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Sunday, August 31, 2014

August 26th: Ts Everywhere!

On Tuesday, August 26th I got to go out on the zodiac the Western Explorer with a friend who was about to leave after spending the summer interning here. With some residents having gone out west the day before and others way up north out of range, first thing in the morning the whale report was looking a little questionable. I had a good feeling about the day, however, and it turned out my gut reaction was right. There were transients ("Ts") all over the place!

When we left the dock in mid-afternoon, one group of Ts was right outside Friday Harbor! It was the T65As, a group that has been around a lot this summer.

The T65As right outside Friday Harbor

With quite a few boats on scene and reports of another, larger group of transients not too far away, we just took one quick look at the T65As then headed east through the San Juan Islands towards Rosario Strait. As we got close, the whales fanned out into no fewer than four different groups as they rounded the eastern tip of Orcas Island. I've been watching whales here for over ten years, but this was something I had never seen before - we were with one group of transients, and just about everywhere you looked you could see another group! It was more like watching a spread out group of resident matrilines.

Turns out the whales were not in nice, orderly groups however. The different transient family groups present were all mixed up, and with no adult males present (just about 20 transient females and juveniles!) it proved difficult to get IDs, both while we were there and later from my photos. The best as I could piece it together, present were the T34s, T36s, and T37s, but I don't think that's enough whales to account for everyone there, so I think there was at least one more family mixed in there too!

A mixed group of transient killer whales in Rosario Strait

Things lined up perfectly for this shot:

Transient killer whales (I believe the T37As) in front of Mt. Baker
I love being on the water late afternoon/early evening - the lighting is so great. And I got to do it twice in three days!

Groups were just meandering this way and that - they didn't seem to have any destination in mind, but they didn't really seem to be hunting either, at least not as far as we could tell. Right before it was time to leave, three of the groups met up and gave us one last beautiful surfacing.

Probably my favorite photo of the afternoon

This one was taken a split second later

T37A on the right

It's always interesting to think about residents and transients interact, or at least how they share the habitat. There are definitely days we have both ecotypes in the area, but it also seems like at times its either one type or the other that's prolific throughout the Salish Sea. This was definitely a transient day! There were even more groups than the five that we saw, with no residents around at all. I estimated there were probably about 30 transients around! Other days we have three or four groups of residents and no one finds any Ts! I really do wonder what they think of each other.

It's hard to believe we're already approaching September. I'm definitely not ready for the days to be getting shorter, but traditionally September is one of my favorite months of the year here, including having some of the best whale sightings! I can't wait to see what this September will bring.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August 24th: Some Js and Ks in Swanson Channel

On Saturday it looked like J-Pod might be leaving us and heading back out to the open ocean, but then late in the day they turned and came back in! Towards sunset all was quiet on the west side, except for the blows of some very spread out orcas....and then two much longer blows of a couple of surprising humpbacks!

J34 and another whale slowly head south on the evening of August 23rd

At the same time, two adult humpbacks head north!

Early on Sunday the 24th I was excited to hear that there were a lot of whales off the south end of San Juan Island. It was looking good for an evening whale watch with my brother and his family aboard Legacy Charters. As we left Snug Harbor, we went north to meet up with Js and Ks as they were entering Swanson Channel in the Canadian Gulf Islands.

On our way out we paused to watch a purse seiner haul in his catch - pretty dismal, I thought! Word is fishing in US waters is not good this season, even though projections were for another high return this year after the record-setting sockeye run in 2010 (young from that year should be returning this year). Unfortunately for US fishermen, warm oceanic conditions have pushed all the adult fish further north, and about 99% of them are returning to the Fraser River through Johnstone Strait in Canadian waters rather than a split between that route and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Not a lotta fish for humans (or whales?) in US waters this summer
K33 Tika must have heard I was having a hard time identifying him (see my last post), because not only was he the first whale he saw on this evening, but he kept popping up everywhere throughout the whole trip. I think I saw him from all angles, so maybe I can be better about identifying him from now least until next year's growth spurt.

K33 Tika

His mom K22 Sekiu was nearby, and we got several nice looks at her as well.

