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Saturday, July 23, 2016

July 20th and 21st: Summer Nights with the L12s and J-Pod

On July 14th, the L12 sub-group came in for the first time this summer, bringing with them the J11s who had been missing from the rest of J-Pod. In typical L12 fashion, they spent the next few days off the south end of San Juan Island, never making it up to Lime Kiln. On July 20th, I was more than ready to see them, so after work we went down to American Camp where I hoped to see them offshore. Sure enough, L22 Spirit and her son L89 Solstice were offshore of Eagle Point, apparently foraging and not really moving anywhere for the half hour we were watching them. While we watched the two of them, we could see the fleet of whale-watching boats moving north with the rest of the L12s. I figured they would probably turn around at False Bay as they had been doing, but given the really strong flood tide, when the boats disappeared from view, we decided to head north as well.

I was surprised when we got to Lime Kiln that the L12s were already there! They had finally decided to come up to the lighthouse, but were already past it. Luckily, this is why we have a boat! Team OBI hopped aboard Serenity and headed out to catch up with the L12s a few miles to the northwest of Lime Kiln.

By this point in time they had flipped back south again, but were fighting the strong flood tide and basically not going anywhere. The first whale we saw was L85 Mystery, who was swimming with L77 Matia. A few miles further offshore was L41 Mega.

L85 Mystery surfacing in synchrony with L41 Mega in the distance

About 10 years ago, the L12s were mainstays throughout much of the summer, so I spent a lot of time with them. That all changed a few years ago, and their visits are more infrequent these days. As such, it's been a while since I've gotten the chance to spend much time with them. It was nice to hang out with L85 Mystery, who I used to see all the time, but only got good looks at twice last year.

L85 Mystery with his distinct blunt, butter knife-like dorsal fin

L85 Mystery headed towards San Juan Island

The whales all moved in towards shore before booking it back south, perhaps to catch a back eddy where the swimming against the tide would be easier? On their way towards shore, we got a nice look at L77 Matia and L119 Joy. About a week earlier, Joy was seen spyhopping with a neonate harbor porpoise in her mouth. The strange behavior of our fish-eating Southern Residents playing with and sometimes killing (but not eating) porpoises has been documented since studies on these whales began, but is little understood. It seems to come in fads, and porpoise playing is definitely "in" again this summer from the reports I've heard, though I haven't seen it yet myself this year!

L77 Matia and L119 Joy - probably one of my favorite shots so far this year

I figured that might be all I would see of the L12s for a while, but on July 21st J-Pod and the L12s spend the entire day on the west side of San Juan Island. I believe there were whales within sight of Lime Kiln from 6:30 AM to 3:30 PM, though unfortunately I missed all of it while at work. With J-Pod north of San Juan Island heading north and the L12s back in their spot off the south end of the island, I figured I was out of luck seeing whales for the rest of the day, but luckily, I was wrong! I caught the three hour evening extravaganza on the west side, starting at Land Bank where I saw the L12s come up and meet with some of the southbound members of J-Pod (the J11s, J17s, and J22s came back south while the rest of Js continued north) right in front of me.

I love looking at who associates with who among the Southern Residents, and indeed association patterns is one of the main things we're studying at the Orca Behavior Institute. For instance, why do the J11s seem to have a stronger affinity for the L12 sub-group? They were traveling with the L12s rather than J-Pod earlier this month, and when the two groups met up on the evening of July 21st the J11s and L12s seemed to seek each other out. The whales we saw meet up right in front of us, leading their respective groups, were L94 Calypso and J31 Tsuchi. And not long after, L85 Mystery booked it north through all the milling whales until he met up with J27 Blackberry and J39 Mako.

L85 Mystery cruising north past Land Bank, apparently in search of his pals from the J11s, Blackberry and Mako
The whales looked like they were all going to come back south, but again the strong flood tide was inhibiting their progress, so when it looked like they were going to hang off Lime Kiln for a while, we moved there. Right decision! It was a beautiful evening watching the whales pass, and the sunset lighting just kept getting better and better.

Nothing like sunset whales!

One year-old L121 Windsong

J35 Tahlequah and her son J47 Notch have often performed surface behaviors in syncrhony - I remember Tahlequah teaching Notch to spyhop way back in 2010, and seeing them do this again and again together! This time they were so close to doing a double breach, but Notch was just a second too late! Still an impressive sight!

