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Sunday, June 29, 2014

June 24th: Spieden Channel Residents!

Between a busy week at work and lots of whales around, there's hardly been time to look at my photos, let alone blog! (Life is hard, I know!) It's been fantastic to have J-Pod and about half of L-Pod around so much this month, especially compared to last year when sightings of the Southern Residents were few and far between. The fact that they're sticking around is a sure indicator that they're finding enough to eat, at least for now.

The whales have been making fairly typical rounds, making the journey up to the mouth of the Fraser River and back to the San Juans, or doing the famous "westside shuffle" on the west side of San Juan Island. On Tuesday, June 24th, however, they did something very unusual! As they made their way south from the Vancouver area, it looked like they were going to take Rosario Strait south as they sometimes do. Then, they veered west and came down President's Channel. It looked like they were going to proceed south through San Juan Channel, but instead they made it part way down San Juan Channel, then did a U-Turn and headed back north up the channel. At about this point I was getting several frantic text messages from friends, because the whales were heading right for the little park by my house! Unfortunately I was in town and not at home - just getting off work and in the grocery store of all places! I jetted home as quickly as I could, but got to Reuben Tarte County park just as the whales were leaving. I could tell they had been really close to shore (unusual enough for them to be in San Juan Channel, but even more unusual for them to be close to shore there!). I was about ready to keel over in sadness at having missed them when they came to my neighborhood when I realized it looked like they were aiming for Spieden Channel. Thankfully I have a friend up there who has invited me to come watch whales from her property when it looks like they're heading that way, so I got up there just in time to see them! They were still close to shore, and it was an amazing encounter!

My first shutter click of the passby - this cartwheeling whale!

I haven't ever seen residents in Spieden Channel before, even though they maybe pass that way a couple times a year. I really never expected to see them so close to shore from there!

J35 Talequah and J47 Notch

They were in a very playful mood, too. This breach was so close to where my friend and I were standing.  I almost missed it, but whipped the camera around just in time to capture this much of it:

You have to put in a lot of time to see whales from shore, but when the stars align, often you end up much closer to the whales than boat-based whale watchers get to be. I've often been on a boat and seen people on shore, thinking, "They're so lucky right now!" On this day, I was one of those people the boaters were looking at!

J19 Shachi
J17 Princess Angeline on the left

I love watching whales swim right towards me (who wouldn't?), but it's usually a site I see from Lime Kiln. This was a totally new perspective!

The yellow hillside of Spieden Island really made a nice back drop. This shot of L92 Crewser was one of my favorites of the day.

L92 Crewser
Actually, a lot of the big boys were hanging out pretty close together towards the back of the group. J26 Mike and J34 Doublestuf were there too, along with these guys:

L95 Nigel with J14 Samish

J27 Blackberry
As I watched the whales head west through Spieden Channel, it looked like they were going to angle out south into Haro Strait. So of course I was tempted to follow! I went out to Lime Kiln, where I ended up meeting up with a bunch of other whale friends.

Js and Ls did indeed head south in Haro, but they fanned out way across the strait and were bucking a strong flood tide. Their playful mood was over for the time being and they seemed to be doing some foraging, so it took about two and a half hours for all of them to pass by! The first group was among the closest to shore, however, and it was awesome to watch them porpoising towards us:

J26 Mike (left) and J2 Granny

It was fun to watch whales with other "orcaholics" - some of them I've known for years, and some who I just met that day! As I was talking with my friends, we realized the people right next to us on the rocks were followers of our Facebook pages! (Orca Watcher Photography on Facebook if you don't follow me there yet.) That's one of the coolest things about sharing my photos on social media - I've met some very neat people as a result! We had plenty of time to chat as groups of whales slowly meandered by.

It wasn't just orcas, either. A couple of times groups of harbor porpoise came by pretty close to shore. This one had a calf with it! I've seen porpoise calves before, but never photographed one, until now. Despite shooting on rapid fire, this is the only shot I got of the little guy, he/she surfaces so quick!