K22 Sekiu

K22 Sekiu

The Hodgepod Summer continued, as we had yet another new combination of whales traveling together. Present were J2 and the J14s (without L87), the J19s, the J22s, the K12s, K13s, and K14s.

J14 Samish

Later we heard the rest of J-Pod (including L87) and a bunch of L-Pod whales were further south off San Juan Island! Surprise! No one saw the Ls coming in.

I love being on the water late in the day. The lighting is so beautiful. Watching whales in the Canadian Gulf Island is always pretty spectacular, too.

Another shot of K22 Sekiu

At one point, J32 Rhapsody came cruising by us out of nowhere

J32 Rhapsody

The whales were spread out traveling, occasionally stopping to forage. It was a very peaceful encounter.

Nothing better than sunset whales!

On the way back to port we cruised by the cormorant rookery on Henry Island:

We also pulled in Captain Spencer's crab trap and got a nice close up look at some Dungeness crabs of all sizes. My niece and nephew were fascinated but did not want to touch one!

We had a great evening on board the Legacy!

With members of all three pods around, I was assuming we might have a superpod kinda day on Monday. Not so! The mixed group of Js and Ls went west, and the northern group of Js and Ks continued north. So far north, in fact, that on Tuesday they were seen near Campbell River, BC! That's pretty unusual, and it's probably not a coincidence due to so many fish coming down the Inside Passage instead of through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

No residents doesn't mean no orcas around, however! There have been a lot of transients around, and on Tuesday I would be in for an encounter like no other.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The New Word of the Summer: Hodgepod!

hodgepodge |ˈhäjˌpäj|
a confused mixture

superpod  |ˈso͞opər,päd|
the name given to a large group of killer whales from different extended families

hodgepod |ˈhäj,päd|
the name given to a confusing mixed up group of killer whales from different extended familys

It has been something else this year trying to keep track of who's where when it comes to the whales - they've been mixing and matching into new combinations on a nearly daily basis. It's taken extensive comparing of notes among whale watchers to try and piece together what's going on, and on any given day there seems to be multiple stories circulating as to who's out there and where they are. It seemed a worthy time to coin a new phrase - we're not seeing that many superpods, we're seeing a bunch of hodgepods!

August 19th was one such day. Members of all three pods were around and had headed north in Haro Strait in the morning. When I got off work I went to Lime Kiln and saw that some whales were coming back south again. Who would it be this time? A big group of L-Pod whales!

We call them "L-Pod" like they're some kind of cohesive unit, but the fact of the matter is they split regularly into at least three different groups and rarely travel all together. I'm actually not sure I've ever seen all of L-Pod together without any Js or Ks present - if I have, it's not very often! The afternoon of the 19th was the closest I've come this summer: all of L-Pod except the L12 sub-group were there, including the usually elusive L54 sub-group!

The whales were pretty far offshore, but it was impressive to see so many of them (about 25) traveling together in one big group. As they swam against the strong flood tide, a big freighter wake came through, and about half a dozen of them surfed it! It was awesome to see just the tip of the dorsal fin protruding above the water as they "sharked", or zipped along right below the surface at top speed.

Two orcas sharking as they surf a freighter wake
Way offshore seemed to be where the "boy's club" was hanging out. It included L88 Wavewalker (the first time I personally have seen him this year), L84 Nyssa, L92 Crewser, L95 Nigel, and L105 Fluke.

L92 Crewser and L84 Nyssa
On the evening of August 20, word was that Js and Ks were heading south down Boundary Pass and Ls, who had been heading west out the Strait of Juan de Fuca, had turned and were coming back. Suspecting all the whales might meet up early the following morning, I made an early morning of it myself and went out to look for whales. There's something extra magical about being out there whale watching first thing in the morning. There haven't been any sighting reports and there are no boats with the whales, so you're totally on your own to find them. When you spot some dorsal fins slicing through the water, as I did on this morning, your heart definitely skips a beat!

