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Saturday, August 29, 2015

August 16th: The Reed College Killer Whale Department, Drones and Killer Whales, and Resting Ks and Ls

On August 16th, the Reed College biology professor who advised my senior thesis and is about to advise the senior thesis of my research partner Michael was up on San Juan Island, and thankfully the conditions aligned for us to be able to get her out to see whales (right after her ferry arrived)! Reed isn't exactly known for studying killer whales, but maybe that's about to change? :) There's one other student who published a killer whale thesis in the 1980s (and is now a well known whale scientist - Rus Hoelzel), but this photo compromises most of the unofficial Reed College "Killer Whale Department".

It was a bit of an unusual whale encounter for several reasons. First of all, more often than not, when there are Southern Resident Killer Whales in inland waters, at least some J-Pod whales are among them. Not so on this day - J-Pod was out west, and remaining "in" were the K13s, L4s, L26s, L47s, and L95. Another unique social group! And even more unexpectedly - they were resting! For whatever reason, we've seen less traditional resting behavior from the Southern Residents in recent years, where they get into a tight, slow-moving line and stay in resting formation for hours at a time. Presumably they've shifted to resting more at night, perhaps due to there being fewer disturbances then. This was the first real resting line I had seen this summer. It's one of the more impressive sights, because all the whales tend to surface close together and within a few seconds of one another, meaning you get to see LOTS of dorsal fins at once. The only downside was the whales are quiet while they're resting, so we didn't get any vocal recordings of this interesting social group!

 If disturbances are what's causing the whales to shift when they rest (and that's purely speculation on my part), this sure didn't seem like a great day for resting either. Consensus from many people on the water was that it was one of the worst days for private boater behavior of the summer, with multiple boats repeatedly driving right through or in front of the resting whales. Being an August weekend, there were plenty of boats out in general, behaving the rules, on both sides of the whales. Oh, and add in the fishing and shipping traffic and Haro Strait didn't exactly seem like the best place for a nap!

One of the not-so-quiet freighters that regularly traverses Haro Strait
 The whales seemed to think otherwise, however, and continued on their way seemingly unperturbed. One of the other things we witnessed, however, was definitely seen by us humans as a potential nuisance: we saw two boats launch and fly drones within about 30 feet of the orcas. Look in the top right of the image below to see the drone:

Many people who witnessed this were outraged, and it led to many discussions and false accusations after the fact. I personally wasn't sure what the rules were about flying drones around the orcas. I've done some research since then. It turns out there aren't any regulations in place in Canada at this point in time, while in the US they're defining drones as "aircraft" which means in Washington State the same vessel regulations apply to drones as apply to whale-watching boats: that it's illegal to fly them within 200 yards of an orca. The two folks responsible for the incidents on August 16th found this out the hard way - both were slapped with $1025 fines by WDFW.

WDFW (right) pulling up to a private boat to hand out a citation - notice the drone hovering above

It wasn't pleasant to watch the drones flying right over the whales, but I think that was mostly a visual thing for me. In all honesty, I suspect the whales didn't even have a clue the drones were there. At worst, they're a very, very minor annoyance compared with everything else the whales have to deal with. I'm perhaps somewhat in the minority here, but while I suppose drones should be regulated, I wish less attention was being focused on that and more on the more pressing issues these endangered whales are facing. There's no doubt that the resulting footage is stunning - you can see a clip one of the fined operators got here. Drones will undoubtedly play an interesting role in research, with amazing possibilities for more affordable aerial photogrammetry research, etc. going forward. Right now I just don't think the science is there demonstrating any impacts of drones on marine mammals, but clearly private operators need to obey the existing vessel guidelines when flying drones near orcas.

But back to the whales! The other great thing about resting whales, aside from seeing so many dorsal fins close together at the surface at once, is being there when they wake up! Often, they all get going all at the same time, and go through a very active spurt at the surface. This time was no exception! One captain on the water commented that it was one of the best "awakenings" he had ever seen, and I would have to agree. It's not often you see orcas breaching and cartwheeling as much as these guys did over the next five or so minutes!

This was right off Open Bay, and as the whales passed Kellett Bluff, they changed behavior yet again, fanning out and going into foraging mode. We got a nice last look at L95 Nigel before heading back in:

It was another beautiful, whale-filled day on the water, and we at the Orca Behavior Institute were happy to be able to share it with one of the professors that helps make our research possible!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

August 11th and 12th: Humpback whale and Lime Kiln Js

On August 11th we went out in the morning hoping to find orcas. We searched the whole west side of San Juan and didn't see any black and whites, but we did find a humpback whale! The first one I've seen since March, though others have been around.

