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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April 19th: J-Pod and Playful Dall's!

On the morning of April 19th, still riding the high of the amazing transient killer whale encounter from the night before, I heard that J-Pod was on the west side hydrophones! By the time I heard about it, I thought I had probably missed seeing them from Lime Kiln, so I headed for our boat Serenity. Turns out the whales were super spread out and moving very slowly, so some were still south of Lime Kiln, but we met up with the J19s north of the lighthouse near County Park.

J19 Shachi
When J51 was first seen on February 12th, it looked like J19 Shachi, at age 36, was the mother. Amazingly, as the Center for Whale Research has had more encounters with the whales since then, they have identified Shachi's not quite 10 year-old daughter as the mom - making J41 Eclipse the youngest ever documented mother in the Southern Residents (she'll be 10 at the beginning of June). The center has also determined that J51 is a male.

J41 Eclipse with her son J51, just over two months old
Eclipse is my favorite whale, in part because I had an amazing encounter with her right after she was born, so it's exciting for me to see her become a mom herself (although I'm a nervous "auntie" because she's such a young mom!). It's also special to me that I was on the water the day her first offspring was seen back in February. It was great to be able to spend some quality time with this little family of three on this Sunday morning.

We could see some other whales towards the other side of Haro, so we started heading out that way when we saw Jim Maya aboard the Peregrine had some bow-riding Dall's porpoise.

He was nice enough to "share" them with us, and we had them briefly bow-riding on Serenity! It's quite an experience to be so close to them in our low to the water boat - the porpoise are nearly half as long as the vessel!

When we continued on towards the other whales, we found J27 Blackberry:

J27 Blackberry
Blackberry's group was heading back across Haro towards Henry Island, where all the whales seemed to be converging. As we followed them over there, we also saw some of the J17s.

J17 Princess Angeline wows some shore-based whale watchers
As the whales grouped out, we left them heading north and turned back to our home port. It was so great to have this encounter with Js, because the next day I would be heading off to do some lobbying on their behalf!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

April 18th: T65As, T65Bs, and T75Bs

It's been a busy month, which means I've gotten way behind on blogging! I've got so many photos to share, so I'll see if I can't catch up a bit this week. I'll start back on April 18th when in the evening we got out on the water on our boat and met up with the T65As, T65Bs, and T75Bs (a total of 10 or 11 whales) in the northern part of Haro Strait.

A friend of mine had spotted them from shore on the west side of San Juan Island and thought she had seen close to 10 whales, but when we got out there we could only see four - members of the T65As.

From left to right T65A, one year-old T65A5, and four year-old T65A4

They were cruising north at a good clip, but all of a sudden something caught their attention. And just like that, the other whales appeared too:

Right off Kellett Bluffs, they started pursuing something with huge surface lunges:

We could see some splashing that wasn't coming from the whales, and soon I could tell that it was a Steller sea lion that they were after:

Sea lion (left) and lunging orca (right)

It's amazing to me how small the Steller sea lion looked next to a whale! I'm usually impressed with their size, weighing it at up to 2000 pounds.

Interestingly, it was the T65As that I saw briefly harass a Steller sea lion off Lime Kiln a few weeks ago. With so many young whales in this group, it seemed to be a training exercise as they all played cat and mouse with the sea lion. There was a lot of white water throughout the very dramatic pursuit!

I got so close to getting an amazing photo on this next one where one whale breached as another one simultaneously cartwheeled, but it turned out blurry!!

At least the breaching whale did so again, and that photo turned out:

The young whales were definitely enjoying the chase:

The little calf in the picture above is T75B2, probably only about two weeks old in this photo. It's nice to see a killer whale baby boom across ecotypes (residents and transients) this spring!

Two week old T75B2
I was surprised they let this little one get as close to the action as they did - while it seemed to be "play" for the whales, the teeth of that sea lion can cause serious damage, especially to a little whale! The sea lion was dwarfed by the adult whales, but the calf looked smaller than the sea lion.

Another blurry shot, but enough to show that the calf and the sea lion are about the same size, with the edge likely going to the sea lion
After about half an hour, the game was suddenly up, and the whales all at once decided to move on and let the sea lion go. A couple of them passed closer to where we were parked as they continued north, including T65B:

A nice cropped "ID shot" of T65B, the younger sister of T65A
I thought this amazing evening with the whales would be my "whale fix" for a while, but little did I know that the very next day all of J-Pod would show up in Haro Strait! Stay tuned with my next post, which will cover my "checking in" with one of the J-Pod calves :)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

April 9th: The J16s

After missing out on seeing the J16s on the previous couple of days, they were doing the west side shuffle on April 9th, and with sunshine and calm waters it was just too tempting not to head out in our boat to go find them. We met up with them off of False Bay where they were slowly heading north.

