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Monday, June 27, 2011

A Day At Lime Kiln Point State Park

June 2003

I had just graduated high school and was a couple weeks into my new research internship at The Whale Museum. I was settling into my regular routine of heading to Lime Kiln Point State Park every morning, where another intern and I would spend mornings in what was informally known as the "acoustics shed". We would plug headphones into a pair of dusty old computers and analyze recordings made on the park's hydrophones, assessing both sound quality and identifying specific vocalizations made by the Southern Resident killer whales. It was these many hours spend in the acoustics shed where I learned how to identify all the discrete calls. Occasionally one or the other of us would pull off the headphones and we would discuss the nuances of a particular call type. Is this an S7, or an S12? Why?

At midday a researcher from another project would come in to get weather data off our computers, and this was cue that it was time for lunch. We would all congregate at a picnic table to eat sandwiches, chips, and fruit. There were five or six of us spending our summers at the lighthouse, and we were periodically joined by a rotating cast of other characters: visiting friends and family, whale aficionados from elsewhere on the island, or visitors who came to the park hoping to see the whales. Some of these visitors, we learned, made annual pilgrimage to Lime Kiln from Seattle, or California, or Texas, or Holland. We became an informal whale community, swapping stories of past whale encounters and looking over photo ID guides, discussing how to identify certain whales that had more generic saddle patches.

The warm afternoon sunshine made it too pleasant to go back into the acoustics shed. Instead, we'd start a game of chess, while others played cards (if it wasn't too windy), or found a place to rest on the rocks and read a book or nap. Eventually, someone would get up to scan the horizon, and when the telltale sign of red and yellow zodiacs was seen, we would drop everything else and spring into action. Some of the other researchers would grab clipboards, data sheets, and ID guides. I would go into the lighthouse to start the hydrophone recording, make a few quick notes about the date, time, and direction of travel, then grab my camera and head down to my favorite rock: low to the water and right in front of the lighthouse. Soon we would see spouts, then dorsal fins, and I would start snapping photos - photography was new to me; in years past, I had shot only video. When the whales passed in front of us we would call back and forth to each other on the rocks, trying to ID each family group as they swam by....

Whale-watching from Lime Kiln in 2003 - that's me on "my rock", closest to the water, in the blue shirt with the camera

June 2011

I walk down the familiar trail to the lighthouse with my camera, backpack, and lunch. The morning calm hasn't yet left the water and when I see one of the researchers he tells me that half of J-Pod went north a few hours earlier. That's okay: I hope to see the whales, but mostly I wan to come and spend a whole day sitting at the lighthouse. It's something I haven't done much of in recent years.
The summer of 2003 was my first of five years interning for The Whale Museum. The call types I learned helped me write my undergraduate thesis on killer whale vocal communication. I continued with photography, and published a book of orca photographs in 2007. These last few years, working full time as a naturalist on a whale watch tour boat, were fulfilling in some ways, but also left something lacking. I've stepped away from working as a naturalist this season, and I'm re-evaluating my direction in life. I didn't go on to get a Masters degree in bioacoustics as I foresaw as a new high school graduate. I don't work on the boats anymore, despite so many people telling me that was the perfect job for me. But I'm still here, at Lime Kiln, waiting for whales. Some things haven't changed.

Pigeon guillemots taking off

Eight Canada geese in Haro Strait

I don't have to sit on the rocks long this morning before a couple of people I know walk up. We sit and look at the birds fishing in the ebb tide. A seal pops up in the kelp with a salmon and we pull out our cameras. My friends move on, and I find another place to lay on the rocks and start a new book. As the sun warms up I pull out my lunch and eat it while watching dragonflies and swallowtail butterflies, listening to nothing but the sound of the gentle waves.



Just when I'm starting to think about heading home to the chores that await me there, someone calls out, "Monika, we've got whales!" Out of nowhere, the other half of J-Pod is upon us, in a rare mid-day June moment of being unaccompanied by the commercial whale watch fleet. I immediately recognize J34 Doublestuf and pull out my camera as strangers gather on the rocks above me.

J34 Doublestuf

The whales quickly pass by, with a few tailslaps and distant breaches, and most of the tourists are gone. I walk around to the other side of the lighthouse and am surprised to see that I know almost all the people sitting there, and have known them for five or even ten years. Bob, the researcher. Billy, the park ranger. Wendy and Megan, the mother and daughter who make annual visits here. Diane, who used to intern for Bob, and now lives on the island. Mary, the volunteer naturalist.