Look at that little blow!! You can only see it because the dark body of mom is right behind.
I was really lucky this week that shore-based whale watching dovetailed so nicely with a crazy week at work, so there were more J- and L-Pod sightings in store for me! My schedule all week was pretty much work, whales, sleep - not that I'm complaining in the least! So many more photos to come soon.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

10 Common Myths About Southern Residents

Well, it's that time of year - summer on San Juan Island, aka tourist season. Don't get me wrong, it's great that so many people get the chance to see killer whales in the wild, but as a naturalist, it's hard not to cringe sometimes at some of the "facts" you overhear people sharing about these whales. The worst part is, many of these don't just come from visitors, but also come from the mouths of locals, some of them kayak guides or naturalists. When people get excited about the whales, there's an amazing opportunity there to educate them, but that education is only valuable if it's correct! So here are a few of our favorites - with the truth.

June 22nd L-Pod pass. From left to right: L55 Nugget, L118 Jade, L103 Lapis, L105 Fluke, L82 Kasatka, and L95 Nigel.

  1. We know Granny is 103 years old because we first saw/photographed her in 1911.
    I can't believe how often I hear this one. I know it's a nice idea, but the truth is, we have no idea how old Granny is. Her birth year of 1911 is an estimate researchers arrived at by making some key assumptions about her relationships to other whales: namely that she was the mother of J1 Ruffles and that he was her last calf. The truth is, the earliest photographs of Granny were taken in the late 1960s, when she was already an adult. So while we're sure she's an old whale, the age estimate could be off by several decades one way or the other. Also, photo ID studies of killer whales didn't start until the 1970s.
  2. Granny and other older whales are slower/less active than younger whales.
    Old age doesn't slow whales down at all. Every whale, from the youngest calf to the oldest matriarch, has to be able to keep up with the pod, which travels up to 100 miles a day. Granny is often in the lead, sometimes a mile or more ahead of the rest of the pod. And the old girl has still got it: she's been known to breach, spyhop, and tailslap with the best of them.
  3. I've seen the residents eat seals, pink/sockeye salmon, etc.
    The locals in particular really like this one. First of all, there are two types of local killer whales: marine mammal eating transients and fish eating residents. These two groups are most strongly differentiated by what they prey upon, so if you see a whale take down a seal, it's a transient. Secondly, it is hard to believe at first that residents will preferentially feed on Chinook salmon even when other fish species are more abundant, but that's what decades of research have shown. This paper summarizes it nicely. They do occasionally eat other fish species, but in the summer months in the San Juans, they are eating almost exclusively Fraser River Chinook.
  4. The whales respond when I scream at them, sing to them, my baby cries, etc.
    Honestly, we all have our superstitions about what bring the whales close, but most if not all of them are just wishful thinking. For one, the sound barrier between air and water is pretty good, so when you're on shore, chances are the whales can't hear you at all. Sometimes sound can travel through boat hulls, but I'm still pretty skeptical any human noise is loud enough to reach the whales. The whales do travel close to people by choice, sometimes even expressing some mutual curiosity, but I think this is purely on their terms and not dictated by anything we do.
  5. They're called residents because they're here all the time
  6. The whales are migrating through right now
    The names "resident" and "transient" are very misleading, I'll give you that. They originated when researchers saw the residents on an almost daily basis during the summer months and had only rare encounters with the transients, but as mentioned above, the true difference between them is their diet. Fish-eating and mammal-eating orcas would be more accurate descriptors. The residents do indeed spend longer lengths of time in the Salish Sea than transients (which are also started to be known as Bigg's killer whales), and they can and have been seen here in every month of the year, but they tend to roam the rest of their range more in the winter months. They are not, however, migratory like some of the larger whale species are. They don't have a breeding grounds and a feeding grounds, and when they're heading north in Haro Strait they're not "migrating". These guys feed and breed all year round, and similarly can be found anywhere within their range from British Columbia to central California at any time of year.
  7. The whales always pass by in the morning/evening/at 2:36 PM....
    "What time do the whales come by?" is the most notorious tourist question every year. To give people the benefit of the doubt, some animals do have certain patterns, such as being more active in the morning or evening, etc. Additionally, the whales do sometimes get into certain cycles; for instance, when they're making their regular circuit from the San Juan Islands to the Fraser River, it often takes about 24 hours, meaning for several days they may consistently be seen on the west side of San Juan in the morning. But I'm fond of saying that just as soon as we think we've figured out a pattern for the whales, they change it, and do something different. While they do have certain typical travel patterns, the truth is they can be in any place at any time of day, and there's no regularity to what time of day they're seen in a particular spot.
  8. There's the dominant/alpha male
    It's a common configuration among social animals, so it's easy to forgive this mistake at first: that the biggest whale out there is in charge and is surrounded by his harem of females. What's especially frustrating is when you still hear people saying this after having imparted some more accurate information as a naturalist on boat or on shore! Researchers first thought the big bulls were probably the top dogs, too, but over time we've learned that resident orca societies are matrilineal. Each pod is made up of a female, her offspring, her daughter and sisters' offspring, and so on, with up to five living generations at a time. Those guys sporting six-foot dorsals are really big mama's boys, spending their whole life in mom's family group and often swimming right beside her as an adult. Mating only occurs when unrelated families get together to socialize.
  9.  They're putting on a show for us!I like to call this the SeaWorld mentality. It shows just how far our perceived dominion over nature has gone. I understand for many people they use this phrase without really believing the whales are doing something for our benefit, for instance, by saying "That was quite a show!" after an amazing close passby. But the reason this phrase rankles a lot of us naturalists is because there are indeed those out there who think the whales are showing off for us. I can say with 100% confidence, however, that the whales are not coming close, breaching, being active, or anything else for us. Everything they do, they're doing it because they want to. Actually, that's the real beauty of watching wild killer whales. What an honor to be able to witness whales doing what they want to do. SO much better than SeaWorld.
  10. That whale is so fat - she must be pregnant!Okay, this one has become an especially hot topic among our local whale community right now. Perhaps it's because it's been since August 2012 that we've had a new calf born to the Southern Residents (not good - but that's a subject for another blog post), but the topic of orca babies has been prevalent lately. Rumors about which whales might be expecting, based mostly on large bellies visible in breach photos, have been flying back and forth over Facebook during the last couple weeks. We do have many females who are "due" to have a baby, either because of their age or the time it's been since they had their last calf. But the reality is orcas don't show any reliable visible signs of pregnancy. There have been times people are sure a whale is pregnant based on how she looks, but she doesn't ever show up with a baby. (Stillborn calves could be a possibility, but it's happened to often for that to always be the case.) Other times we can go back and look at photos of a whale who gives birth to see what she looked like ahead of time, and again, no obvious clues. So while we're all more than ready for little J50, K45, or L120 to join us, we have no idea when that will be or who will be the lucky mom.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