Breach from J35 Tahlequah
J47 Notch coming up for a breach as his mom J35 Tahlequah splashes down
What was I saying about that sunset light? It just kept getting better. Here's what the sky looked like as J34 Doublestuf and his mom J22 Oreo approached:

And here's J22 Oreo surfacing right in the sun track:

J22 Oreo

Here's another look at Oreo as she continued south; the light was better here, so you can see the beauty marks on her left eyepatch (click to see a larger version).

The final whales to pass were the J28s - J28 Polaris with her daughter J46 Star and son J54. As they approached, they veered in from offshore right towards the rock where we were sitting.

J28 Polaris and J54 approaching

They surfaced at just the right moment, all together, to get a stunning silhouette shot. This photo is totally uncropped and unedited - just posted here exactly how it came off the camera.

From left to right, J46 Star, J54, and J28 Polaris.

The surfaced again just past us, allowing me to set up a shot with Jason in the foreground, to give a sense of how close to shore they were:

Our friend Steph was on the rocks down the shoreline and above us, and she caught this view of us and the passing whales:

I really love the J28s!

J28 Polaris and her calf J54
With all the whales past us at this point, the light fading, and the thunderstorm brewing to the south coming closer, we figured this was our grand finale. But as we drove home, the light just kept getting more amazing, so we had to pull over again to watch the sunset light progress, lighting bolts periodically decorating the sky to the south, right over a double rainbow that just kept getting brighter.

Sunset lighting up puffy clouds to the south, creative driftwood structure, and double rainbow. Not pictured: the craziest lightning bolt I've ever seen, that struck in four segments across most of the sky.

The colors just kept getting better and better....

The only thing taking away from the magical moment was the cloud of mosquitoes feasting on my bare legs. At the time I said out loud that it was definitely worth the bug bites (something I've been reminding myself of regularly in the itchy days since). Finally, approaching 9:30 PM, the rainbow had faded and the golden clouds had dimmed, and it looked like the color show was over. Just as we turned to walk back to the car, however, an orca surfaced. Couldn't resist snapping a few more blurry shots in the oncoming darkness as the whales started breaching way offshore. This image is lightened and cropped a bit, but the colors are unaltered:

Special times in the Salish Sea! This morning I was thinking how, after a very dry May and June, we've had Southern Residents around every day since July 3rd. Of course, as of this morning all the Js and Ls who have been visiting all went west, so today breaks that trend. Fingers crossed they all come back very soon!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

July 13th: Epic Evening With J-Pod

It's taken until July, but it's finally starting to feel like summer in terms of whale sightings! At least part of J-Pod has been around since July 3rd, and whales have been on the west side of San Juan Island on almost a daily basis. On July 10th, most of the rest of J-Pod came in (everyone but the J11s). On the afternoon of July 13th, they were split into roughly their "Group A" and "Group B" groupings, but I headed out to Lime Kiln in hopes of seeing them meet up.

Around 5 PM, J2 Granny's group came rocketing down Haro Strait after making a visit to the Fraser River. It was a quick, mostly unremarkable passby - at least until J45 Se-Yi'-Chn started breaching!

One of a series of breaches by J45 Se-Yi'-Chn

I had hoped the Js would meet up at Lime Kiln, but the reunion ended up happening a few miles south. Several of us waited to see which way they would go, and when they started heading south, we packed up to leave. As we drove past Hannah Heights, however, I had to stop once I saw all the whale watch boats close to shore. Boy, am I glad I did! The whales had just flipped back north, and were traveling close to shore in a large, playful group. We turned around and went right back to Lime Kiln!

It took a while for them to make their way back to Lime Kiln Point State Park, but they made it more than worth the wait. Watching them approach was exhilarating, with the anticipation of what was to come, and the desperate hope that they wouldn't turn around! They didn't.

Many playful whales approaching close to shore = Best feeling ever
There were all kinds of breaches, tail slaps, and cartwheels happening, like this one:

I love seeing the males up close, as it really gives a better perspective of how big they are.

J34 Doublestuf, now nearing full size at 18 years old

I also got a better look at Doublestuf's younger brother, J38 Cookie, who at the age of 13 is most definitely starting to "sprout", aka have the teenage growth spurt in which his fin grows from the shorter fin of the females and juveniles into the tall fin of the adult male. It's amazing how big he's getting!

