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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sept 28: Spectacular Sunday

On Sunday, September 28th I had the chance to go out with Legacy Charters, and the weather couldn't have been better. It was sunny, fairly warm, calm - and days like that are at a premium this time of year! And best of all, we left the dock with multiple whale reports.

First we headed up to Spieden Channel where a humpback whale has been hanging out for several days. This is BCY0409, also known as Yogi.

At first it seemed to be doing the "regular" humpback thing, of surfacing several times, then fluking and going down for a longer dive.

I knew this whale was known for being pretty active, but I still wasn't prepared when about two minutes into one of its dives it instead did a full body breach out of the water! My camera wasn't ready, and nor was anyone else's, but I have a perfect image in my mind of turning my head and seeing the whale completely airborn with the sun hitting it perfectly. I'm just sorry I can't share it with you! But he/she remained more active after that, doing a little bit of a surface lunge....

...and then tail-thrashing like crazy!

Here was one huge headstand/tail wave:

We got to see Yogi do one more nice set of surfacings and a dive in front of Spieden Island before moving on....because, after all, this was just the opening act!

Next we cruised down the west side of San Juan Island to where J-Pod (and three K-Pod whales) were hanging out. They had been doing the "west side shuffle" throughout the day, and we ended up meeting up with them off the south end near Salmon Bank. While the morning fog had thankfully mostly burned off by this point, we found ourselves in a thick patch of it as we came upon the whales!

When we arrived on scene, the whales seemed a little undecided as to which direction they were going to go. It was pretty cool to just sit there in such an ephemeral setting with whales basically in all directions, going all different directions! The lighting was spectacular because it was both sunny and foggy at the same time. J22 Oreo and her oldest son J34 Doublestuf came across our bow:

J22 Oreo and J34 Doublestuf

J22 Oreo and J34 Doublestuf
It was also my first good look at K21 Cappuccino in a while!

K21 Cappuccino
Right before we had gotten on scene, the two separate J-Pod groups had met up with each other. After the milling about we saw, it seemed like they finally decided to group up and head north. As always, it was so cool to see so many whales all together!

That's J28 Polaris front and center

J26 Mike

While they were clearly traveling, they were a bit active, too!

J46 Star (left) and J47 Notch (right)

We were so close to Whale Rocks, Captain Spencer just had to take us over to see these charismatic "Grizzlies of the sea" - Steller Sea Lions. I love these guys!

Then as we cruised back north to Snug Harbor, we went right by the orcas again and got one more look.

From left to right J16 Slick, J42 Echo, and J28 Polaris

From left to right J14 Samish, J28 Polaris, and J42 Echo

This time of year, when we don't know how much longer the whales will stick around, every encounter takes on a little extra meaning. These moments will have to tide us "orcaholics" over a mostly whale-less winter. This special afternoon was certainly a memorable one, and will be a fitting grand finale if that's what it ends up being (though I hope I've got another month of whales, of course)!

One more shot from the trip home, showing where I do most of my whale-watching - Lime Kiln Lighthouse. It's always fun to see it from the water-side!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sept 24: Split Fin the Humpback

While the resident killer whales have been spending less time here recently compared to a decade or more ago, one species showing the opposite trend is the humpback whale. Ten years ago, humpbacks were a rare sight here, but now it seems like we're seeing more of them every year and for longer of the year each season. We've had some regulars hanging out a lot this summer, and one of them spent 3-4 days doing the "westside shuffle" last week: Split Fin.

Split Fin

The story I've pieced together is that Split Fin was born to one of our other local humpbacks in 2006. In 2007, he/she was seen with a freshly split dorsal fin, possibly from a vessel strike. Despite the injury (which has made it a very distinct whale), this animal continues to frequent our local waters every summer, and is now a full grown adult!

I went out to the west side to look for this humpback on September 24th, and was totally surprised when I got to Lime Kiln and the first whale I saw was an orca! Where did you guys come from?

The orcas were heading north as the humpback went south, and I captures this distant shot of both species on the surface at the same time. They're undoubtedly aware of one another's presence; I wonder what interaction if any they have?

My first-ever photo of a humpback AND an orca!
As the spread out orcas meandered their way north, Split Fin came all the way along the length of the shoreline at Lime Kiln about 100 yards offshore - my best shore-based viewing of a humpback to date! The whale was moving slow enough I could walk down to the next rocky outcropping in between surfacings.

Humpback whale blows are much bigger and louder than orca blows!

