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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Johnstone Strait - Northern Resident Orcas and Dolphins

As we pulled out of Campbell River on Saturday, August 27th we went across to Quadra Island to pick up a few more guests. On the rocks near the dock several harbor seals were lounging:

We started cruising north up Discovery Passage, and I enjoyed watching several hundred Bonaparte's gulls actively feeding on the surface of the water. They swarmed around the boat as we picked up speed.

As we reached the north end of Quadra Island and pulled into Johnstone Strait, we started searching in earnest for killer whales. We were the first boat out for the day, so we didn't know if or when some orcas might pop up, and we didn't know if we might find residents or transients. Some of the other passengers commented that it almost didn't matter if we found any whales - the scenery itself was so beautiful, and it was enough to just sit in the sunshine and soak it all in....

There was a lot more to look at than the scenery, however. Some splashing caught my eye in the distance, and it turned out to be a group of about 20 Pacific white-sided dolphins! While it looked to our naturalist like they were actively foraging, a few still broke off and came over to ride our stern wake. Another one leaped about 8 feet in the air - an amazing sight! After a few minutes, they went back to foraging, and we continued north.

We passed a lot of interesting vessels along the way - ferries, tugs and barges, purse seiners, fishermen, and....I'm not sure exactly how to categorize this one:

We also spotted some Dall's porpoise, but by this time the captain decided not to stop. There was word that some Northern Residents were well to the north, right at the edge of the range they're able to travel on one of their trips, and we were going to go for them. It sounded good to me!

I learned as we approached Cracroft Island that members of A1 Pod were in the area. The Northern Residents, made up of 16 pods and well over 200 whales, are, as their name suggests, sort of the northern counterpart of the Southern Resident population of orcas that I spend most of my time viewing. They're fish eaters, spending the summer and fall in the inside passage along the north end of Vancouver Island feeding on the salmon runs. Despite their close proximity to one another, it's not believed that Northern and Southern Residents interact or interbreed. They seem to have split up the salmon rivers, and stick to their own territory for the most part.

Cruising up Johnstone Strait

 If you've been following my blog for a while you probably know the Southern Residents are J-, K-, and L-Pods. If you're wondering about pods A through I, that's where the Northern Residents come in. Pioneering killer whale researcher Michael Bigg started the first orca photo identification study, and the first whales he saw became "A" Pod up north. The additional Northern Resident pods became B, C, etc, and J, K, and L were the letters by the time he reached the south end of Vancouver Island. Since then, some of the pods have been lumped or split, so there isn't a pod for every letter, and some letters are actually multiple pods. For instance, A1 Pod is just one of three pods with an "A" designation.

I was really intrigued to make connections about the similarities between Northern and Southern residents as our naturalist talked about A1 Pod. He knew their typical traveling routes, just like I do with the Southern Residents, and also their typical association patterns. The first three whales we saw were A12 Scimitar, an elder female who has left her daughter's family to travel with A37 Plumper and A46 Kaikash, two adult males who are her nephews and lost their mother in 2009. It reminds me of L87 Onyx of the Southern Residents, who has linked up with one elder female after another since the passing of his mother. (My friend Katie details Onyx's story beautifully here.) It really underlines how important older females are to resident killer whale communities - without one, adult males often die soon after their mothers.

A46 Kaikash, a 29 year-old member of the A1 Pod
 Scimitar, Plumper, and Kaikash were spread out and foraging off Cracroft Island, just north of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, a sanctuary for orcas created in 1982 protecting a place of particular cultural importance to the Northern Residents - one of their rubbing beaches. While Southern Residents like to swim through kelp beds, Northern Residents like to rub on round rocks at the bottom of a select few shallow bays. They don't participate in this behavior if disturbed, so boats and land-based visitors are prohibited from Robson Bight. It's an area I first heard about a long time ago, so it was neat to finally see it.

Robson Bight Ecological Reserve
The A34 matriline was just making their way out of the Reserve, so we went over to see them, too, before we left. A34 Simoom is believed to be the daughter of Scimitar, and she has five offspring and three "grand" offspring, making for a total of 9 whales in her matriline. There's one adult male in the group, A55 Echo, and we saw him close into shore, swimming upside down and pec slapping with a younger family member in tow. Two other whales were closer to us. I'm not 100% positive of these IDs, but I think this might be A62 Misty and her six year-old calf A83 Dusky:

All too soon it was time to leave and begin our long journey back south to Campbell River - just south of Hanson Island, we were at about the northern limit for our seven hour trip. On the way home, however, we came across another group of about 10 Pacific white-sided dolphins. These guys were even more playful than the first group we saw, coming closer to the boat. Here are a few of my favorite photos from the encounter:

A Pacific white-sided dolphin surfacing just off our stern wake

One dolphin liked to clear the water on each of his surfacings. That resulted in this image - with the dorsal fin of one dolphin in the center, and the tail of the dolphin in front of him visible on the right.