This whale was seen on several consecutive days (I recognized it in other people's photos), and should be identifiable based on its unique tail markings. Unfortunately I don't have a good local humpback whale ID guide, so I'm not sure which whale this is.

On August 12th members of all three pods were heading in from Victoria, and I waited at Lime Kiln hoping they would go north. Most stayed further south, but about half of J-Pod did pass the lighthouse heading north before flipping and going back south to join the others. They were mostly further offshore when they went north - except for L87 Onyx. He surfaced offshore to the south of us, and then when he next came up, it was in the kelp just north of the ligthhouse!

L87 Onyx

When they turned to come back south, however, they all angled in towards shore! The best feeling ever, watching close whales approach.

We got a beautiful look at J2 Granny:

Then we observed an interesting little interaction. J41 Eclipse was traveling with J31 Tsuchi, and Eclipse's calf J51 was wondering all over the place away from mom. He stopped at one point to spook all the sea gulls (well, all except one) off this raft of sea weed, and was playing with the piece of driftwood floating here as well.

J51 was playing with this raft of sea weed - several gulls flew off it, but one stuck his ground
Perhaps mom had enough at this point, however, because Eclipse did one huge breach. (Pretty special to see my favorite whale breaching in my favorite place - and in such spectacular lighting!)

J41 Eclipse breach

The next time the whales surfaced, J51 was right back in mom's slip stream, and didn't stray away the rest of the time they were in sight! Perhaps it was a total coincidence, but it sure seemed like Eclipse was telling her calf enough was enough, it was time to come back to mom.

Finally, the pass ended with a close look at J37 Hy'shqa and her calf J49 T'ilem I'nges. It's funny - J49 was the smallest whale among the Southern Residents for 2 full years, as no other calves were born and survived during that time. As soon as the other J-Pod babies were born, he suddenly looked a lot bigger! I wonder how he adjusted to not being the baby of the group anymore. He is still a little guy though - just 3 years old now.

J49 T'ilem I'nges

August 9th: Js, Ks, and Ls

On the morning of August 9th we were again lucky enough to meet up with J-Pod, K-Pod, and many L-Pod whales right at Open Bay heading north. The whales were in numerous large, highly social groups - an awesome sight that has been the norm this August.

As is sometimes the case, a lot of the adult males from different family groups were hanging out together.

L92 Crewser (left) and J34 Doublestuf lunging

J27 Blackberry had other things on his mind, however...he was in hot pursuit of K20 Spock.

J27 Blackberry

As the whales rounded Henry, they were hugging the shoreline as they so often do. It's awesome to watch but hard to get photos, because they blend in so well to the rocks behind them! We watched as the J22s, L72s, and J28s swam along the shoreline together.

The whales really went wild as they fanned out north of Henry Island. They moved way in to the east so they were far away from us, but that didn't make the site any less impressive and they just "went off" into bouts of breaching, cartwheeling, tail slapping, and spyhopping.

Big group of whales on the move, with the splashes of two cartwheels still visible

Of course the photos I snapped that would have shown more of the action all came out you'll have to use your imagination. But it had been a while since I've seen them that active.

As we pulled off to head back to the harbor, we were surprised to come across one more trailing group of whales: the K12s and the L4s.

One of them cartwheeled right alongside of the Center for Whale Research boat, almost completely obscuring it:

It was another gorgeous day on the water!

Friday, August 21, 2015

August 6: J-Pod and K-Pod

On August 6th a couple of us heading out to meet up with what used to be a standard grouping of whales, but has been a bit of a rarity this summer: ALL of J-Pod and ALL of K-Pod! When we met up with them off False Bay, the whales were mostly foraging way in towards shore. We were parked with several other boats watching them when one group of three surprisingly surfaced right in and among the boats. We got a fantastic look at J26 Mike:

Side note: see this photo featured in a new blog post by Patagonia written by Steven Hawley here.
J26 Mike
The next group of whales we saw included J39 Mako, a young male that had been seen with a salmon flasher in his mouth a few days before. There was concern that he had swallowed the hook and/or was somehow entangled in the gear, but the Center for Whale Research was on the water and got a good look at him. They confirmed that the flasher was no longer attache to him (if it ever was - I wonder if he wasn't just playing with some loose fishing gear). Indeed, he seemed to be acting normally, and was rolling around with K37 Rainshadow, another male his own age.

