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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

July 12th: Js, Ks, and Ls, in Haro (OBI #24)

On July 12th we again got to meet up with whales right outside of Mitchell Bay, this time getting on scene right after some newly arrived whales met up with the group of Js and Ks we had seen the day before. The first whales we saw were members of the K12s and K13s.

A large group of J- and K-Pod whales then met up and got tight to the shoreline along San Juan Island. We heard there might be more whales to the south, a suspicion fueled by the fact that the whales all started porpoising in that direction. We were quite a ways offshore, but it was still impressive to see so many of them moving so quickly.

An offshore look of what was an impressive pass at Lime Kiln - between 20 and 30 whales porpoising by close to shore

Offshore a little south of Lime Kiln we met up with some of "the rest" of the whales. The first ones we saw were L47 Marina and L115 Mystic, confirming that at least part of L-Pod had come in too.

Hello L47 Marina - haven't seen you in a while!
Down by False Bay we came across even more whales, and by now all the different groups seemed to be meeting up. At first some of them seemed to be foraging, including members of the J16s and L4s. We just sat watching them for more than half an hour, and at one point L27 Ophelia surprised us by surfacing right off our bow!

L27 Ophelia, estimated to be about 50 years old

We like the opportunity to sit for an extended period with our engines off, because it gives us the chance to make longer hydrophone recordings of the whales. As these whales foraged and then headed offshore, it gave us a chance to make one of our longest boat-based recordings of the season at over 20 minutes.

There are several reasons we're keen to collect data from the whales both from the boat and from shore. Each gives us a different perspective: at shore, we're in one spot, and get to watch the whole group of whales go by, getting an idea of the entire group from a point location. On the boat, by contrast, we can stay with one group of whales for a longer period of time, watching as they chance what they do as they traverse their habitat. The recordings are also very different. At Lime Kiln, we get long recordings that capture all the vocals of the whole group as they go by, but it can be difficult to parse out which whales you're recording from or to record from one group for very long, as they tend to just swim right on by. On the boat, we can deploy the hydrophone for shorter periods of time - often less than 5 minutes - but can have a much better idea of who we're recording from. Our longer boat recording from July 12 captured the vocals of many groups of whales, but the end of the recording is one example where the only whales near us were the K22s. Some of our research questions are about the vocalizations at the matriline (instead of pod) level, and recordings like this are invaluable for those types of studies.

K33 Tika surfacing while we were recording his vocalizations

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

July 11th: Js and Ks (OBI #23)

Last Saturday, July 11th, was the last day on island for a while of my friend, boat partner, and fellow Orca Behavior Institute biologist Julie. When we heard the J2s, J19s, and K14s were heading north up Haro Strait, we just had to hop in the boat to get her one last whale encounter before heading back to California. We met up with the orcas right outside of Mitchell Bay.

K26 Lobo and his sister K36 Yoda

With the boat this year, we've had plenty of whale encounters near Henry and Spieden Islands, and it's becoming one of my favorite places to watch whales. Spieden Island just makes such a pretty backdrop! It's funny, I don't remember seeing whales in this area especially often even when I worked on a whale-watching boat, but now I'm getting to know their habits as they travel through this area quite well.

J49 T'ilem I'nges with his family

We were following the J14s and K14s as they went north in two tight groups, but suddenly J2 Granny, who was up ahead, stalled out and waited for them to catch up. All the whales milled around for several minutes, as if deciding whether or not to continue north. Finally, they decided to keep going, and all the J2s and K14s swam on in one group all together.

One big group of whales!

Mostly they were in travel mode, but one whale did a huge spyhop, lifting her pec fins partway through:

Suddenly a few whales popped up closer to us. Luckily we already had our engine off (and were making a hydrophone recording) so we stayed where we were as they passed by.

We got a great look at little J49 T'ilem I'nges (whose name means "singing grandchild" in Coast Salish).