J38 Cookie

 Basically the J14s, J17s, J19s, and J22s, along with L87 Onyx, were all in one big group. J2 Granny was, characteristically, way ahead on her own, and the J16s were trailing several miles behind. Within the large group, just J17 Princess Angeline with calf J53 and J28 Polaris with calf J54 were a little further offshore. And in this case, "a little further offshore" mean between 100-200 yards, which other days most definitely gets classified as "close"!

The "offshore whales" from left to right: J54, J28, and J17

While of course it's a treat to have the whales pass within a few dozen yards of the shoreline at any point in time, I especially love it when it happens early in the morning or late in the day, during those special times that are the golden hours for a photographer. I just love those backlit blows at sunset!

Of course the lighting can also be pretty crazy, especially when you're shooting right into the setting sun! But I love these shots.

On several occasions recently when multiple J-Pod sub-groups get together, I've noticed there seems to be a Young Boys' Club among the juvenile males from the different matrilines. J47 Notch, at age six, is always right at the center of it, and he surfaced right in front of me for my favorite shot of the night:

A freighter wake was hitting the shoreline right as these boys passed, and it seemed like they were enjoying lunging through the surf.

J49 T'ilem I'nges, who for so long was the baby of J-Pod, is now four years old. This summer it seems like he's being allowed to wander away from mom for the first time, and he's just loving it. Forgive my anthropomorphism, but he seemed thrilled to be able to hang out in the "big kids" group!

Tail slap from J49 T'ilem I'nges

I usually watch whales from directly in front of the Lime Kiln Lighthouse. On this day I was at the south end of the park to watch them approach, which had the added benefit of getting to see (and photograph) them as they passed the lighthouse.

Even though I wasn't on my usual rock, whenever the whales are this close I still have to climb down right to the water's edge, no matter where I am. Special thanks to Jason for capturing these moments of me in my element!

Me with J38 Cookie

The conditions were too perfect not to make a run for the boat and catch up with them again further north. (Note: when we left Lime Kiln, the J16s were still to the south heading south, but they would later follow the rests of Js north too.) When we caught up the large group near Open Bay, they were still in a playful, social mood, and the breaches continued!

After heading right into Open Bay, they continued north right against the shoreline of Henry Island. At times it was hard to even see them against the rocks, and some of their breaches looked precariously close to the rocks, though I'm sure that was just our perspective!

L87 Onyx kelping off Henry Island - almost hard to see his dorsal fin against the rocks!

The whales continued to hug the shoreline as they passed Henry Island

Breach really close to the rocks!
Just north of Kellett Bluffs, some of the whales pulled a little bit further offshore, and we stuck with them while the main group continued close to the island. It was awesome to see L87 Onyx, who is so often out a mile or more away from the rest of the whales, in close and socializing with the others. At this time he was with J34 Doublestuf.

It was great to see the often lonesome L87 Onyx in with the other whales getting some social time

 I'm not sure if I've ever seen Onyx breach before, but he did once on this night, and it was an impressive sight!

Huge breach by L87 Onyx

All too soon it was getting dark and was time for us to leave. We got one last look as the whales continued north into the dimming light near Spieden Island.

It can be easy to overuse words like "epic" when talking about whale encounters. Of course every sighting is memorable in its own way, getting to see these fascinating, gigantic creatures in the wild. But epic - meaning " heroic or grand in scale or character" or "particularly impressive or remarkable" certainly fits for my encounter with J-Pod on the evening of July 13th.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

July 7-9: 3 Days of Js

After being gone about three weeks, members of J-Pod finally returned to inland waters on July 3rd. They zoomed north, and have alternated between spending some time at the mouth of the Fraser River and doing laps on around the San Juans. Until July 7th, it was just the J2s and J19s (plus L87) here, a total of 10 whales. I caught up with them a couple times, including on the evening of July 6th as they made their way north past Lime Kiln towards Turn Point. Off Stuart Island, they stopped and had a good old-fashioned "cuddle puddle", as after traveling for a while they all grouped up, rested at the surface, and rolled around together for about 10 minutes.

The only whale not included in the mix was L87 Onyx, who for whatever reason stayed well offshore of the socializing whales. He did participate in some playful behavior, however, by throwing a couple of inverted tail slaps.

L87 Onyx

As they continued north again, little J51 Nova kept up the friskiness, doing several tail slaps and cartwheels.