Not only did I "find" the whales on my own, but I had an even rarer experience (in August, our busiest month, no less!): I was the only person watching them on the rock at Lime Kiln as the first whale approached! Alas, it ended up being the only whale to approach. She got just in front of me, then flipped and went back south, as both she and all the whales behind her turned around.

In true hodgepod fashion, I had no idea who I was looking at. Had Ls made it in the night before, or did some or all of the Js and Ks come down from the north? Turns out, it was K13 Skagit.

K13 Skagit in the early morning of Lime Kiln - a rare moment when it was just me and the whale
The K12s, K13s, and K14s (no K16s or K21) did the west side shuffle all day, and when I got out from work my timing was perfect to see them approaching Land Bank heading south.

The K13s with K25 Scoter in the middle
K20 Spock (right)
K26 Lobo, one of the whales that was closest to shore
I pieced together the picture later with the help of a few friends, but at the time, I still wasn't sure if some L-Pod whales were present or not. K33 Tika was not helping the matter. He has been my "nemesis" whale this year; he's grown a lot, but also seems like a shape shifter, so I've been misidentifying him all the time. As he swam by on this afternoon, totally backlit of course, I mistook him on one surfacing for L92 Crewser and another for L95 Nigel. Lest you think I'm making things up, check out these photos - both of Tika were taken yesterday, and the shots of L92 and L95 were taken earlier this summer. He's a shape shifter, I tell you!

K33 Tika and L92 Crewser can look a lot a like

So can Tika and L95 Nigel

As the Ks continued heading south in the glassy waters, a purse seiner passed them. It's always interesting to see the juxtaposition between the two salmon fishermen: one human, one cetacean.

After the seiner passed, for a few minutes I could snap photos of just whales and water. I like these kind of shots, even when they're far away - it sort of gives a sense of space, a sense of just how far these wild whales roam on a daily basis.

As every day draws to a close, I find myself wondering, what will tomorrow bring? Of course it's always true that we don't know what the next day holds, but with all these unusual groupings of whales, it seems more true than ever!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

August 13th ~ A Magical Evening at Lime Kiln

After a very sunny, dry summer we finally got a couple days of much-needed rain. The temperatures were still warm, but with it being so gray out, it was easy to hole up, and I was already in my pajamas at home after work when I heard that whales were heading towards the west side. I debated staying comfy, but only for a moment - soon I was out the door with camera bag in hand. Good decision!

It was one of those nights where most of the people on the rocks are your friends. That's one of the things I love about Lime Kiln - moments like that. The lighting was ethereal as the fog banks came and went. It had the essence of winter about it - except it was warm, and still light after 6 PM!

The mood - foggy some directions....

....clear in others
We couldn't see that far too the north, so weren't sure how close the whales were. We did have a bit of a wait, but there was plenty of stuff to look at, including a Steller sea lion and a couple of bait balls:

See the two with mouths full of fish?

Who says glaucous-winged gulls aren't diving birds?

Finally it cleared enough that we could see a line of whales coming - but then the fog came back in as they passed us. It was pretty neat, though hard to focus the camera!

There was a gap between this first group of whales and the next one, and during this time a minke whale went by way off shore!

There was also a great blue heron drifting towards us on some kelp. First it caught a gunnel:

That's a fish hanging out of the heron's beak

Then the heron took flight, and landed on another raft of kelp right in front of us! With the lighting, it was perfect:

Next up were J42 Echo, who paused to presumably pursue a fish:

J42 Echo

And not far away was big brother J26 Mike, with an amazing blue-gray backdrop:

J26 Mike
Pretty much the only people at the lighthouse other than whale-watching friends of mine were this couple getting married! Perhaps not the weather they were hoping for, but still not bad timing!

Exchanging vows, then watching whales - all from the top of the lighthouse!
Then the fog REALLY moved in. As J2 Granny came by, we could hear her before we could see her, and then glimpse her only barely. The next couple of whales we couldn't see at all!

Shore-based whale-watching in the fog
Boat-based whale-watching in the fog
Finally, just as I was going up the hill to leave, the fog lifted again just enough to see L87 Onyx rocketing by the lighthouse, a bit behind the others.

Just another one-of-a-kind night at Lime Kiln! :)