Like the whales that just passed by, there have been some changes in our whale community over the last eight years. J11 Blossom has passed away. I haven't spoken to my fellow acoustic intern from 2003 since that last late summer evening. J28 Polaris has a new knick in her dorsal fin and a small calf in tow. Diane is now married with a brand new puppy. J22 Oreo is a familiar presence, the same as ever. So is Bob, the summer resident researcher collecting data on the boats and whales as they pass the lighthouse.

Diane's new English cream golden retriever puppy - Maddy

There's something grounding to me about spending a full day at Lime Kiln. I spent more than seven hours there yesterday, something I haven't done in years. I got sunburned. I read half a book. I ate a picnic lunch. I talked with old friends. I just sat and looked - there's never nothing to look it.

A pair of oystercatchers that flew by while I sat on the rocks at Lime Kiln
It was awesome.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Tribute to J1 ~ Ruffles

The most iconic whale in the Southern Resident Community of killer whales has been missing since November 2010. J1, nicknamed Ruffles for his wavy dorsal fin, has been the most recognizable whale in this population since it was first determined whales could be individually identified in the early 1970s. When they first started the photo ID study of these orcas, Ruffles was already a full adult male, leading researchers to estimate his birth date as 1950. This means that last year, at the age of 60, he was by far the oldest male among J-, K- and L-Pods. In truth, he could have been even older. This is especially remarkable when you consider that many other male killer whales die in their 20s and 30s.


Since Ruffles' family has been seen often since last November, it is likely that he has passed away. It has taken me a while to write about his passing because it's a difficult thing to process. When I worked on a whale-watching boat, many return visitors remembered Ruffles and wanted to see him again. Others, first time whale-watchers, had heard about him and knew he was one whale they wanted to see. It seems like everyone in the whale world has at least one good Ruffles story.

J1 Ruffles coming to the surface, as seen from the top of Lime Kiln Lighthouse in 2005

I first met Ruffles in the year 2000, and unlike most people I don't remember the first time I saw him. My natural affinity was with J2, Granny, Ruffles near-constant companion and potentially his mother. Still, he has been a continual presence in J-Pod since I came to knew these whales, and it seems like there is a hole now that he is gone. He and Granny together made such an impression on me that I painted a mural of them in our houseboat, and I sit underneath them every time I write a blog post. It's not quite accurate to say Ruffles was a friend, but for each whale encounter of mine over the last decade he has been a friendly presence, and I'm sad now that he is gone.

J1 Ruffles in the middle with J2 Granny (right) and K12 Sequim (left)

While I have been lucky enough to have some close encounters with Ruffles over the years, my most lasting image of him is from far away. I picture him surfacing far offshore, his towering dorsal fin easily visible from a mile or more away. He had a characteristic way of surfacing: slow, deliberate, with a strong thrust of his flukes as he dove that caused the last visible tip of his dorsal fin to lurch forward just before it disappeared. When the rest of J-Pod was tightly grouped or closer to shore, he might be off on his own, almost as if standing guard.

Of course Ruffles wasn't always by himself. He often hung out with the young males; I think I've seen him traveling in close association with every J-Pod adult and sub-adult male. Everyone sort of thought of Ruffles as "the man" of the Southern Residents, and this view was somewhat substantiated with some genetic paternity research that was recently done on this population. It turns out that Ruffles was the father of quite a few whales, not only in K- and L-Pods, but even in J-Pod. This threw the assumption that whales only mate outside their own pod out the window. I always thought of Ruffles hanging out with these young males as being a tutoring session - maybe he was passing on his knowledge about being such a successful and long-lived orca.

J1 with a sub-adult male, J30 Riptide, in 2005

I really felt better equipped to honor Ruffles with a photo tribute, so I went through my hundreds of pictures of the big guy and put my favorite 25 Ruffles images in a photo gallery. I always knew he associated a lot with Granny and the young males, but one thing I never really noticed until I went through my photos was how much time Ruffles spent with some of the older females from the other pods, as well. I have a lot of pictures of him with K12 Sequim (born in 1970) and also with L7 Canuck (born in 1961).

