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Monday, May 20, 2013

May 19th: A Whale Smörgåsbord

The ultimate cuteness post has to be delayed another day, because another amazing encounter with J-Pod on Sunday, May 19th is taking precedence. Not only was J-Pod around the west side of San Juan Island in the afternoon, but there were transients up north, more transients in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a minke whale in San Juan Channel, and if the chatter on the radio was any indication, a whole lot of humpback whales out in Juan de Fuca as well. Whales, whales everywhere! This is why people like me live here.

On Saturday I just caught the tail end (no pun intended) of J-Pod coming south in Haro Strait, and on Sunday my timing was a little better as I arrived at Land Bank's Westside Preserve just as J36 Alki did - she was the very first whale, followed shortly thereafter by mom J16 slick and big brother J26 Mike. The whales were pretty far out, but were spread nicely giving me a chance to get some good IDs as they passed by. After the J16s were J19 Shachi and J41 Eclipse, then J2 Granny and J8 Spieden, the four J-Pod whales I didn't have a chance to see during Wednesday's amazing encounter when J-Pod had just returned.

This photo is a little blurry because it's cropped from such a far away shot, but it's not often you see a whale surfacing right in front of another one that's spyhopping!

We have our fair share of poor boaters in the Salish Sea, but these people behaved just right. With no indication of whales in the area (there were amazingly no whale watch boats with the lead whales), they were cruising along in Haro Strait. As soon as they saw whales they shut off their engine and were treated to some pretty close passes:

The whales continued south, and I told Keith, "Let's stay a while, because I think they're going to come back and they're going to be closer." We sat in the sun and read for a while, and just when we were thinking we would head to town to get some lunch, we saw some whale watch boats reappear to the south. Sure enough, a scan with binoculars revealed a couple dorsal fins again pointed north. We repositioned ourselves to a different part of Land Bank and settled in to wait. Little did we know what was in store for us! It all started when J27 Blackberry, a big adult male, breached four times in a row. Not often do you see the big guys launch themselves out of the water like this!

Breach by J27 Blackberry
(Note: All pictures from this whale encounter can be viewed in a photo gallery here, where prints can also be purchased. I heard there was a J34 Doublestuf fan watching this amazing encounter. Unfortunately, he wasn't one of the closest whales as Js made their way north and thus didn't make it into my pictures this afternoon, but I have a special tribute gallery to Doublestuf here. You may also like some photos of him in my May 17th post about J-Pod's return.)

Not far behind Blackberry was J19 Shachi, who did a couple of tail slaps as she passed inside the kelp bed. The next photo with some shore-based whale watchers gives you an idea of just how close to shore she was.

Tail slap by J19 Shachi

J19 Shachi wows Jenny and Bill as they watch from shore
It's hard to pick a favorite moment when all the whales come by together, many of them close to shore, but this next one will stick out in my mind for a long time. Ten year-old male J38 Cookie was swimming with four year-old male J44 Moby and three year-old male J47 Notch. The three of them came so close to shore that you could see them swimming underwater just off the nearest kelp bed. They move so effortlessly. There's nothing I love more than being able to see the whales underwater!

J38 Cookie heading towards shore

J38 Cookie

J47 Notch

J44 Moby peaks above the surface

J47 Notch (right) spits water out of his mouth as he surfaces sideways next to J44 Moby

J47 Notch underwater

J44 Moby begins to surface

J44 Moby

J38 Cookie begins to surface

J38 Cookie

J38 Cookie surfaces with bull kelp draped over his dorsal fin
It's always thrilling when the whales pass this close to shore - after all, these are wild killer whales! But it's especially fun when not only are they just yards from shore but they're playful, too. Keith said that, after five years of living here, it was probably the best whale encounter he's ever had.

Not sure what this whale did, but it created quite a splash!

Young calf J49 tail slaps next to aunt J40 Suttles

One of many tail slaps!

J49 surfaces next to J40 Suttles

L87 Onyx, who has been traveling with J-Pod since 2010

Tail wave
The whales were moving slowly enough that it was possible to walk along the shoreline of the Land Bank property with them as they swam. Onyx and his group were the last ones that were so close, so I headed north with them, camera still in hand. Often Onyx travels with older female J8 Spieden, but not today. He was in with the juveniles and some other females goofing around and having a good time!

L87 Onyx surfaces on his side behind J38 Cookie

Look at the size of that pec fin! A pec wave by L87 Onyx

The first of several inverted tail slaps by Onyx

L87 Onyx in close contact with a couple of other whales
It took a while for the whales to return this spring, but if the first five days of J-Pod behind around is any indication, we're in for another great summer of whale encounters! This is definitely a day that will not soon be forgotten.


Lifeforce said...

Re: Orca Watcher Boat Photo: As soon as they saw whales they shut off their engine and were treated to some pretty close passes.

In Canada and the US all vessels (including kayaks) must not block the pathways of orcas. In Canada, it is the law that they must also stay 100 yards away and in the US it must be 200 yards (400 yards from approaching orcas).

In addition to pollution, and food depletion, boat harassment is a major threat facing endangered orcas. It is psychologically stressful and can physically injure them. Boat traffic can interrupt their communication, feeding, socializing and more.

In Canada Report Violations to Department of Fisheries and Oceans 1-800-465-4336

In US Report Violations to National Marine Fisheries Service 1-800-853-1964

Peter Hamilton
Lifeforce Founding Director

Monika said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for sharing the laws about boat behavior around whales for those who might not be familiar with them. Details can be found at

I volunteered with the Soundwatch Boater Education program for several years so am familiar with the regulations myself. Maybe I wasn't entirely clear in the post, but these people did the right thing in that they didn't see any whales until they were within 200 yards, and when they did, they immediately put their engine in neutral, which is the suggested action.

On a personal level, I would much rather someone shut their engine off than try to maneuver their boat while close to whales, because they become a noisy, unpredictable moving object if they do so which undoubtedly causes more disturbance to the whales' behavior.

As someone who also worked on a whale watch boat for many years, I can say with certainty that it is impossible for boats to always stay away from whales. Whales have their own intentions and no matter how hard you try to follow all the laws, at times they will surface closer to boats than the law dictates. Afterall, no one has told the whales what guidelines they're supposed to follow. When these encounters happen, I hope people like the boaters in this photo fully enjoy them and gain a new appreciation for the whales, because only if they care for them will they strive to protect them.

Vera said...

Very well said, Monika. I was surprised by the post from Lifeforce and naturally agree 100% with you.
Besides that, it was great to hear about your experience with that super passby and I am hoping for many more like that for you this summer.

Julie said...

so awesome, monika!! can't wait to be there and see them again for myself. love your pics... great ones!