I took a short video clip that maybe I'll upload at some point, too. Needless to say, it took a while for the smile to leave my face after this amazing dolphin encounter! The whole trip was a huge success, and I saw both of my "hoped for" species - Northern Resident orcas and Pacific white-sided dolphins.

Finally, I just want to say that as someone who has worked as a marine naturalist on a whale-watching boat for six years, I was really impressed with the job done by the folks at Discovery Marine Safaris, who we went out with. Their respect for the wildlife was apparent, and our naturalist Mark was one of the best in the business based on what I've seen over the years. He presented information that was accurate and relevant, and he did so in an engaging manner. He talked about residents and transients, the amazing social lives of killer whales, acoustic dialects, the live capture era, and also important conservation issues relating to salmon, pollutants, and boats, and he did so in a concisely while encouraging everyone on board to take actions to help at home. I was really impressed! I definitely picked up a few things that I could use to make my talks about orcas more interesting. So, if you find yourself wanting to go whale-watching out of Campbell River, check out these guys - you've got my recommendation!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Heading North To Campbell River

On Friday morning I got on the ferry from Friday Harbor to Sidney, British Columbia on Vancouver Island. The plan was to spend a long weekend in Campbell River, and give myself a chance at seeing the Northern Resident population of killer whales. Despite spending so much of the last decade on San Juan Island, I'd never made it further north on Vancouver Island than Victoria. I finally decided to remedy that this weekend! Although at some point I would love to spend more time further north on the island, this was a good way to start for this summer.

It's a scenic drive from Sidney to Campbell River. After looping around the Saanich Peninsula, there was this amazing viewpoint, with San Juan Island visible in the distance (marked by the arrow):

It's about a four hour drive north to Campbell River, and upon arriving at the hotel I was thrilled to see the view from the deck of our room. I walked straight through the room and out the sliding glass door, binoculars in hand as I soaked in the panoramic view across Discovery Passage to Quadra Island:

Within the first few minutes I spotted five species of gull: Bonaparte's, mew, California, ring-billed, and glaucous-winged. While looking at four of these species perched on a single floating log, my attention was grabbed by something breaking the surface of the water nearby. Porpoises? No, these looked different....they were Pacific white-sided dolphins! This was my first time seeing this species, and along with spotting Northern Residents was one of my high hopes for this trip. Pacific white-sided dolphins are also known as "Lags", a nickname they get from a shortened version of their scientific name, Lagenorhynchus obliquidens. There were about eight of them in this group, and I was thrilled. Surely it was a good omen for the trip!

Later in the evening I was spending some time reading on the deck, when no fewer than 12 common nighthawks flew by. I've never seen that many at once! They flew one way, then came back a little while later going the other direction. While still not close, this is probably the closest I've been to one, too, as often they are very high in the sky:

First thing Saturday morning we headed out on an all-day wildlife watching excursion. Would I see my first Northern Residents? Would I see more Lags? My next post will feature photos from our trip!

Pulling out from Campbell River to go whale-watching

Friday, August 26, 2011

J41 ~ Eclipse

Note: this blog post is part of a Pacific Northwest blogger scavenger hunt! Answer a series of questions while learning about some great northwest nature blogs and try to win a prize! Read this post for details on how to participate. You have til Sunday night (Aug. 28) at midnight to enter.

July 2005

Moments of quiet are rare during the week of 4th of July on San Juan Island. It was early morning at Lime Kiln Point State Park and the tranquil waters mirrored the sky, calm enough that you could hear the harbor porpoises breathing as they surfaced a quarter-mile offshore. I sat at a picnic table with my journal.  There were a few other people scattered along the shoreline, but all were engaged in similarly personal activities, everyone taking in the beautiful morning in their own way. 

