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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June 25th: One of those mornings (OBI#11)

All week Keith had been saying we would go out early on his birthday and have a great whale encounter. I was hoping the stars would align for just that, but didn't necessarily share his confidence that it would happen. I should have trusted him! The morning of June 25th turned out to be one of my best whale encounters of the season.

We picked up members of J-Pod - the J16s -  heading south from False Bay.

They soon led us towards Eagle Point, where we could see other whales offshore in the glassy blue waters.

J41 Eclipse and her son J51

We met up with an interesting grouping made up of J2, the J19s, and the K14s.

K26 Lobo

K26 Lobo

Then the magic happened. It started with two breaches by K26 Lobo.

That got everyone going! And in perfect lighting, too.

K14 Lea

K14 Lea

J19 Shachi

J19 Shachi

K26 Lobo - my favorite shot of the day

K26 Lobo

We saw about 10 breaches in the span of a couple minutes. Truly, there are no words - it was one of those unforgettable experiences. You can see larger versions of these photos (and order prints) at this online gallery.

And the morning wasn't quite over yet. As we let this group go by, we found ourselves with the J14s.

The J14s
I was so swept up by the breaches that I missed this gem of a photo on my first pass through the pictures from the day:

Three generations from left to right: J14 Samish, J37 Hy'shqa, and J49 T'ilem I'nges

On our way home we stopped to check out a peregrine falcon nest, where three chicks are transitions from down to feathers and are exploring the cliffs around their home. It was hard to spot them - they blended in so well with the guano covered ledges!

Peregrine falcon chick - can you spot it?

A bunch of pigeon guillemots, one of my favorite sea birds, nest in the same area too:

A a classic pigeon guillemot crash landing, with splayed bright red feet

It was an epic morning. Happy birthday Keith!

Morning of June 24th: J-Pod Group A and the K14s (OBI #9)

We got even luckier on our second early morning out, coming across J-Pod Group A (The J2s/J14s, J19s, and J16s, plus L87 Onyx) and the K14s right outside of Mitchell Bay at about 7:30 AM on June 24th. The first whale we saw was J26 Mike.

J26 Mike
I love watching whales from shore in the early morning because of the lighting, but once we got out there, turns out the light is pretty amazing from the water side, too.

Backlit blows of the J14s: J14 Samish, J45 Se-Yi'-Chn, and J40 Suttles
J2 Granny: a classic Pacific Northwest scene
This group of whales was just the example I was hypothetically talking about a few days before: with members of all three pods present, but just 20 whales present, is this is a superpod? I don't think so....but of course that doesn't make it any less "super" :)

The K14s
The K14s have been regularly breaking off from the rest of K-Pod and traveling with Js this year. We later learned that most of the rest of K-Pod - the K12s and K13s - had split off and gone back south along the west side of San Juan Island, where they would spend the day doing the so-called "westside shuffle", going back and forth.

K26 Lobo and his sister K36 Yoda with Spieden Island in the background

After just 45 minutes it was very tough to break away, but I had to go to an appointment in town. As we were leaving, we commented how we had seen all the expected whales but not L87 Onyx. As if on cue, we heard a blow offshore behind us. There he was!

L87 Onyx doin' his own thing

Little did we know that our best morning on the water still awaited us!

Monday, June 29, 2015

June 21: Members of All 3 Pods (OBI #7)

The whales have been around on a daily basis (just like the good ol' days!), and that means our research efforts have been on a roll, too. I'm way behind on photos (that is not a complaint!) - I'm just not getting to blog about our 7th research encounter with residents, and today my partner Michael had encounter #15! So let's get right to it.

For the first time of our research season we went out in the early morning hoping to find whales. As would become a trend over the next week, the waters were great, and we headed south on a hunch and found whales near False Bay. On June 21st we found all of J-Pod, all of K-Pod, and the 15 L-Pod whales that have been around (L4s, L47s, and L95) heading north. Over a little over two hours we followed them up to Spieden Channel.

Orca passing Lime Kiln Lighthouse - when I'm not on the boat, that's where I watch whales from, too!

One question I raised is: how do you define a superpod? Many people will call it a superpod when members of all three pods are present, as we had on this day. I used to be likely to call this a superpod, too. But with the whales splitting into so many smaller and varied groups, by that definition, J-Pod Group A, the K14s, and L87 would be a superpod! (I pointed out this potential scenario, not knowing we would have several encounters with that exact group in the near future.) So, I've reverted to the traditional definition of a superpod, which for the Southern Residents means the entire community present. There are still some L-Pod whales that haven't come "in" yet this summer, so we haven't had a chance for a full-fledged superpod just yet. Last year, there was only one day all summer where ALL members of the Southern Resident Community were together.