L-Pod Joins the Party

On June 19th we heard that many more whales were headed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At first we thought we might be in for our first superpod of the season, but it turned out it was the majority of L-Pod (no K-Pod) - still something to be excited about because 60+ whales were about to meet up! They met up offshore of the south end of San Juan Island and spent most of the day hanging out there socializing. Towards sunset they made their way up the west side of San Juan Island, where I caught up with them off of Land Bank's Westside Preserve.

When I got out of my car, I could hear blows almost constantly, but I couldn't see any whales! Turns out they were mostly way offshore, facing south, still partying (lots of breaching and tail slapping), but not making much progress. A few whales were in a bit closer.

L92 Crewser and a couple friends off Land Bank

I had a hard time deciding which way to look. Left: whales, right: amazing sunset - kind of a surprise because it was drizzling when I left home!


Distant breach with the Olympic Mountains in the background
Or sunset?

As you can tell, I tried to see as much as I could of both, until the sunset faded and the whales became too far away to see in the dimming light.

J28 Polaris in the blue light of dusk
The next morning, the 20th, I thought it might be worth getting up early and heading to the west side, as after spending the night down south, I thought the whales might come north. The first thing I saw when I got back to Land Bank at 5:45 AM was this guy - a nice breakfast companion:

I also heard a willow flycatcher (year bird 178)! The birding remained pretty good over the next hour and a half - surf scoters, American goldfinches, pigeon guillemots, Swainson's thrushes, etc. (almost 30 species), but in turns out I had missed the whales. They went north about an hour before I got there. I think the L12s headed west, but the rest of Ls stayed.

After seeing tons of amazing pictures on Facebook from yesterday's whales up north, I was determined to see them today if I could! Late morning my wish was granted, again from Land Bank: Js and Ls made their way north in two large groups. They were mostly separated by pod, but L87 was with Js, and J27 was with Ls.

They were a little ways offshore in tight groups, and I just love love love seeing so many dorsal fins at the surface at once!