A blow much louder and longer than that of a harbor porpoise broke the silence. That was signal enough to abandon everything else, grab the camera, and head to the shoreline. I climbed down to my favorite rock in front of the lighthouse, as low to the water and as close to the whales as you can get. Even as more people gathered on the rocks above me in anticipation, from down at the water’s edge I can block out all other distractions. It can be just me and the whales, and that’s how it felt that morning.

In the lead, as they often are, were J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny, a little further offshore and well ahead of the rest of the pod. This meant J-Pod, who had spent the last several days in Rosario Strait, had looped around into Haro Strait during the night. Behind Ruffles and Granny came J8 Spieden, her wheezing blow especially noticeable. I immediately started looking for her granddaughter J19 Shachi, who a couple of days before had been reported with a brand new calf.  Everyone who saw J41 on that first day commented on how small she looked, so I was anxious to see if she was still with Shachi. Shachi had lost her first calf, J29, in 1992. Sure enough, Shachi wasn’t far behind Spieden, and popping up just beside her was the smallest orca I have ever seen. Still the bright orangey color typical of a newborn, J41 also had visible fetal folds on her forehead and down her back. Though she must have been the typical five or six feet long of an infant, she was dwarfed next to her adult mother, her tiny curved dorsal fin just a fraction of the height of Shachi’s. The mother and calf surfaced together three times in front of me, and on the last dive Shachi gave a tail slap, her flukes disturbing the flat-calm water, almost as if celebrating the arrival of her new daughter. 

J41 as a newborn in July 2005, behind her mom J19 Shachi

*                              *                              *

Most people seem to form a special bond with one particular whale, a whale with which you have numerous significant encounters, and that whale for me became J41. So small, so vulnerable, yet so full of life, J41 was a symbol of hope for a population on its way to being listed as endangered later that year. I had seen other calves, but there was something about the connection that was forged that morning that moved me, studying to be a scientist, to poetry to try and capture what I had experienced.

Your dorsal is still hooked in youth,
destined to subtly blossom like a flower into the fin of a matriarch
I laugh as you wave your tail in the air, 
for now just a shadow of the whale you will become

She came back in 2006 having grown a lot, now the traditional black-and-white color of a killer whale having lost her baby pink. On her first birthday I saw her alongside Shachi leading a superpod through Haro Strait, and later in the summer she was named Eclipse through The Whale Museum’s Orca Adoption Program.

Eclipse (Age 1) and Shachi, 2006
 One of the amazing things about this population of killer whales is that the same animals return year after year, and they are all individually identifiable, which means we get a rare opportunity to watch individuals and families change and grow year after year. Every spring, I anxiously look for Eclipse to see how much she has grown over the winter.

Eclipse (Age 2) and Shachi, 2007
One summer I was on a whale-watching boat when a young calf surfaced by itself behind our parked boat, excitedly lunging in all different directions. It took me a moment to recognize Eclipse, now aged three, who proudly spyhopped with a small fish in her mouth. A moment later Shachi came over to collect her calf, and the two swam off together.

Eclipse (Age 3) and Shachi, 2008
Another time I was on a kayak trip with some friends off the west side of San Juan Island. We had no sooner launched our kayaks and pulled into a kelp bed than we were circled by Shachi and Eclipse. Even though she was only a few years old, it’s amazing how much bigger Eclipse looked from the perspective of a kayak, as this time I felt I was definitely a visitor to her world, rather than watching from the shoreline or from the deck of a boat.

Eclipse (Age 4), 2009
Eclipse (Age 5) and Shachi swimming into a summer San Juan sunset, 2010
This year, I really couldn't believe how big Eclipse had gotten! I hardly recognized her next to her mom, though her dorsal fin is starting to show the same characteristic hook as Shachi's - a true mother-daughter resemblance.

Eclipse (Age 6), 2011
To view a photo gallery of Eclipse photos, including the ones featured on this blog post and more, click here

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Quick Check-In

The Southern Residents have been a bit scarce over the last week, something that's not atypical for August when there's a lull in the salmon runs so they spend a bit more time out at the open ocean. In case you, like me, need a brief "whale fix", here's a short video clip from the last time I saw them last weekend.

I've been fighting off another round of this summer cold, so I haven't had the chance to get out or take too many pictures. I did make it down to Cattle Point last week where I saw three white-winged scoters (190), bringing me within 10 species of my year list goal.