Anyway, back to this day: at Kellett Bluffs they started to get a bit more active, and we saw some breaches in all different directions:

The "Is this really my life?" shot - likely L82 Kasatka
We got to hang out a bit with J2 Granny, which is always excellent but was especially so because I hadn't seen her in a while. Even she got into the playful spirit, swimming on her back and splashing water with her tail:

Inverted tail slap by J2 Granny, estimated to be over 100 years old
One of the things we're most fascinated by at the Orca Behavior Institute is the social associations among the whales, particularly those from different pods. It's a good time to be studying that, as we get different combinations of whales just about every day we go out! Here's just one example, of J19 Shachi traveling with L82 Kasatka. These whales, while part of the same community, spend most of the year apart. What makes them seek out each other's company on days like this? 

25 year old L82 Kasatka (left) and 36 year-old J19 Shachi
Often we see whales surfacing in synchrony, but on this morning J14 Samish and her daughter J40 Suttles were in absolute perfect unision with one another. You might only think there was one whale here, if not for the two heads visible on the left:

Synchronized breathing between mom J14 Samish and daughter J40 Suttles
Here's an off-angle look at the same pair of whales on another surfacing:

Off Spieden Channel we let the lead group of whales, including the L4s, continue on north:

From left to right: L27 Ophelia, L86 Surprise!, and L116 Finn
On our way back home we encountered several more groups of whales, including these two:

L83 Moonlight and her son L110 Midnight
It was an awesome morning, and as it would turn out, it would be the first of many!

Friday, June 26, 2015

June 20: Exotic Ts

On June 20th I heard that a big group of resident orcas was inbound, so I was keen to get out to try and see them. While scanning from Land Bank, I saw some blows on the far side of Haro Strait near Discovery Island. It's odd for the residents to stay on the west side of Haro, but was that them? I kept scanning further south and didn't see any sign of whales down there. Curious, I decided to take the boat out - with a couple of people who hadn't seen orcas before - and investigate.

The faces of some eager whale watchers

We met up with the whales near Kelp Reef in Haro Strait - and it was Ts! Not only that, it was Ts that I haven't seen before, including some whales that are known as "exotics" because they aren't seen here very much. In this group were the T125s, a group of four whales that have been around somewhat frequently since May 31st, but before that hadn't been seen in the area since 1992!! (The residents, by the way, did come in, but were much further south all night.)

I've decided the T125s are the most badass looking group of orcas around, made up of female T125 and what are likely her three sons: T127, T128, and T125A. 

Mom, female T125

The most iconic whale in this family group is T127, who a friend of mine recently nicknamed "Hacksaw":

31 year old male T127 "Hacksaw" - his fin looked like this in 1992, too, and undoubtedly has quite a story
The other males hold their own in dorsal fin style, too, though...

17 year-old male T125A
27 year-old male T128 - check out that notch at the base of his dorsal fin
These whales were traveling with another male, T49C - I've never seen so many adult male transeints in one group. There were at least three other groups of transients in the area on this day, and interestingly T49C was traveling with a different group earlier in the day - one that included T63 Chainsaw. Of the nine whales present, T49C is the only one I had seen before.

17 year-old male T49C, a lone male who travels with various groups
It took me a while to figure out the other whales in this group, but I finally was able to identify them as the T46Cs, another new family group to me.

T46C1, T46C2, and T46C3
I was surprised to see there were four whales in this family group. T46C2, nicknamed Sam, was found alone and seemingly "stuck" in a small inlet in Central BC in August 2013 as a four year old. After a few weeks when it looked like his health was deteriorating, the Vancouver Aquarium and DFO intervened to help get him out of the bay he was trapped in. In October, he was seen with the T123 family group, though they were seen again a bit later without him. It was unclear if he would successfully reintegrate with any transients or find his own family back. I never really heard what ended up happening to him, but after looking at my photos Dave Ellifrit from the Center for Whale Research is pretty certain this was him back where he belongs next to mom. A happy ending!

It was a beautiful evening to be out, and these whales were booking it north. We traveled with them for about half an hour before it was time to turn back to home. We stopped and got one more fantastic view, listening to their powerful blows, as they continued north.

Can you pick out the distinct fin of T127? ;)
One more surprise awaited us on our way back home! Back on the US side of Haro Strait I spotted three ancient murrelets, an uncommon species here in the winter but unheard of to me in the summer!