There are a couple cool pairs of brothers in J-Pod. This is one of them. Is it just me, or is J38's fin maybe starting to sprout?

J38 Cookie and J34 Doublestuf
L-Pod! (And J27)
Lines of whales!

As they meandered north, I started to head home. I got about 3/4 of the way there when I heard some whales had turned around, so I did too! I got back to Lime Kiln in time to see the L-Pod whales forage their way south.

L47 Marina
Does this mean they're going to leave? I hope not, but I guess we won't know til tomorrow!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Proposed Southern Resident Critical Habitat Expansion: Public Comments Needed

NOAA is currently considering a petition to expand the critical habitat for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. Public comments are due by June 24 - amazingly, they have received fewer than 200 comments as of this post, while the recent petition to include Lolita under the ESA listing generated almost 20,000 comments. Please consider taking a moment to send in your thoughts: the result could mean expanding the SRKW critical habitat from just Washington inland waters to including most of the outer coast where they are known to forage. Some potential talking points:
  • We have more data than ever before to show where SRKWs are spending the entire year (including satellite tag data from recent years)
  • It's important to protect their year-round habitat, not just their summer habitat, if they are to recover
  • SRKWs are spending less time in inland waters than they used to, particularly in the spring, making it even more necessary to extend habitat protection to the rest of their range

All the info you need can be found here. The top link on the page will take you to the comment form.

Here are the comments I submitted this afternoon:

Since 2006 when the original Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) critical habitat was designated, we have obtained much more data showing how, where, and when these orcas use the outer coast. Our knowledge of coastal habitat use by SRKWs has increased dramatically via NOAA's winter coastal cruises, satellite tagging, acoustic monitoring, and additional well-documented public sightings. I strongly believe these data are sufficient to warrant NOAA accepting the proposed petition and expanding the SRKW critical habitat from the inland waters of Washington to include the proposed range on the outer coast from Cape Flattery, WA to Point Reyes, CA.
Endangered species only have a chance at recovery if we consider them in an ecological context, including protection of the entire habitat that makes up their range. Presently, SRKWs only have their core summer habitat protected. It is unreasonable to expect them to recover unless we extend protections to include what we now know are important areas for them for much of the year. Researchers have believed in the importance of the outer coast to SRKWs for decades, and data collected in the last eight years have done nothing but support what we have long suspected. This additional information makes it apparent that the proposed outer coast critical habitat range is essential to the whales' survival and recovery, meeting the ESA definition of critical habitat.
Additionally, in recent years (since about 2007), SRKWs have been spending less time in inland waters, particularly in the spring months (see attached graphs). Figure 1 shows a dramatic decline in SRKW visits to the Salish Sea in the month of April, and Figure 2 shows a similar trend for the month of May, both potentially correlated to depressed Chinook salmon spring returns to the Fraser River. Quite simply, if the whales are spending less time in the Salish Sea, their present critical habitat, they are spending more time elsewhere, making it even more important to protect these habitats that are serving an increased importance to them. 
I hope you will take all the additional data collected into consideration and will make the decision to expand the SRKW critical habitat as proposed in this petition.

You may recall the graphs I'm referring to as I've posted them recently on this blog. Here they are again:

Figure 1: Number of days Southern Residents were seen in the Salish Sea in the month of April (blue), with data from The Whale Museum's Orca Master data set (1990-2012) and Orca Network sighting reports (2013-2014). Total escapement of Fraser River spring Chinook of both the age-1.3 and age-1.2 runs combined (orange). The Chinook abundance numbers were estimated off graphs in the Pacific Salmon Commission technical reports. Circled in green is where I things seemed to change – in 2007.

Figure 2: Number of days Southern Resident Killer Whales were present in the Salish Sea in the month of May (blue) from The Whale Museum's Orca Master data set (1990-2012) and Orca Network reports (2013-2014) with a red trendline. Average catch per unit effort (CPUE) for the month of May for Chinook Salmon on the Fraser River's Albion Test Catch fishery (orange) with a green trendline. Notes on CPUE data: No test catch data available from 2007. 2001 data is from 25 days, 2002 data is from 24 days, all other years are an average of all 31 days of May.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ozette: Visiting the Outer Olympic Peninsula

Last week we went on a four day camping trip to Lake Ozette on the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula. This is one of those places I've long wanted to visit but hadn't ever been to until now. It's only about 180 miles from Friday Harbor, but with two ferry rides and lots of winding roads it took about seven hours to get there, which is part of the reason why it hadn't happened until now!