It's a bit unusual for just one J-Pod matriline to be around, but not unheard of. We wondered if the fact the J16s were in inland waters by themselves had anything to do with the fact that two of the four new Southern Resident calves are in their family group: J50, who was born in December to J16 Slick, and J52, who was born less than two weeks ago and whose mom has now been identified by the Center for Whale Research as J36 Alki. We'll never know for sure, but both the little ones seemed to be plenty energetic!

Mom and calf off False Bay...that monstrosity in the background is the new house being built on the Mar Vista property
The females and juveniles were pretty close to shore all together, so it was a little bit hard to tell who was who. Big brother J26 Mike was a little further offshore, occasionally doing some lunges and breaches.

Head lift by J26 Mike
Always fun to see those big boys breach!
Mike breached three times in a row!

What was also nice to see is how respectful all the whale watch boats were being. At first, it was just us and one other boat, and we both hung back giving the whales extra space. As a few other commercial operators showed up, they did the same thing, voluntarily staying even further away than guidelines recommend out of respect for the two new calves.

I've gotta say that from the few times I've seen her, J50 is a spunky little whale. Not only is she covered in scratches and wounds from what researchers speculate was a difficult birth, but she's always bouncing all over the place instead of staying right in mom's slipstream. A few times she raced over to her big brother Mike. Mike has a strong bond with his sister J42 Echo, but hasn't seemed overly interested in the new calves when I've seen them....J50 may not give him a choice about it, though, forcing him to babysit sometimes.

J50 back next to mom Slick (left) after zipping over to her brother Mike (right) for a while
I knew that we were seeing two calves in there, but with the mom and calf pairs so close together I wasn't sure on most surfacings which calf I was seeing. Here's the fins of both moms and both calves all together:

When a few more whale watch boats showed up we decided to take off, and after getting back to port I went down to Lime Kiln on the off chance the whales hadn't passed already. Turns out they had stalled out and were foraging, and I got to the lighthouse at the same time the whales did! More spread out now, I could tell the two calves apart, so I knew when I was seeing the newest baby J52!

My first definitive look at the newest member of the Southern Residents, J52

J52 is the first known calf of sixteen year-old J36 Alki, also making J16 Slick a first time grandmother. For quite a while, we've been anxiously watching the young females in J-Pod waiting for them to start successfully reproducing. It's so great to see Alki with her first born!

J36 Alki and J52
Just like her three month old aunt J50, J52 looks to have a lot of spunk, regularly rocketing to the surface:

When you're a tiny whale, you gotta make extra sure you're lifting your head well above the water when you breathe! That's the baby's head on the left, and mom just starting to surface on the right

For those who might be concerned about the J16s having been the only whales here for three days, fear not - they weren't seen on the 10th, but by April 11th they had reunited with the rest of J-Pod Group A.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

April 7th: T49As and T123s

Part of J-Pod turned up on the west side of San Juan Island on April 7th, but between work and doing some boat maintenance we weren't able to catch up with them. After getting the boat back in the water in the early evening, we met the news that there transients in San Juan Channel with excitement. Thanks to help from a friend, we found them just north of Yellow Island. It was the T123s and T49As.

The two teenage boys from these family groups, 15 year-old T123A Stanley and 14 year-old T49A1 seemed to be loving each other's company. (Only some transients have common names - the T123s are one such group. They're named by the Vancouver Aquarium's orca adoption program.)

T123A and T49A1
In my imagination, the boys liked the chance to hang out together and get away from their moms and kid siblings.

T123A and T49A1
T123C with T49A1 diving behind him

For those keeping score, the T123s are made up of T123 Sidney, her son T123A Stanley,  and T123C (age two). The T49As are made up of mom T49A, her son T49A1, eight year-old T49A2, four year-old T49A3, and one year-old calf T49A4. T49A2 is an interesting whale, because he often travels with his aunt's family group the T49Bs. But he was back with his natal family group on this evening! Did you follow all that? :)

A heavily cropped shot to show the presence of T49A2 (notice the notch), who often doesn't travel with his family

We followed the whales around McConnell Island when they made an abrupt turn to head to Crane Island. We cut the engine and let them pass in front of us.

