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Saturday, August 24, 2013

An August Whale Update

No Southern Resident Killer Whales were seen from July 20 to August 7, an unusually lengthy absence during the summer months though not entirely unheard of (in 2000 they were gone for five weeks!) On August 7th a somewhat surprising group of whales returned to the westside of San Juan Island - the L54 matriline along with orphaned boys L88 Wavewalker and L84 Nyssa. Last year, these whales only came into inland waters two or three times over the course of the whole summer, so it was interesting that they should spend some time here by themselves for several days in mid August. What's good to see is that Wavewalker and Nyssa have seemingly found themselves an adopted mom in L54 Ino; often adult males that lose their mothers as these two have don't live much longer unless they find another adult female to latch on to. 

Starting on August 11 all members of J-, K-, and L-Pods made a brief visit to the Salish Sea, the first of several. Each time, they have stayed less than 48 hours, and only on that first visit did they go north to the Fraser River; every other time they've stayed off the south end of San Juan Island before departing out the Strait of Juan de Fuca again. We expect all three pods to be traveling together as we approach fall, but the consensus is there must not be enough fish (Chinook) here to sustain them all for more than about a day.

Looking again at the Albion Chinook test catch data in the lower Fraser River, we see perhaps why this is. There have been a few spikes in Chinook numbers, perhaps luring the Southern Residents back to their traditional foraging grounds here near San Juan Island:

The cumulative numbers are still pretty dismal, however:

People often ask me how I manage to get close photos of the whales so often. The honest answer is: I don't! For many weeks, this is about as close as I got to a killer whale:

Adult male orca off Eagle Point of San Juan Island August 18, 2013
While selfishly I of course want to be seeing the whales every day, the most important thing is that they're finding food wherever they are hanging out. I'm okay with them not being here as long as they're eating! Still, I've been making every attempt to see them when I can, though often it's when you're not trying to hard that things work out. On August 17th I had an appointment to meet someone at Lime Kiln, and was surprised when the L54s and Co. were out off the lighthouse most of the afternoon. They had been around several times, but like the visiting superpods lately, I was beginning not to expect them to go far enough north for shore-based whale watchers like myself to be able to see them. So it was a nice treat.

One big spyhop from L54 Ino was a surprise admist all the foraging these six whales were doing
L88 Wavewalker, a twenty year-old male who is the last living member of his matriline, seems to have found a pal in L108 Coho, a seven year-old male that is one of L54 Ino's offspring. The two were fishing together on this afternoon, and I've heard from others this seems to be a bond in the making.

The superpod visits have been so brief and far from the best shore-based whale watch sites that I had a feeling I was going to have to get out on a boat to see them. The stars aligned for me on the evening of August 22nd, when the news of an incoming superpod aligned with a friend and co-worker being willing and able to take his boat out for a little evening cruise. We headed out from Roche Harbor and met up with the incoming whales in the middle of Haro Strait a little to the northwest of False Bay at about 7:15 PM.

The first group of whales we came across was the L47s. I'd be remiss if I didn't say that seeing this family group of five whales brought a tear to my eye, it was so good to see Southern Residents after weeks and weeks of hoping for this sort of encounter.

From left to right: L91 Muncher, L83 Moonlight, L110 Midnight, L115Mystic

The whales were super spread out over dozens of square miles. In this shot of L91 Muncher surfacing, I didn't even notice until looking at the image on the computer that there's a breaching whale in the background (the little black and white speck on the horizon to her left).

L91 Muncher

L-Pod, in addition to having several "dead end" matrilines with no juvenile or reproductive age females, also has a strongly male-skewed ratio among its young whales. The L47 matriline thus holds an even bigger importance when it comes to the future of the pod. Both juveniles in this family group are males, but there are two reproductive age females. We hope to see Muncher with her first calf soon, and with her first offspring being six years old, L83 Moonlight is could also have another calf at any time.

L83 Moonlight and her six year-old son L110 Midnight. We would expect and hope Moonlight to be having another calf soon; for L-Pod's sake we hope she will have a female!
The L47s were traveling steadily along until Moonlight started feeling a little playful. She did a couple of tail slaps and then a huge breach! I could hardly believe my eyes - such perfect lighting!

Breach by L83 Moonlight

As the L47s continued heading towards the shore of San Juan Island, we moved a little further south where we came across the J22s. We followed along with J32 Rhapsody for a while. She was having a grand old time by herself! While we only saw one breach from Moonlight, Rhapsody must have breached about ten times, with some tail slaps thrown in for good measure.

Breach by J32 Rhapsody

Another breach from J32 Rhapsody

As she continued south, we went a little ways further offshore where we found the K12 matriline. While the sunset lighting on the breaches above was perfect, it was also pretty neat to look in the other direction and have the whales silhouetted against the background of the Olympic Mountains or Vancouver Island.

K37 Rainshadow (left) with his mom K12 Sequim

K33 Tika, who at age 12 has a fin "sprout" - he'll have a towering dorsal fin before too long!
All too soon the sun was setting and it was time to head back. We left the whales heading southeast as we turned back to the north, making a stop along the way to see Lime Kiln Lighthouse from the water side - opposite of where I usually am!

Usually I watch sunsets from the rocks below the lighthouse - this time I was out on the water looking back towards shore
It was a pretty special evening out there, made all the more extraordinary by the news the following morning that the whales were already heading west again back out towards the open ocean, presumably in search of the Chinook they are still not finding here.


James said...

I always enjoy your updates. Sat on "my bench" at Lime Kiln and enjoyed the sunset. But it's just no the same without Bob "Lighthouse" Otis.
Thanks again, Monika.

James Taylor

jill i said...

Ahhhh, still haven't seen any orcas on my kayak trips from Smallpox Bay down south of Lime Kiln. Marvelous photos and great to read your informed updates.