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Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 6th: Five Epic Hours of Whales and Wildlife at Lime Kiln

With word the night before that all three pods were inbound from the ocean, I knew I should get out to Lime Kiln early on the morning of Saturday, September 6th. When I got out to the park at about 7:00, it was one of those blissfully peaceful mornings, so calm you can hear the porpoises breathing. I was sitting on the rocks about half an hour after arriving listening to those soft exhalations: Pfft.......Pfft. Suddenly, I heard a different noise. Faint - far away - but distinct. Kawoof! That was no porpoise!

It was pretty magical for me to hear the orcas before I  saw them. After hearing two breaths, I started scanning to the south and spotted a dorsal fin a mile or so away, but heading north towards me! Fighting an ebb tide, it took this first small group of whales a looonnnng time to get to Lime Kiln. When the first one finally arrived, I wasn't too surprised to see it was J2 Granny!

J2 Granny surfaces in the beautiful early morning light off Lime Kiln
Not far behind Granny were J16 Slick and her son J26 Mike. I could see more blows to the south, but very spread out, and when Mike stopped to forage for a while off Lime Kiln it was clear the whales weren't in any hurry to go anywhere. Eventually, over the next two hours, the rest of J-Pod "Group A" came by heading north: the rest of the J16s, the J14s, the J19s, and L87 Onyx:

L87 Onyx - look at that reflection of the dorsal fin!
Whales were visible pretty much all the time, but in the gaps when there weren't any close, there was so much other wildlife to look at it! It was just all around a very photogenic morning.

The first rays of sunlight on Lime Kiln Lighthouse
A belted kingfisher - the best photo I've ever gotten of one in flight!

The harbor seal action was incredible, too. There were at least three seals fishing right off the park throughout the morning, and they caught at least three large fish throughout the morning.

Harbor seal with a fish. He was looking at me with eyes like he thought I might steal it from him! The water looks so gray because this was before the sun really came up over the island - it was early!
Two harbor seals - much nicer lighting after the sun arrived!
A little early morning yoga, harbor seal style!
Once Group A had continued north in their ones and twos, which took until almost 10 AM, I could see a lot of blows all at once off Land Bank to the south. Yesss!! Who could this be? Turns out it was all of Group B (J11s, J17s, J22s) traveling together, most of them right along the shoreline!

Photographer and whales - the best of shore-based whale-watching!
I love this shot because it shows just how close to shore the whales come! When you see them appearing over or around the rocks, you know you're a few moments away from an incredible treat!

Not only were they close, the lighting couldn't have been better! I've spent a lot of early mornings on the west side this summer without seeing anything, but this one panning out made it all worth it!

I've gotten photos of orcas and harbor seals in the same shot when I've been on a boat, but this was the first time I had a chance to take a shot like this from shore! Usually the harbor seals are on the rocks behind the whales, but this time the harbor seal is in the foreground!

The lighting was such that you could see the whales underwater as they swam past, truly one of the most magical experiences. Unfortunately the surface was just a bit too disturbed to get clear underwater photos, but it still led to some neat abstract shots. I really like photos like this, though I've learned over the years that unless you've looked at as many whales and whale photos as I have, it's not always clear what you're seeing! Here's one showing just the head of the whale underwater, and you're seeing the white chin, white eye patch, and the beginning of her exhalation:

Here's the next photo in the sequence to help you better visualize what you're seeing:

Here's another set of three shots where you can see a whale underwater, right before she comes up and surfaces onto the back of the whale in front of her!

Then in this one even I'm not sure of what all is visible in terms of how many whales or which body parts you're seeing, but I like it anyway! I do see the head of one whale in the middle, right above the ripple across the middle of the photo. That whale is "upside down" compared to the ones in the photos above.

Not only was the light amazing for seeing under water, it was perfect above water, too! How about this "rainblow" from J32 Rhapsody?

A beautiful "rainblow" from J32 Rhapsody
Two whales were trailing just a minute or two behind the main group, and all of a sudden they raced by to catch up. It was J28 Polaris and J46 Star.

J28 Polaris
At this time I wasn't even sure if all three pods had made it in, or stayed in for that matter. But when all of Js had gone by, I was still seeing blows to the south, so I knew somebody else was here! About 20 minutes after the Js came the K14s. As is always the case on these epic passbys, as soon as they had passed, the next set of whales was approaching. Following the K14s were the K12s, and then the K13s in three spread out groups of their own. The final two whales to pass were K20 Spock and K38 Comet.

K20 Spock and K38 Comet
When all of Ks had gone by (we're talking about a little over 4 hours of whales slowly passing by at this point), there were still more blows to the south! These whales (they had to be Ls, by the process of elimination, as everyone else but three K-Pod whales had been sen at this point) were milling, and while I waited to see if they would make their way up, the harbor seals continued to entertain.

It looked like the seals were catching salmon:

I'm not sure if these two both saw the same fish at the same time or what, but they proceeded to fight over one good sized fish right in front of me!

The action was happening so fast I was just clicking the shutter with no real idea of what I was capturing, but it was a real treat to go home and look through my pictures later! Here's one seal lunging out of the water right at the other:

And my gem seal shot of the day, one of the seals completely submerged underwater but visible holding a very tattered salmon in his mouth!

In the end, the whales to the south turned and went back south, but I couldn't complain! After five hours and more than five hundred photos at Lime Kiln, it had truly been an epic morning. Ultimately Js and Ks continued north to the Fraser River while the 3 K-Pod whales and all of L-Pod spent their whole day off the southwest side of San Juan Island. Big news came in the afternoon, however, when the Center for Whale Research announced that they had documented a new calf, L120, born to L86 Surprise!

If you've been reading my blog throughout the summer, you've probably heard me mention that J49 Ti'lem I'nges was the last calf born to the Southern Residents - in August of 2012! We had to wait an astonishing 25 months to welcome the next new member to the population. While we were all beyond thrilled to hear about this new little one's arrival, the long drought with no babies is certainly a cause for concern. The very latest research from the Conservation Canine crew (the folks that use scat-detection dogs to  collect killer whale fecal samples for some pretty cutting edge hormone analysis) is that it looks like the whales are getting pregnant, but seem to be miscarrying, perhaps due to nutritional stress. It goes back to the very same core message: no fish, no blackfish.

The arrival of this little one was also a little bittersweet because of the family group he/she was born in to. The last whale born to L86 Surprise! (yes the exclamation point is officially part of the name) met an unfortunate fate. You can read about L112 Sooke on one of my previous blog posts here.

But I don't mean to digress too far into the sad side of things - the arrival of L120 was a very happy day! So happy that I got tears in my eyes when I heard the news. It would take a few days until I would have the opportunity to meet L120 for myself, but I would get a chance to see him/her before too long!! Stay tuned for those photos - you won't believe how small a 6 foot long, 400 pound cetacean can look!

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