The town of Sekiu along the Strait of Juan de Fuca - namesake for one of our whales (K22)

The big draw for me to Ozette was the nine mile Ozette loop hike I've read about. While we didn't have the best weather for our trip (what do you expect for camping in a rainforest?), conditions did cooperate pretty well for our hike. It was overcast but not windy or rainy. The trail is an equilateral triangle with two sides being mostly boardwalks through the woods and one side being along the beach.

The boardwalk trail to Cape Alava

Bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood, against a backdrop of multicolored moss
About two miles out the boardwalk takes you through a clearing, the site of a historic homestead slowly being reclaimed by the forest:

"Ahlstroms Prairie"
Then, not too long after, our first glimpse of the rugged coastline. This part of Washington is the most uninhabited shoreline in the Lower 48, feeling more like Alaska than the rest of the United States. There's no road access here, or hardly anywhere along this part of the coast - this particular stretch goes over 20 miles with no driving access or development of any kind. Even the "trail" itself is really just the beach, which means the going is pretty slow! Stretches of gravel beach are interspersed with rocky shorelines that you just traverse any way you can.

It's a refreshing sight to take in: a beach in a fairly pristine state. Seaweed covered rocks, thriving tidepools, offshore roosts for pelagic birds, foraging bald eagles, and crashing waves. Nothing else. In fact, during our hike we saw just as many eagles (11) as other people.

We came across a gray whale skull not too far down the beach.

Keith pays his respects

Another highlight was locating some petroglyphs from the Makah tribe that predate European arrival to the Pacific Northwest. Pretty cool to see some killer whales etched into the rocks:

The true highlight, though, was the geology: all the sea stacks make for a very impressive landscape.

In some places, the headlands are only passable at low tides. There are overland trails you can take if you arrive at high tide, but I was glad we snuck through before the water got too high. This overland "trail" looked more like a rock climbing wall - notice the rope and near-vertical incline to the left of the sign. I would have been a bit scared to tackle that!

Of course, no where is truly pristine anymore, least of all the ocean. There was a fair amount of large garbage/debris that washed up, including lots of buoys, canisters, and derelict fishing gear. Several items appeared to be of Asian origin:

When we got to Sand Point, where the trail heads back inland, I was looking at some seals through binoculars and I was surprised to see a sea otter pop up! I really shouldn't have been surprised - when people identify our Salish Sea river otters as sea otters I often tell them how since the hunting era when sea otters were locally extirpated, they haven't returned to Washington's inland waters but are thriving on the outer coast where they have been reintroduced. Still, I wasn't expecting to see one! We actually ended up seeing about ten or so. I wasn't carrying my telephoto lens so unfortunately this is the only picture you get to see of one:

The hike was well worth the trip, but of course I was keeping my eyes open for wildlife all the time. In addition to the Swainson's thrush (170), warbling vireo (171), black-headed grosbeak (172), and cedar waxwing (173) that I added to the year list in recent weeks, on this trip I added purple martin (174 - in Friday Harbor while waiting for the ferry!), common nighthawk (175), and red crossbill (176). The most entertaining birds were the ones that visited camp, however - the normally skittish Steller's jays were quite the camp robbers:

Notice the blue "eye spots" indicative of the coastal morph of the Steller's jay - inland birds have white eye spots.

One of my all-time favorite birds, the Steller's jays are a Pacific Northwest icon conspicuously absent from San Juan Island. They don't like to fly over water - but have made it over the shorter waterways to nearby Orcas and Shaw Islands. As I mentioned, on this trip these guys were always hanging around looking to swoop in for food scraps. When we were packing up, with doors and the trunk open, I was surprised to see one fly out of my car!

There were also lots of fledglings being fed, particularly robins, chestnut-backed chickadees, and golden-crowned kinglets. Here's a young kinglet begging for food from its parent - it was amazing to see how many insects the kinglets could round up in a very short period of time! I guess you have to keep pretty busy to keep a hungry baby satiated.

Finally, no camping trip is complete without a couple of campfires - that's one of the best parts!

And a few roasted marshmallows, too....oops, burned this one!