J49 T'ilem I'nges

As we left the whales heading north, we saw some more blows a few miles behind us. It was the J19s, and it was nice to see L87 Onyx in tight with them. Onyx has been off by himself a lot this year, sometimes a mile or more away from everyone else, so it was nice to see him in with some other whales again.

On our way back home, I stopped to take a photo of a flock of birds, and while we were drifting we passed a small raft of floating kelp. I got startled when I saw what looked like I dead harbor seal pup floating in the wrack - and was even more surprised when it lifted its head! It was still alive, but was very tiny and looked malnourished. Look at all those folds of skin when it should be plump and round.

It was sure a cute little guy. There was no mom in sight, but there's not much we could do. I did report it to the local stranding network, but likely they'll elect to just let nature take it's course. Hopefully he wasn't abandoned, but the reality is not all seal pups make it.

Cute! But we had to leave you alone little guy :(

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

July 3 - July 9th Whales

On July 3rd, with more friends in town for the holiday weekend, we headed out to Lime Kiln and got lucky to be there for a J-Pod passby. In particular, J35 Tahlequah and her son J47 Notch were a spectacular sight as they breached repeatedly on their way past the lighthouse:

J35 Tahlequah

J47 Notch

J35 Tahlequah

On July 6th, after a long day at work, I headed out to Lime Kiln again and was treated to a pass by members of all three pods - about 60 whales. They were mostly quite a ways offshore, but any time you get to see that many whales traveling all together it's a pretty special treat. The lighting was bizarre as a result of all the regional wildfires.

K26 Lobo

Four L-Pod whales hadn't visited inland waters with their usual group earlier this summer - L72 Racer, L105 Fluke, L90 Muncher, and L92 Crewser. In early July they made their first visit, and I got to see them for the first time on this evening.

The distinct dorsal fin of L92 Crewser silhouetted in the strange orange lighting of a smokey sunset

The L4s on the left and L95 Nigel on the right
Lots of whales! :)
On July 9th, this time with some family visiting, we again went out to Lime Kiln for sunset, hoping to see whales. Bingo! Part of J- and K-Pods swam by, with the smokey skies again providing a stunning and unusual backdrop.

After a week of great shore-based whale encounters, and striking out when going out looking on the boat, I was ready for another research trip on the boat. Things would come together for just that on July 11th - stay tuned for my next post.

Friday, July 10, 2015

July 2nd: Western Explorer Trip With Friends!

My Orca Behavior Institute partner Michael and I both had lots of friends and family coming into town for the 4th of July holiday weekend, so I booked a whale watch charter on the Western Explorer, the zodiac I used to work on. Since some visitors didn't make it in time for the trip, I invited some other whale friends along, and we ended up going out with an awesome group of people!

All geared up for the Western Explorer

It also turned out to be the perfect opportunity to get a photo of "Team OBI". While we've gotten some generous financial support at the Orca Behavior Institute, we've also had several friends volunteer their time and skills to help us out. You can read a bit more about some of our team members on the newest page on our website. 

Team OBI - Back row from left to right: Brittany, Keith, Cindy, Sara, and Julie. Front row: Yours truly and OBI co-founder Michael.
While we all enjoy educating the public about the whales and other local wildlife, we also enjoy the chance to "fake naturalize" among ourselves, when we get to make up all the fake answers we're sometimes tempted to give to tourist questions. For now I'll leave those questions and answers to your imagination ;)

On our way out to the whales we went by the smoldering Goose Island, a Nature Conservancy Preserve that was accidentally set on fire by illegal fireworks. After two attempts to put it out, the local fire fighters decided to let it burn itself out, as the fire had gotten into the ground and with the dry conditions and local winds was proving almost impossible to fully extinguish. (It was also a forewarning of what was to come: on July 5th we woke up to bizarre hazy brown skies caused by an abundance of local wildfires that rendered the outside world a living sepia photograph.) Amazingly, while many nests were destroyed, several gull chicks survived and other nests were still occupied. Same with the black oystercatchers and pelagic cormorants, showing their resilience in a still-burning landscape. While the double-crested cormorant nests didn't burn, they did appear to abandon all breeding efforts for this season.