There are a lot of sightings local naturalists covet and regularly swap notes on. Have you seen a tufted puffin this year? Taken a photo of a breaching whale with Mt. Baker in the background? These types of things earn you "street cred" among your peers, and another one to add to the list is having seen Ruffles breach. He wasn't known for being super active at the surface, and breaches in particular were a rarity. It's something I only saw him do on two occasions. The first time was when I was volunteering on Soundwatch years ago, and let me tell you, even though we were a ways away, he made our small blue boat feel even smaller. The second time was last year, when he and Granny were way ahead of the rest of J-Pod and slowly traveling north. On that day he breached three times in a row, and I was quick enough to get some photos. As big as he normally looks, I always think he looks surprisingly slender from this angle:


With Ruffles passing on, the oldest male among the Southern Residents is now 34 year-old L41 Mega. When I first started getting to know these whales, they were experiencing a scary bottleneck in adult males, with only four in the entire population. L58 Sparky died, leaving only three for quite some time (Ruffles, Mega, and L57 Faith, who has also passed on). Luckily, in part due to Ruffles' successful fathering of calves over the years, we now have about 10 adult males, with many more "sprouter" males on the way.

On one hand, Ruffles lived a very long and successful life for a male orca, and the deaths of some of our young males (like L73 Flash and L74 Saanich last year) is sadder in that it means something is happening to keep our breeding age males from surviving as long as Ruffles did. On the other hand, though, he is so well known to me and many others, that his loss is incredibly sad, too. I'll miss you, big guy.


Please feel free to share your own memories of Ruffles in the comment section....I would love to hear them.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer Solstice

Today's the longest day of the year! It's hard to believe that the first day of summer also means the days will start getting shorter. Hopefully that won't be noticeable for a while, because I love this getting dark at 10 PM thing.

Along with the solstice, we get some extreme tides, which makes for great tidepooling. Yesterday I did some climbing among the rocks at Lime Kiln Point State Park; here are a few photos of what I saw:

Acorn barnacle with limpets
Goose-neck barnacle, Pollicipes polymerus
Green anemone, Althopleura spp.
And talk about opposite modes of transportation....paddle-boarding really seems to be taking off here:


The water has undoubtedly been great for kayakers too:
 On my way back to the car, with the macro lens still on the camera, I had the chance to photograph some bumblebees:


The California poppies are in full bloom:


 I also noticed that some of the coastal manroot (also known as wild cucumber, Marah oreganus) was fruiting. I usually see the flowers, but hadn't ever really seen the fruit before. It's very bizarre looking:


This afternoon we went out to the west side and hung out in the sunshine for a couple hours, and towards the end of our time there some J-Pod whales came by. They didn't really end up going north, but rather heading offshore, where they seemed to be milling about and foraging. I thought this was a neat juxtaposition of two very different salmon hunters:


A mother and calf were circling and presumably catching and/or sharing a fish. After they finished and started moving on again, the calf did four big breaches:


It's a real treat to have the whales around on almost a daily basis! What a great way to kick off the official summer season....

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Quick Superpod

Last night I got word that all three Southern Resident pods were heading in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Could this be our first superpod of the year?? After hanging out with a bunch of fellow naturalists at the SSAMN BBQ last night, I decided to head to the west side and see if I could see any of them. I heard from a friend that some had already gone north, but you never know, so out I went.

When I got to the west side I could see a few whales still slowly heading north in front of Lime Kiln Point State Park. By the time I got down to the rocks they had turned and were facing south, and two whales were just lollygagging a little ways offshore. They would surface lazily before going down on another long dive, occasionally spyhopping or tailslapping. I was thrilled to identify them as K22 Sekiu and K33 Tika - my first time seeing K-Pod whales this season!

K22 Sekiu

I couldn't believe how big Tika was. He's ten years old, and has grown a lot since last year.


The whales stayed in one place for a long time, and then three or four more came down from further north. I'm pretty sure they were probably the rest of the K12s, the family group that K22 and K33 are a part of. There was one little calf that was probably K43, born last year. At this point they seemed to decide to move on, and picked up speed heading to the south.

This morning I wondered who went north, who stayed south, and who would still be around with all three pods supposedly having made it in last night. I went out to Land Bank on the west side and learned from a friend that many whales were heading out west, possibly Ks and Ls. Well, that was a very short superpod visit! There were, however, very spread out whales on the westside: J-Pod was still here. Some whales, including J2 Granny and her family group, had already passed by and were well south, but I settled in to wait for the rest of J-Pod to show up.....and they did!