Split Fin arches for a dive
Split Fin is unusual for a humpback in that he/she has a unique dorsal fin - most humpbacks are identified by their tail flukes. I got one nice shot showing Split Fin's flukes:

In addition to this afternoon, I've of course been spending some other days on the west side, trying to fully enjoy the great weather while it lasts. When you sit and wait for whales, you also see lots of other amazing things. I love these quiet moments out in nature:

Male harlequin duck

Female harlequin duck

Great blue heron
I've also added a few birds to the year list: black turnstone (183), American pipit (184), and pine siskin (185). Oh yeah, I've had a few more glimpses of the orcas, too :)

All of J-Pod and three K-Pod whales (K16, K35, and K21) have been around. Often this time of year, all three pods are traveling together. I can only assume we're seeing just a third of the population because there's not enough salmon here to feed everybody, like in years past.

Still, even if there are fewer whales here, and even if they're further away than other times (like that last amazing encounter with J34 - see my previous post), every time seeing them is magical in its own way.

Offshore orcas the evening of September 26

Offshore orcas the morning of September 27

As beautiful as this week's worth of sightings were, the weekend would hold another day to remember, full of unbelievable wildlife sightings....stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

September 20 ~ Whale Watch with J34

On Saturday, September 20th, with some friends and family in town, we decided to head out on a morning whale watch trip with Western Prince. With all three pods hanging out on the banks the previous evening, I was worried they might all head out west and leave, but was thrilled instead to hear the news that whales were spread from Eagle Point to Hannah Heights as we left the harbor.

It was a beautiful day to be on the water, and fun to see some of my favorite spots from the water after spending so much more time on shore these days. Here's Cattle Point with harbor seals and cormorants on Goose Island in the foreground and the Olympic Mountains in the background:

As we pulled out into Haro Strait, the whales were suuuuuper spread out - one here, one there - and seemingly all foraging. With about three whales in front of and in shore of us, we stopped the boat to just watch and see what they would do. After a long dive, all of a sudden J34 Doublestuf popped up off our bow cruising towards the island.

J34 Doublestuf
J34 Doublestuf with San Juan Island in the background

He cruised in towards shore, and we floated along watching a couple other whales, presumably the rest of his family, the J22s. After a while, I was starting to wonder where he had gotten to, because it had been several minutes since he had been up. That's when I noticed a fluke print (a calm looking area on the surface of the water created by the kick of the flukes creating an upwelling) about 50 yards off our bow. A second later, a huge black and white shape came into view heading straight for us!

I have to preface this with a major disclaimer that moments like this do not happen often. I've been watching whales up here for over a decade, and I can count on one hand the number of moments I've had like this from a boat. Whale watch captains do their best to follow the distance regulations to give the whales their space, but the fact of the matter is the whales don't know or follow any such rules, and when they choose to break them, we get to enjoy a rare close encounter.

Doublestuf proceeded to swim all along the starboard side of the boat, just beneath the surface, turned on his side so his dorsal fin didn't even break through the surface. I was shooting the camera without looking through the viewfinder, taking in this rare encounter firsthand, and I could tell he was actively turning his head - look at us, or perhaps looking for a salmon trying to take refuge under the boat? It was all over so fast, but moments like this are pure magic, and I'm grateful I captured as much of it as I did on film. I should probably mention these shots were taken with my lens zoomed all the way out - to 18mm!!

J34 Doublestuf: RIGHT. THERE.

You can tell here he's turning his head to look under the boat

Another perspective, showing just how close to the boat he was!
As he got further away again, we all suddenly had a much better appreciation for just how big he is - sometimes it's hard to tell without something to scale them by!

J34 continues to forage
After a while it was time to leave the orcas, but our wildlife watching was far from done! Just a bit south of the whales we saw a nice group of Dall's porpoise. As has been the case in recent years, these guys have been scarce during the summer months, only to return in full force in September. I wonder where they go?

Dall's porpoise!!
Then we went by Whale Rocks, where the Steller sea lion action is always fantastic this time of year. I just don't get tired of watching these guys!

Stellers and the Cattle Point Lighthouse

Thinking about entering the water.... (he did)

Steller and Mt. Baker!

It's always a multi-sensory experience watching Stellers. You see them, smell them, and hear them as they dispute whose rock is whose. 

Sea lions make easy work navigating the complicated currents of Cattle Pass, though this guy came up coughing. Wouldn't want to meet those teeth much closer, that's for sure!

Needless to say, we had a fantastic trip, and it was phenomenal introduction the local wildlife for our guests!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

September 11 and 13: New Baby L120 and Another Lime Kiln Morning

As is typical for September, members of all three pods have been traveling together. They've been coming and going regularly in and out the Strait of Juan de Fuca, spending a day or two here and then going out west for a day. I made an early morning of it before work on Thursday, September 11 on the west side. I met up with some other hopeful whale waiters, but unfortunately there were no orcas on the west side. The trip out there was not for naught, however (it never is). I saw both Vaux's (181) and black swifts (182), finally adding some birds to the year list, which had been stagnant since July!

