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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An Epic Whale of a Day

As we head towards fall, there are probably only a couple more weeks of consistent whale sightings before they move on to look for fish in other waters. I felt in need of what I call a "whale fix" since it has been a while since I've had one of those special encounters with them, so I went for a ride-along today on the Western Prince. It seems like most of September has been foggy, rainy, and/or windy, but today was an absolutely perfect day for being out on the water. Here's a photo I took off the back of the boat as we were cruising north in San Juan Channel:

On our way north we stopped to look at a nice group of maybe 20 or so harbor porpoises, and we also saw lots of harbor seals in the water. Another unexpected bird sighting was a pair of western grebes. one of the local seabird species that have experienced the greatest declines in recent years.

We met up with the whales just off of Turn Point on Stuart Island, right where Boundary Pass and Haro Strait come together. Captain Hobbes dropped the hydrophone in the water and immediately we heard several loud S19 calls and a couple of S18s, which told me it was L-Pod approaching us. (The Southern Resident killer whales have a shared dialect of 27 or so tonal discrete calls that are their primary social vocalizations. Even though they share calls, each pod has its own unique dialect including a couple of signature calls, so a trained ear can determine which pod or pods are present just by the vocalizations. I was a research intern focusing on orca bioacoustic and also did my undergraduate senior thesis on Southern Resident vocalizations, so I know the calls pretty well.)

As they rounded Turn Point the whales fanned out, meaning before long there were whales every direction we looked. The first two we got a good look at were L72 Racer and her youngest son L105 Fluke, and they passed us right off the bow:

L72 Racer

L105 Fluke
The whales were active and we saw just about every behavior including spyhops, breaches, dorsal fin slaps, pec slaps, and of course tail slaps and cartwheels:

Then, a big freighter came through. The whales definitely heard it coming from miles away, but a group of them were hanging out right in front of the path of the ship. That got us to wondering if they might be interested in surfing the freighter wake, something I've only ever seen once before. Sure enough, just after the freighter passed we saw several whales sharking and porpoising in the waves behind the ship. It's kind of hard to see the swells in the photo, but there must have been some massive water motion they were playing in:

The L-Pod whales started to make their way south down Haro Strait, but we could see a lot more whales behind them still in Boundary Pass. We motored north a little ways to take a look at that group. Some of them stayed far away and eventually ended up going back north up Swanson Channel (J-Pod?), but the next group that headed south towards us was a big group of K-Pod whales. They didn't seem in as playful a mood as the Ls, but were definitely interested in foraging the tide rips as they were circling around and just hanging out in one spot. One whale in this group was K37 Rainshadow, who circled around us several times. Here's Rainshadow with the Turn Point lighthouse in the background:

We were just stopped in the water but it was difficult to know which way to look as the whales were circling in all directions. Some animals were apparently resting as they were logging at the surface, but we saw many lunging at the surface which often indicates they're in pursuit of a fish, like this whale maybe was:

We saw a big male heading towards us, and as he got closer we were able to identify him as K25 Scoter:

Then, something happened that I have never seen before. Scoter started swimming closer to the boat, so we could see him underwater. As he got nearer to the surface, it became apparent that he was carrying a fish in his mouth!!! When he came up to breathe we could actually clearly see his teeth and the fish he was holding...

Needless to say, I was ecstatic to see this, let alone get photos of it! What an amazing experience.

But we weren't done yet. Another young whale started getting playful and gave a couple of half breaches while its family continued to forage:

Then it was time to go, but we had trouble leaving because there were so many whales spread out everywhere. Before we left we got one more close pass from K35 Sonata. I cropped this picture in to show just the front of the whales, because I thought the water at the front of his rostrum looked so cool:

You would think after an amazing trip like this (probably my best of the season) I would have had enough whales, but of course I hadn't. Instead of going home for dinner I went out to the westide of the island to watch the sunset and see if some whales might be heading down that way. Sure enough, as it began to get dark, five whales came into view. They were well offshore, but their blows echoed across the strait and their dorsal fins were silhouetted against the golden waters. It was a peaceful ending to an exciting day.


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Livin the dream there Monika

Sounds like it was a magical experience



Julie said...

i am so in need of a whale fix!

Vera said...

I am thinking that the whales were ecstatic to see you. What amazing photos this time, especially the one where the whale is surfacing with the fish. Wow!

Alex Shapiro said...

This is a fabulous series of photos, Monika! What a day on the water this must have been. Thanks so much for sharing this beauty!