Mom T49A with her two youngest: T49A4 on the left and T49A3 on the right

The whales then crossed Wasp Passage towards Shaw:

But here they stalled out and made a kill, I think of a harbor porpoise. As gulls swooped down to pick of the leftovers, the whales celebrated and shared dinner:

With that it was time for us to go our separate ways, as they continued east through Wasp Passage and we headed back west to home. The amazing spring would continue throughout the rest of the week, as transients and the J16s would both be around the next day....and then, on April 9th, I got to meet J52 for the first time! Stay tuned to the next post for baby pictures!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

April 3rd Js, April 4th Ts

On March 30th we got the exciting news that another calf was spotted in J-Pod! That means after going over two years without having a surviving calf born, we've had FOUR new little ones in the Southern Resident Community since the end of December (3 in J-Pod, 1 in L-Pod). If all the other whales have survived the winter, that will bring the population back up to 81 whales.

The new baby, designated J52, was traveling with the J16s and J40 on the first day it was seen. One of the whales it was traveling closest with with J16, but since she's the mom of another recent newborn in J50, we know she isn't the mom! Often it takes a few encounters to be sure who the mother is, as there can be a lot of helping out and/or babysitting in the early days after a whale's birth. So for now, J52's mother remains a mystery!

When word came of J-Pod heading back south towards San Juan Island on Friday, April 3rd, we were all anxious for word of J52 to see who he/she was traveling with. Unfortunately, viewing conditions weren't very good. Seas were rough, whales were spread, and dive times were long. As a result, not all the J-Pod whales were encountered, and J52 was one of the ones missed. So the mystery will remain for a while longer!

I was on shore at Lime Kiln, hoping some of the whales would come by closer to San Juan Island, as most of them were on the Canadian side of Haro Strait. I could see a lot of fins on the far side, but a couple did come closer - thank you J17 and J44!

J17 Princess Angeline forages off Lime Kiln on April 3rd

It looked like the whales were headed for the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so I wasn't too hopeful they would be around today, figuring they would probably go west. I had my fingers crossed for other whales to show up nearby, however, and they did! Thanks to a friend I heard about transients on the west side of San Juan Island. I got to Lime Kiln and saw several whale watch boats just offshore, so I ran down to the rocks and saw....nothing. It took quite a few minutes of scanning before the whales finally popped up again.

The whales were tightly circling a lot and doing lots of tailslapping, so I wondered if they had made a kill right before I arrived.

When the whales finally decided to start moving north again, they angled in towards the shoreline. It's not too often you get the chance to see transients close from shore! I recognized the adult female, but I waited til I got home to check my ID guide to be was the T65As! This family group was around a lot last year, particularly in the spring, before making themselves scarce in the fall. Their littlest member, T65A5, was first seen in March of 2014. The family group is made up of mom T65A and her four surviving offspring.

T65A and her youngest, one year-old T65A5
Four year-old T65A4 with eelgrass on his/her dorsal fin

Whenever it looked like they were going to start traveling north, they would loop back on themselves. That was just fine with me, because it meant it took them a good half hour or so to pass Lime Kiln! On one such circling, I actually got all five family members in one shot:

The five T65As

Because I had run down to the shoreline, I wasn't on my "usual" rock in front of the lighthouse. Bummer! The whales went RIGHT in to this rock and harassed a Steller sea lion that was there! I can only imagine the photos I might have gotten had I been sitting in my usual spot, but it was still crazy impressive to see them lunging at the Steller!

The T65As harass a Steller sea lion right off the rocks at Lime Kiln
I'm not sure a female and four juveniles could take down a Steller....maybe, but not if it had the option of hauling out. I think orcas usually like to take sea lions in open water. In any case, they didn't seem too serious about hunting this guy. It felt kind of like they swam up to him and went, "BOO!" just to make sure he was paying attention, before they continued on their way.

It definitely gave the sea lion a fright, though. When I went down there, he was huffing and puffing on the surface, not taking his eyes off the receding whales.

The sea lion lives another day
Seas still weren't the greatest, but with the whales heading right up the shoreline, I knew I had to try taking the boat out to see them. The timing was perfect to meet up with them for a few more minutes right at Open Bay. I was hanging back from all the whale-watching boats while the whales were on a long dive. Suddenly they popped up right in the middle of the fleet, and cruised right by us as we shutdown and let them pass. It never ceases to amaze me how BIG the whales look from our boat.

I had to heavily crop this one to get a good look at that cute little face!

They went in to Open Bay for a moment, then traveled along the edge of Henry Island. It also never ceases to amaze me how close to the rocks these whales will swim!

With a decent swell, we decided to let them continue on their way and head back to port.

The amazing spring sightings continue! Who or what will I see next?!