The whales did turn up late morning heading towards the south end of San Juan Island, so I went back to the west side for lunch. Bingo! My timing was right on. I saw some whales heading north towards Lime Kiln, and assumed they were probably Js, who are usually in the lead. Then the guy next to me on the rock, who was looking through binoculars, said, "There is a very small whale in there..." Could it be?! Yes! It was new baby L120 and family!

L120 next to L86 Surprise
J49 has been the "baby" of the community for some time now, but he's over two years old. It's been a while since I've seen such a young calf - it was noticeably a very tiny killer whale!

L120's tiny dorsal fin is visible against mama's saddle patch
As has been the case seemingly since L120 was born, probable aunt L27 Ophelia was right by the little one's side as well. The rest of the family was close by, too.

They got up just past Lime Kiln, then turned and went back south, so we got to see the little one twice! 

Can't get enough of these baby pictures, even if the lighting wasn't the best!

Right before the Ls turned south, another whale came just up to the kelp at the south end of Lime Kiln. I couldn't tell who it was because I only saw her head-on, but I heard from a friend who was further south that it was J2 Granny! She got close enough that I could see her saddle patch underwater, and she literally came right up to the edge of the kelp then turned around under water and went back south.

A whale, reportedly J2 Granny, approaches - then turned around underwater within sight of the rocks and went back south

The whales stayed south the rest of the day then swung out west on the 12th, but again were heading back in by Friday evening. There was a book signing in town where many whale lovers were debating when the whales would arrive on the west side. That night before dark? Would they go north during the night? First thing in the morning? I told several people (somewhat tongue in cheek) that my gut feeling was the would be at Lime Kiln at 7 AM. Backing up my belief, I was out at Lime Kiln at 6:45. (Side note: I realize I'm probably in the minority of people who set their alarm earlier on weekends than on weekdays....)

The view of Mt. Rainier to the south was one of the clearest I have ever seen from the island (the picture doesn't quite do it justice):

Mt. Rainier - 130 miles away!
I was looking through binoculars, partly to look at the mountain and partly to scan for whales. Hmm, did I just imagine a dorsal fin? I kept looking.....did I just imagine another? Then a whale breached, erasing any doubts! There they were! I looked at my "watch" (phone): 7:01 AM! And no one else believed me - there was only one other person in the park! (Disclaimer: I'm not usually right when I predict the whales, but if you predict enough, you've gotta be right sometime!)

L87 Onyx in the lead, with J2 Granny right behind

Following Granny and Onyx were Shachi and Eclipse, then the J14s. It's so peaceful to be out there for moments like these! Well worth getting up early for:

There was a little gap between this group and the J16s, who came next. Inshore of the whales it looked like there were a few Dall's porpoise....but they looked a little different. Turns out it was three lags! (Pacific white-side dolphins are often called lags as an abbreviation of their genus, Lagenorhynchus, maybe because their common name is such a mouthful?)

Lags are common further north in BC but for some reason we rarely see them in the San Juans, though there have been quite a few sightings of 1-3 animals this summer. I've seen lags in BC, but this was my first time seeing them in the San Juans, so I was pretty excited! They're one of the only things that could entice me to look away from the orcas!

Three lags in Haro Strait

Lags have two speeds: fast, and faster. They zig-zagged this way and that, and actually came fairly close to shore!

The distinct rounded dorsal fin of a Pacific white-sided dolphin - both our porpoise species have more triangular fins

For some reason, locally lags seem to like to harass the orcas, or at least it looks that way as they buzz around the whales like flies. Particularly the adult males; I've heard of L95 Nigel, L85 Mystery, and L87 Onyx all being tailed by a lag in recent months. These guys were just swimming along paralleling the orcas....

J26 Mike in the background, lags in the foreground

....but when J26 Mike surfaced, they made a 90 degree turn and headed straight for him!!!

Three lags speed towards Mike
He proceeded to go down on a long dive - we didn't see him again for something like seven minutes, and the lags proceeded on their way north. So cool to see a little bit of inter-species interaction, even if we have no idea what it means!

More whales were visible to the south, and would remain so for the next several hours, but they never came up north. The J16s were the last whales to actually pass Lime Kiln, rounding out J-Pod Group A and continuing north.

J36 Alki

I'm just in love with being out at Lime Kiln early in the morning. The sightings have been fantastic, and I know such mornings are limited before it gets too dark and cold to hang out there! The lighting is so magical, no matter what you're looking at.

California gull