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Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Study of Contrasts

I kicked off my four day holiday weekend in style yesterday by spending another full day at Lime Kiln Point State Park. When I arrived at the park in the morning the word was that orcas were heading east in the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Race Rocks, which is still quite a ways away. It was an amazingly chilly morning despite the sunshine, but I settled down on the rocks in my hoodie and winter jacket to read a book and wait. Then, another group of orcas was found further east, and before long I could see them crossing Haro Strait from Discovery Island many miles away. This first group of whales headed across to San Juan Island well south of Lime Kiln, and the inital word was that they had decided to head south, away from us.

Yesterday was a very busy day on the water: Canada Day, beginning of 4th of July weekend in the US, and the opening of the salmon finishing season. The boats were streaming past me by the dozen while I sat on the rocks, all of them heading north - many of them probably coming from Seattle and heading to the yacht haven of Roche Harbor. There were so many boats on the water (both commercial whale watchers and all the private boaters) that I figured for sure the second group of whales coming across Haro Strait would be accompanied by boats, and that was how I would find them. It was much to my surprise, then, when during a total lull in the boat activity J8 Spieden and J2 Granny surfaced right in front of the lighthouse heading north! This was especially comical because of pair of whale watching boats was further offshore heading south at high speed, towards the other group of whales. It's amazing how often from shore you see this, where the boats automatically head to where the other boats are, and completely bypass another group of whales.

Two elder J-Pod females, J2 and J8 (pictured), completely elude the boats on the busy beginning of the holiday weekend

For the next three and a half hours whales were visible from Lime Kiln, slowly passing by in small, spread out groups, for the most part facing south but drifting north in the strong flood tide. The back-lighting made it hard to get IDs, but I saw J34 Doublestuf and J16 Slick among the whales that headed north. The whales were taking such long dives that I think many of the private boaters missed them entirely as they sped by.

There was quite a crowd of people on shore enjoying the whales, and they were equally thrilled by several close views of a harbor seal that would surface in the kelp, seemingly curious about all the people as he/she would spend several minutes looking up at everyone before diving again.

Eventually, as people got tired of watching the slowly passing whales, the crowds dwindled. The whales drifted away to the north, but never quite left sight, leaving a few die-hard whale watchers like myself lingering on the rocks to see if they would come back. The boaters had apparently all reached their destinations, as like the park the water was now quiet, too. With the wind dying down, the sun warmed up quite a bit, and I found a new perch looking north and shed down to just my T-shirt layer. I propped my elbows on my knees and watched the distant whales start becoming more active, breaching and lunging in the distance, for more than an hour.

Slowly, slowly, the whales made their way back towards the lighthouse. In the meantime, me and the few others who remained were treated to some other neat marine wildlife sightings. A Steller sea lion, unusual locally this time of year, came by heading north. A small group of harbor porpoise foraged a little ways offshore. A family of eight or more river otters came by twice:

When the whales finally approached, they continued traveling just as slowly, hanging in front of the lighthouse for a long time. Their loud blows echoed across the strait, and their lunges and tailslaps were accompanied by shrieks of delight from the small group of whale-watchers happily watching them from shore. 

J17 Princess Angeline and her two year-old calf J44 Moby

J17 Princess Angeline was on babysitting duty, as swimming right beside her was not only her own young calf J44 Moby, but her daugther's one year-old calf J47, who was in a spunky mood. J47, who will be named next month, breached three or four times, on this one entirely clearing the water:

J47 clears the water with this breach
I'm not sure how many whales passed us heading south, as they were spread out all across Haro Strait. Here's a picture that shows them near, far, and inbetween:

As they meandered south, another youngster further offshore started breaching, a spectacular sight with the setting sun illuminating the Olympic Mountains in the background:

By this time, nearly sunset, I had been at the park for 10 hours. At one point, it was overcast and breezy, and I was so bundled up it felt like winter. Later on, it was bright and sunny and so warm that I was down to just my T-shirt. Early in the day, there were hundreds of visitors in the park, and at one point 50 boats in sight (including whale watchers, private yachts, and kayaks). By the evening, there were a dozen or so people on shore, and not a single boat with the whales. I watched the tide begin to flood, then slowly slack again and turn to an ebb, and the whales head slowly north then slowly south. I saw five marine mammal species, and over a dozen bird species, including oystercatchers, guillemots, auklets, and eagles. I talked to friends and strangers about whales, and sat in a nook on the rocks reading a novel for a couple of hours, speaking to no one. Despite being a lazy day, it was a full one, and it was time to head home.


Kate said...

Awesome pictures...glad you had a great time..Happy 4th of July

Julie said...

you just described what i call a "perfect day"... wish i could have joined you.

Robyn said...

Thank you for sharing..Awesome!

Jessica said...

What a beautiful day. Wish I could have joined you. Thanks for sharing. Happy 4th!