Remember to check back on Saturday for the northwest nature blogger scavenger hunt. I'll also be spending a long weekend over on Vancouver Island, so I'll definitely have some things to blog about when I get back!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Another Summery Week

We've been enjoying another sunny, warm week on San Juan Island, finally getting the summer weather we've long been anticipating! It's made for a pleasant commute to work by bike, outdoor afternoons, west side sunsets, Shakespeare under the stars, and of course: bird and whale watching.

Ravens cavorting above False Bay

I've been seeing as many as 500+ peeps at False Bay, made up mostly of western sandpipers but with some least sandpipers mixed in. It's very cool to see them in such numbers. If there's been anything rarer mixed in, like a semipalmated sandpiper, I haven't been able to find it. But that certainly doesn't mean it's not in there somewhere!

Western sandpiper at False bay
Least sandpiper at False Bay
Just before leaving False Bay one afternoon I spotted a small hawk perched in a tree. I thought at first maybe it was a merlin, but as soon as I got the binoculars on it I saw that it was something else: a sharp-shinned hawk (year bird 189). Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks are notoriously difficult for identifying in the field, but this bird was small, with a small head, thin legs, and, when it flew, quick, erratic wingbeats - all clues it was indeed a sharp-shinned.

Also this week was the San Juan County Fair, a yearly tradition that's a big hit with our local community. In addition to our home-brewed beer winning a blue ribbon, Keith played acoustic guitar for an hour-long set:

Today, I headed out to Lime Kiln hoping to find some whales. It sounded like they were coming down from the north, so I settled in to wait. It was a real surprise when seven whales suddenly came up from the south! It was the L2s and L54s, presumably going north to meet up with the other whales.

L2 Grace and her adult son L78 Gaia
About half an hour later, the whales did come back south. K20 Spock and K38 Comet passed pretty close to shore, while K27 Deadhead and calf K44 were a little further off.

K20 Spock and her seven year-old son K38 Comet
Many whales were way offshore a mile or more, but another big group of whales did pass about 200 yards offshore. IDs were difficult because of the back-lighting, but I saw whales from the J14, L55, L47, and L26 matrilines - if all members of these family groups were there, that would be 23 whales, which seemed about right. 

People wonder sometimes with all the whales I've seen and all the photos I've taken if there's still new shots to be gotten. Of course there is! The whales are always in different groups, doing different things in different places. Here's something I had never seen before - a big male (I believe J30 Riptide) is doing a pec slap as a calf comes to the surface in front of him (click to see a larger view):

There were sort of three groups traveling parallel to one another, each maybe about 50 yards apart. Here's four whales from the "middle" group surfacing together.

Finally, I wanted to announce that next week Saturday, the 27th, I'll be participating in a Northwest Blogger Scavenger Hunt! Or rather, I hope that you will be participating! There are so many great Pacific Northwest blogs, and a few of us, recruited by author Pat Lichen, are banding together in this creative endeavor. On the 27th, a list of questions will be posted on Pat's blog, and the answers will be found on each of the participant's blog sites, including one here on Orca Watcher. Your job is to visit all the blogs, find the correct answers, and submit them by the end of the day of the 27th. In addition to seeing some great photos and reading some interesting writing, all correct answers will be entered in a drawing to win a prize from one of the bloggers. Our hope is that our readers will learn about some of the other interesting blogs out there in a more interesting manner than just off a blog roll, so please come back next Saturday to participate!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Big Group of Whales - Day 2

Yesterday I went to the west side again just to see what was going on, and arrived just in time to see a huge group of playful whales pass by close to shore at Land Bank's Westside Preserve. This was one of those encounters where photos do so much more than words....

Nine of the 30 or so whales on the surface at once, heading towards Land Bank
A young whale breaches alongside five others who have just surfaced
A whale surfaces upside down, pec fins in the air
The same whale does an inverted tailslap
The same whale then rolls over and does a pec slap as J27 Blackberry surfaces behind
J28 Polaris surfaces nose-to-nose with her calf J46 Star
A young whale does an inverted spyhop, surfacing between an adult male and a calf
An orca doing an inverted tailslap sends strands of kelp into the air alongside four other whales

J28 Polaris surfaces with a small strand of kelp across her nose
Having seen only J-Pod whales and the L12 subgroup, I was surprised to see L82 Kasatka and her calf L116 pop up
L22 Spirit
L89 Solstice
L85 Mystery with a strand of kelp across his dorsal fin and saddle patch
L41 Mega
The whole thing only lasted a few minutes, but boy was it amazing! See larger version of all the photos in this photo gallery, where you can also order prints.