just blows you away. Today was one of those days....(remember to click on the photos for larger views)

They had forecasted rain for today, but instead we got partly cloudy and sunshine as we headed out on the Western Explorer this morning. Down in Cattle Pass we got a spectacular view of an adult bald eagle (not too many around in the month of September), and we also saw some harbor seals at Whale Rocks as well as a gang of about 8 big Steller sea lions in the water. It was a beautiful time and place to be on the water:

We knew there was one group of whales pretty close by, but right as we left Cattle Pass we came across a second group of whales heading up from the east. We were the only boat on scene with them for a while as we followed them towards San Juan Island. Soon we got word that the first group of whales that was spotted was heading down from the west - on a "collision course" with the whales we were with. Hmm, what would happen when they all met up?!

A greeting ceremony is a cultural behavior of the Southern Resident whales that is occasionally seen after groups have been apart. When the two groups of whale reunite, they line up facing each other at the surface, then dive down all together. When they come back to the surface, there are all kinds of surface behaviors as the whales seemingly celebrate being back together. Often when the first time all the pods meet up in the spring, there will be a greeting ceremony, but sometimes this happens after shorter absences. The two groups we saw meet up today were only apart for a day, but we got to see a greeting ceremony!

The whales lined up in two large groups facing each other a few hundred yards apart - about 20 to 30 animals on each side. They dove for about a minute or two, and when they came back to the surface they were all facing the same direction, but there were LOTS of tail slaps, plus some spyhops, breaches, and pec slaps. Here is a whale coming up for a half breach in front of the Cattle Point Lighthouse, part of the celebrations that occurred after the whales got together:

And two males, of them tail slapping:

As the whales crossed Cattle Pass there were an amazing number of dorsal fins at the surface. There have been a lot of tight groups of whales this year (last year the whales seemed to be spread out and foraging more, but presumably because there's more to eat this year they've een spending more time in tight social groups - a good sign). What blew me away was not only the number of fins, but how they were at all different distances. In this photo some whales are closer, some further away, but there were whales everywhere:

The whales were awfully close to Cattle Pass, an area where they are often further offshore. Here is one tight group with the Cattle Point Lighthouse (the southern tip of San Juan Island) in the background:

There was a lot of confusion as to which whales were where today. All three pods were in the area somewhere (we had about 50 whales where we were, and then there was another group reported about 7 miles away), but who were we seeing? There was a lot of mistaken identities, on my part and for just about everyone else out there, but I've had a chance to look at least some of my pictures to figure out who was with whom. Here is L78 Gaia, who along with the rest of the L2 family group was traveling in a big group with the majority of K-Pod:

As if we hadn't already seen enough, the whales added to the intrigue of the day when instead of heading east or south from Cattle Pass, a common direction for them to go and the way they were facing, they made a sharp left turn and headed north up San Juan Channel! This is only something they do a couple of times a season at most. (You can read about the last time they did it back on August 1st.) There were two big groups of whales about a mile or so apart from each other. Here is the northern most group, made up of a big group of L-Pod whales, right off the shore of Lopez Island:

Look at all those dorsal fins!!

What an amazing day out there on the water....I can honestly say I have never seen anything quite like it in nine years of watching these whales!


juliana said...

Very cool. Awesome pictures!

Warren Baker said...

No matter how old you get Monika - you'll never see it all!!

Great action photo's.

Jeanne said...

That is so neat Monika that you saw a Greeting Ceremony!! Wow!...then you had them part way up the Channel.
It was amazing out there that afternoon! Love your pics. You had them part way up and I had them the rest of the way and then part way back down. A great day out there.