J26 Mike, with the outskirts of Victoria on Vancouver Island in the background

From left to right: J17 Princess Angeline, J35 Talequah, and calf J47


As they continued south, a young whale - I think J47 - breached four or five times in a row. It was an awesome sight, with nothing but the water and the cloud-covered Olympic Peninsula in the background....


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Close Encounter With J-Pod

Yesterday afternoon I headed out to Lime Kiln Point State Park, and was immediately filled with disappointment as I saw whales were already passing by heading north. Even though I thought I had missed them, I walked down to the shoreline to get a better idea of what was going on. Sure enough, as many of the observers who had watched the first passby headed back to their cars, the whales turned around and started coming back south. Perhaps because they were swimming against a strong flood tide, several of the whales came close to shore - often there is a counter current along the shoreline here which might have made for easier swimming. My disappointment was replaced with anticipation as I saw them angling in towards the lighthouse. I found myself sitting on a different rock than normal, which gave me this awesome vantage point of a whale passing the lighthouse while excited viewers looked on:

Prints of this photo available here

The whales surfaced right in front of me, probably no more than 50 feet away. There's no words to describe the feeling of being that close to a wild killer whale. Here are a few shots:

L53 Lulu, who at some time recently switched from L-Pod (with whom she spent the winter) to J-Pod, as she's done the last several years

J40 Suttles
J41 Eclipse - a very special whale to me since I saw her just a few days after she was born in 2005. It's amazing to see how much she's grown since last year. I've started making some photo galleries featuring specific whales, and by request J41 was the first whale I did. See some of my favorite photos of her here.
I compared notes with fellow whale-watcher Jeanne, and we determined that J2 Granny, J19 Shachi, J41 Eclipse, J37 Hy'shqa, J40 Suttles, J41 Eclipse, and L53 Lulu were all in the group of whales that passed close to shore. J8 Spieden and L87 Onyx were further offshore, with the rest of the J14 family group.

I headed a little further south along the shoreline, where this group of whales stalled out and foraged in the strong tide rips. (The rest of the pod was reportedly much further south in Haro Strait.) I watched them until about 5:30.

J19 Shachi with J41 Eclipse, foraging in the strong currents off of Land Bank Westside Preserve

The grand finale of the afternoon was another close passby, this time by a turkey vulture:


I'm guessing the two groups of whales eventually reunited, as between 8:30 and 9:00 PM I heard lots of great vocalizations on the Lime Kiln hydrophones.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Interesting Island Insects

Over the last week or so, while out looking for whales or birds, I've come across some interesting insects. Here's a sampling....

Cinnabar moth, Tyria jacobaeae, introduced to control ragwort
Soldier beetle, Cantharsis rotundicollis

Western tent caterpillar, Malacosoma californica - currently experiencing a big population boom on Vancouver Island, and apparently here as well as there have been a lot of them around

An as yet unidentified dragonfly....my insect book isn't very strong on Odonata...any ideas?
Oregon tiger beetle, Cicindela oregona

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sunset Orcas

As I had hoped, the whales did come in on Tuesday night, though it was after dark by the time they reached the shores of San Juan Island. They went north during the night, and made their way back south towards the westside of San Juan yesterday afternoon. They passed the lighthouse heading south, but I wasn't there to see them, being busy watching Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals (here's hoping Vancouver finds a way to right the ship, in a hurry!). After the disappointing hockey game, we decided to go to the westside and see the sunset and see what we might see. When we arrived in the parking lot at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, I said, "I think we're going to see something awesome." I turned out to be right!

There were no whales in sight when we arrived so I settled in north of the lighthouse out of the wind to watch the sunset. Several harbor porpoise were surfacing close to shore, and we were focused on watching those when all of a sudden, Kawooof! An orca surfaced right off the kelp in front of the lighthouse! Here's a one minute video clip showing some of what followed:

video


I love seeing the whales - and I love seeing them even more at sunset, when they're close, when it's unexpected, and when it's quiet. Last night's whale encounter was all of those things. It was a special moment, one of those whale encounters that really rejuvenates the spirit.

Prints of this photo available here

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Biking with Birds and More Marina Wildlife

Finally, some warmth and sunshine! It's starting to feeling like the summer season here in Friday Harbor, and not just because all the tourists have been arriving. The weather is finally catching up to the calendar and it's nice enough to go for walks without a jacket or sweatshirt on a daily basis for the first time this year - it's awesome!