Smoldering Goose Island

Out in the straits, we stopped to check out a pair of minke whales before heading towards the orcas. I don't get to see these guys as much as I used to, so it was fun to get a close look at them again. I sent my sightings to the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale Project - you can do the same with any of your minke whale sightings! They don't get out on the water as much as they would like, so citizen science reports really help their studies. They think the whale in the first photo is a young animal, perhaps even a young of the year.

Up near False Bay, just as the evening lighting was getting golden, we came across the orcas.

The first group of whales we saw was the J2s.

J37 Hy'shqa
J2 Granny
Next up were the J2s' favorite travel companions of the summer: the K14s.

K26 Lobo
One thing that's great about having the camera out to photograph whales is the other photo ops you get along the way - like this common murre.

The whales foraged close to shore for a while as we watched them from offshore.

K26 Lobo and Mt. Baker

Before it was time to leave, the whales pulled offshore and started milling around closer to us.

Another shot of a common murre - this one being startled by an orca

There's absolutely nothing better than sunset whales:

All in all it was a great evening out with friends, and a beautiful ride back to the harbor.

Washington State Ferry heading into Friday Harbor

June 30th: J2s, J19s, and K14s (OBI# 16)

On the evening of June 30th we caught up with a small group of resident orcas heading south towards San Juan Island. This odd little group has become a regular association this summer: the J2s (including the J14s), J19s, and K14s, a total of 14 whales when you count L87 Onyx who travels with them as well. So bizarre to have members of all three pods present in such a small group! When we met up with them, it was in rough seas off the northern part of Henry Island, but luckily as we came around the island the waters flattened out and I could take some photos.

The J19s are my favorite little family group, and it's been awesome to spend so much time with them this summer.

J51 following mom J41 Eclipse

J19 Shachi

J41 Eclipse and J51

As we let the Js and Ks continue on down Haro, we spotted L87 Onyx way behind and offshore of everybody else. For some reason, he's been spending a lot of time away from the main group and off on his own this summer. It's not a totally atypical behavior for an adult male, but it's a change from what he usually did.

L87 Onyx

Thursday, July 9, 2015

June 28th: The Morning Encounters Continue (OBI #14)

Pile Point near False Bay has been our magical spot - on the morning of June 28th it was again where we caught up with the whales, J-Pod Group A and the K12s, K13s, and K14s. We've seen a lot of the K14s this summer - they've been a part of almost every research encounter - and K26 Lobo was the first whale we got a good look at.

K26 Lobo

Lobo's group booked it north, and we hung back with K22 Sekiu and her son K33 Tika who were hanging out and foraging. At one point Tika unexpectedly did a huge dolphin jump - something I've seen transients do before, but never residents! Unfortunately he only did it once and I wasn't ready with the camera.

K33 Tika

Meanwhile offshore was L87 Onyx. He's also been around a lot, but has mostly been off on his own, sometimes a mile or more away from all the other whales. We're keen to get some recordings of his vocalizations, because he's a unique whale: he was in L-Pod, then traveled with K-Pod for several years, and now travels with J-Pod. But on this occasion he was only echolocating. 

L87 Onyx

 As we continued north, we again got a good look at K37 Rainshadow who we had spent a lot of time with the day before.

K37 Rainshadow
Then we caught up with the leaders again, a group made up of the K14s, J2s, and J19s.

J51 right alongside mom J41 Eclipse

Another look at K26 Lobo

Off San Juan County Park they milled around for a while, and the light was amazing for seeing the blows.

Eventually they all grouped up and continued north again:

It was about time for us to head in, but it's so much fun to watch the whales cross Open Bay that we had to hang out a bit longer.

J40 Suttles
As the lead group continued on, K22 and K33 caught up to us again.

K33 Tika trailing some eel grass

Again we started heading for home, but the sight of a line of seven whales cruising towards us made us stop again. It was the K13s all together; it's so cool to see a tight group of whales like this approaching.

The K13s

K25 Scoter on the left and K44 Ripple in the middle