Ancient murrelets (with a pair of marbled murrelets behind) in Haro Strait near San Juan Island

I've since learned about this interesting paper, which documents about 30 observations of ancient murrelets well south of their known breeding range between 1988 and 2011. They theorize that either there's an undocumented breeding area further south, or they're riding strong currents quickly down from their nearest known breeding colony at Haida Gwaii.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Whales Everywhere: Js, Ks, Ls, Ts

There have been so many orcas around throughout June it's been hard to keep up - not that I'm complaining! Here are some highlights from June 15th and 16th.

On June 15th Js and Ks made their way east from Victoria and up north in Haro Strait. I saw them from Lime Kiln.

J16 Slick with her youngest daughter, 6 month old J50

On June 16th some L-Pod whales joined the party (the L4s, L47s, and L95 have been a unit so far this summer) and members of all three pods did the west side shuffle. I saw them heading south past Lime Kiln mid-afternoon. The lighting wasn't the greatest and they rocketed by, but some of them were pretty close to shore.

J35 Tahlequah and her son J47 Notch
J22 Oreo and her son J34 Doublestuf
K12 Sequim, K37 Rainshadow, and K43 Saturna

K25 Scoter
On the evening of June 16th, a friend gave us a head's up that a group of transient orcas was heading north past Friday Harbor. We went to a park near our house to have a look, and spotted some blows on our side of the strait but quite a ways to the south. We settled in to wait, and while they took their time meandering up towards us, it turned out to be very worth it!

By the time they finally got to where we were watching, the T65As and T77s were in cruise mode, but luckily a friend with property further north invited us to go watch from her property. What followed was one my all-time best transient killer whale encounters (from shore, no less!) where for nearly an hour we watched them go back and forth harassing harbor seals. It was getting too dark for photos, so I took video instead, and I'm glad I did, because I think the video captures the whole scene much better than pictures would have. The whales on their own took our breath away, but the backdrop and sunset was additional icing on the cake!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

June 14th: Js and Ks in Haro Strait

On the evening of June 14 we had the fourth research encounter of our first Orca Behavior Institute field season. We didn't have to go far, coming across the leaders right off Henry Island zooming south at a very fast pace.

All of K-Pod returned to inland waters on June 11 (all members accounted for, but no new calves) for the first time of the year, and this was our first chance to see them. It's always a bit like reconnecting with old friends after having spent the winter apart, checking in to see how everyone's doing and how much all the younger whales have grown. We met up with the K12s and K13s first, ironically right where I last saw K-Pod back in November right off Kellett Bluffs. It took me a few minutes to identify both K25 Scoter and K33 Tika, who have grown over the winter!

K13 Skagit porpoising south on June 14

We thought the rest of Js and Ks would probably be right behind them, but when we didn't see any blows to the north we motored up that way and encountered more whales just south of Stuart Island. The J19s were a bit offshore, and inshore was a big group made up of the J2s/J14s and K14s. These whales were also booking it south!

In recent years J, K, and L Pods have been splitting up a lot more, and it's made more sense to start talking about matrilines instead of pods. These changing associations are one of the main things we're interested in studying at OBI - when groups are becoming smaller, who is hanging out with who? How do different sub-groups utilize the inland water habitat, and how does this vary with salmon abundance? How do these different groupings influence their acoustic communication? It gives us the chance to study if different matrilines vocalize differently. It was interesting to see the K14s right in with J2's group, as at times last summer they were the only matriline from K-Pod that stayed "in" and traveled with Js.

From left to right K26 Lobo, K36 Yoda, K14 Lea, and J45 Se-Yi'-Chn

J40 Suttles in the foreground, and surfacing from left to right in the background K26 Lobo, K14 Lea, J14 Samish, and J2 Granny
The whales were clearly in travel mode, but J37 Hy'shqa took the time to two huge breaches:

J37 Hy'shqa
As they reached San Juan Island, the tight group fanned out a bit more. While I love watching whales from shore for lots of reasons, one reason I like watching them from a boat is because you can follow them through their habitat and see how their behavior changes over time.

K36 Yoda veers offshore
As it approached sunset, we stopped and let all the whales pass us by, including the K16s and J19s.

J41 Eclipse porpoising towards Lime Kiln
We had seen evidence of all of K-Pod and J-Pod "Group A", with the exception of the J16s. Where were they? With the sun setting we didn't think we would have time to find out...until we spotted some blows off Henry Island again on our way back in. The J16s were there, just trailing way behind the others by a couple miles!

The question that did still remain was, where was the rest of J-Pod? They had been there when all the whales went north a few days before. Turns out they were just taking their time coming down, trailing many more miles further behind. By the following morning, all of J-Pod and K-Pod were back together again.

It's a constant puzzle trying to figure out who's where with these whales, let alone why. But it's a question we love to ponder, one day at a time!