Two 12 year-old hanging out: K37 Rainshadow and J39 Mako

One of a series of tail slaps by J39 Mako

After having been milling around for a while, the whales started to move north, again hugging the shoreline.

We hung back for a while with J28 Polaris, who was hanging at the surface by herself, logging and occasionally vocalizing into the air! Eventually she "woke up" and went to join another group of milling whales, and we peeled off to head home. Almost back to the dock, we thought we were well north of all the whales, but the lead group was surprisingly already this far north! It was too beautiful out not to stop and enjoy another look.

J34 Doublestuf and another whale

The Center for Whale Research was doing the same thing before heading in, and they got a nice pass from K26 Lobo - their presence gives you a little size perspective for just how big these whales are!

K26 Lobo and the Center for Whale Research
As they continued north their blows were backlit by the late afternoon sun:

Saturday, August 15, 2015

August 2nd: Almost a Superpod!

I can count on one hand the number of times the L12 sub-group from L-Pod (the L12s, L22s, L25s, and L28s - a total of 10 whales not including L87 Onyx who travels with J-Pod) have been in inland waters this summer, and until August 2nd, I hadn't seen them at all! Late afternoon on this day, however, I was in the right place at the right time as they quickly headed north with the flood tide past Lime Kiln along with all of J-Pod, most of K-Pod, and most of the other L-Pod whales. While the K16s and K21 were absent, as was the L54 sub-group which still hasn't made an appearance near San Juan this summer, I believe it was the closest we've come yet to a full fledged superpod. By my count 69 of the 81 Southern Residents were here!

The whales were in three tight groups, milling around each other. While they weren't really speeding north, the tide was so strong that they passed by very quickly. With the backlight, whales mixed up and passing fast, numerous boats, birds flying all around, and lots of people on the rocks, it was one of our more chaotic data collecting sessions of the summer for the Orca Behavior Institute.

A few fins that are more easily recognizable in silhouette were key to helping us figure out who was where. Despite many of the whales being all mixed up, brothers J34 Doublestuf and J38 Cookie were still hanging tight together:

J34 Doublestuf and J38 Cookie

As Onyx zipped past us, he seemed to be moving from the group with the L12s back to the group with the majority of J-Pod:

L87 Onyx
At the beginning of the summer, my research partner Michael asked me (half-jokingly) to get a picture of him with Onyx this year. (Onyx is one of his favorite whales, and the whale on the OBI logo.) I knew this would be one of my best chances, but Onyx was traveling quickly, and when he next surfaced, he was quite a ways further north. Still, both Michael and Onyx are in this photo, so it counts, right?!

Michael is easy to see, but can you find Onyx?

Next came most of the L12s, and it didn't take me long to spot little L121 - one of the four new calves this year, the only one I hadn't met yet. We now know that it's a male, meaning we have three boys and one girl born into the population this year.

Hello L121! Nice to meet you!

L89 Solstice and two other whales came closer to the rocks than the other whales:

L89 Solstice
They actually went in to the cove just north of the lighthouse!

It took just half an hour for all the whales to pass, and it felt even shorter than that! I suspected they wouldn't all continue north, however, and sure enough, they didn't even get out of sight before the L12s turned back and started slowly moving south against the strong tide. This was more "typical" L12 behavior: spread out, long dives, almost staying in the same spot. We watched them for the next hour and a half, and they were still there in front of the lighthouse when we had to leave.

L41 Mega and his adopted grandma L25 Ocean Sun were in the lead:

The big guy L41 Mega

Next came L94 Calypso with L121, though my shot of the little guy got photobombed by this gull:

Almost a nice shot of L121
Next was L77 Matia and L85 Mystery, an interesting combo:

L77 Matia surfacing in front of L85 Mystery

Following them were the other two youngsters in this family, L113 Cousteau and L119 Joy. L22 Spirit and L89 Solstice turned around too, but were still north and out of sight. While sometimes the L12s are accused of being "boring" whales, I loved the chance to just hang out with them for a while. They used to do this exact same thing (a slow, spread out, westside shuffle) for the better part of the summer, but in recent years they have been more scarce. So it was nice to see them all.