One afternoon last week I went down to American Camp for a walk in mid-afternoon, and because of the time of day it was pretty quiet. I did see a flycatcher that didn't match any of our most common species, and while it was unfortunately silent (flycatchers are easiest to identify by call), I did get the chance to get a photo of it. It wasn't a great shot, but with the input of several other birders, I'm fairly confident in calling in a western wood-pewee (182).

There's a nice six mile route to bike leaving from my house, and with the nice weather I rode it on both Saturday and Sunday. I was amazed at the number of bird species I was able to see/here just while bike riding! On Saturday I counted 28 species on my evening ride, then during the afternoon on Sunday I counted 20, including some different ones from the day before. Some highlights included violet-green, barn, and northern-rough winged swallows; olive-sided and Pacific-slope flycatchers; house finches, purple finches, and American goldfinches; California quail; orange-crowned warblers; and a Bewick's wren.

There have still been a few jellyfish around, though not nearly in the numbers as last week. I contacted a local jellyfish expert, Claudia Mills, who confirmed my IDs from my last post, although she explained that there are likely many more gregarious jellyfish (Phialidium gregarium) than aggregating jellyfish (Eutonia indicans). The former tend to outnumber the latter locally, so I'm sure there were lots of the gregarious jellies with a few aggregating jellies mixed in rather than being all aggregating as I had written. It was interesting to learn that such congregations of tiny jellyfish are typical in the spring, though this year the "invasion" was about three weeks later than normal.

Other interesting sightings continue to happen from the marina, as well. Last night there was a school of fish hanging out here, which I wouldn't hesitate to call the biggest I've ever seen. The fish were small, and densely packed together, and the school was HUGE. I wonder if there could have been a million fish there? I wonder what kind they were? Unfortunately it was getting too dark to get a very good look.

Also yesterday, a couple of river otters came through. Often we hear them at night, or they swim by at dusk when it's too dark for photos. During the day they usually just pop up quickly, too fast to go get the camera. Yesterday was an exception, though, and one even jumped out on the dock long enough for me to snap this photo:


Most people erroneously call these sea otters, but sea otters were locally extirpated from the region during the fur trade. These otters are fairly common here and do swim in the sea, but they are actually river otters. There has been a sea otter population re-established on the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula, and perhaps one day they will re-expand their range into the Salish Sea. Several years ago (2005?) there were actually several sea otter sightings here, including one off Lime Kiln Lighthouse that I was able to photograph, but for now it's still same to assume that most if not all otters seen here are river otters.

Finally, word just came tonight that many resident orcas are inbound in the Strait of Juan de Fuca! L-Pod did blow right out west as suspected after our last whale report, and no resident orcas have been seen in inland waters since then. Many, including yours truly, have been eagerly anticipating their return, and it sounds like tonight could be the night! Hopefully these whales - at least J and L Pod whales by the sounds of it - will stick around a while, and hopefully my next post will include some whale photos!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Jellyfish Invasion

There have been thousands and thousands of tiny jellyfish in the marina this week. They seem to come in waves - sometimes the ocean is full of them and other times you can only see a few individuals. Yesterday and today I spent some time on my hands and knees at the edge of the dock (with camera in hand, of course) to take a closer look, and I was surprised to see no fewer than six different species. My cnidaria ID skills are very amateur, so I'm definitely looking for input if anyone knows more than I do about my tentative species identifications.

The most abundant species is the aggregating jelly (Eutonia indicans), shown here against both a dark and a light background:



The next most abundant species, that really seems to come in waves, is the thimble jellyfish (Sarsia spp.):


The only one of these species I have seen before is the cross jelly (Mitrocoma cellularia), which has been abundant in recent summers though completely absent in years prior to that:


Now come the three I'm not so sure of, and which I only saw in very small numbers. I think this might be a water jelly species (Aequorea spp.). It doesn't seem to quite have enough "spokes", but it's the closest I can come with my Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest: A Photographic Encyclopedia of Invertebrates, Seaweeds And Selected Fishes field guide:


This one might be a hanging stomach jelly (Stomotoca atra). If it is, as the name suggests that would be the stomach hanging out of the bell, surrounded by the lips.


Finally, and this is another tentative ID but also another great example of why jellyfish common names are awesome, the closest I can come on this one is the blob-top jelly (Neoturris breviconis):


As with most wildlife viewing efforts, you end up seeing more than your "target" species. While taking such a close look at the water I also found this coonstripe shrimp (Pandalus danae) sitting on this giant plumose anemone (Metridium farcimen):