Cartwheel from J51 Nova

From left to right: J40 Suttles, J2 Granny, and J51 Nova

Even though the rain started coming down, we couldn't quite leave them as they approached scenic Turn Point.

J37 Hy'shqa off the cliff at "Lover's Leap" on Stuart Island

As my research partner Michael commented, the drizzly, overcast evening seemed like "the kind of weather killer whales should be seen in".

Js pass the Turn Point Light Station on Stuart Island, July 6th, 2016

On July 8th, the J2s and J19s started heading up Haro Strait past Lime Kiln in the late afternoon, but stalled out before they had all passed. Looking west, I spotted the reason for their delay as whale watch boats came into view past Discovery Island. The J16s, J17s, and J22s (the rest of J-Pod except the J11s) were on their way in! Granny's group went out to meet them, and they all reunited in the middle of the straits before making their way over to San Juan Island. It looked like they were aiming for False Bay, and as it got later in the day, many of the people who had been anxiously awaiting the whales on the rocks left the park. As so often happens, after many people cleared out, that's when the whales showed up. And they didn't disappoint. As the J17s led the way north, we were treated to a close pass on the rocks at Lime Kiln - my first such pass of the year. I can't believe it took until July to see the whales this close from shore, but I'll take it!

J47 Notch surfaces right off the rocks in front of Lime Kiln Lighthouse
The J2s and J19s followed the J17s north, while the J16s and J22s spread out and foraged to the south of Lime Kiln. With daylight fading and most of the boats clearing out, we headed out for a brief evening encounter with the northbound whales. The first whales we caught up with were J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova, still cruising north:

J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova on the evening of July 8th

While we only had a short time with the whales before it got dark, it was well worth the trip out for the stunning hydrophone recording we got of the Js vocalizing in the tranquil seas. Listen to a clip of what we heard on the Orca Behavior Institute's Sound Cloud here.

Sometime overnight, the J22s and J16s must have made their way north to join up with the others, because on the morning of July 9th, they along with the rest of Js (still minus the J11s) went south past Lime Kiln in the late morning. The whales were all very spread out and pretty far offshore, but it was still a chance to check in with all of the J-Pod youngsters.

J51 Nova, who is proving to always be full of spunk

J17 Princess Angeline and her youngest, J53, with a freighter in the background

I predicted the whales would come back north on the flood tide in the mid- to late-afternoon. Usually when I voice something like this out loud they like to prove me completely wrong, but today that's exactly what they did! At around 3:30, they began passing Lime Kiln heading north again, and it was pretty quickly apparent it was going to be a special passby.

J19 Shachi was in the lead, followed by J2 Granny, who came in close to shore:

J2 Granny

Following Granny were members of the J16s, particularly J16 Slick with J50 Scarlet and J42 Echo.

J16 Slick in the foreground with her daughter J42 Echo behind her

Next were two young mom with their firstborn calves traveling together: J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova with J36 Alki and J52 Sonic. Alki broke off for a bit, leaving Eclipse to babysit the two youngsters.

J41 Eclipse with J51 Nova and J52 Sonic

After this group passed, all the other whales (the J14s, J22s, and J17s) meandered there way towards the shoreline of the park together in one big, slow moving, playful group. As a few whales ducked into Deadman Bay, I had to climb down lower onto the rocks to experience what I knew was going to be a special moment.

A family enjoying just how close the whales come to the rocks at Lime Kiln Point State Park
J28 Polaris and her calf J54 approaching the kelp

It was my first time seeing whales in the kelp this year. Again, I can't believe it took until July for this to happen - but again, I'll most definitely take it!

J28 Polaris kelping

J28 Polaris kelping

Here's my artsy shot of the day, a black and white close up of J35 Tahlequah. 

J35 Tahlequah
It was nice to get a close up look at J34 Doublestuf, who I hadn't seen in a while. As usual, he wasn't far from mom!

J34 Doublestuf

J34 Doublestuf and J22 Oreo

Doublestuf's younger brother J38 Cookie was further offshore, but is getting so big! Look at how straight that fin is now.

J38 Cookie
Several of the whales were in a playful mood. I could see them swimming upside down underwater. While the camera didn't capture that so well, it did capture their rolling at the surface, tail slapping, and surface lunges.

It was awesome to get another close pass from J47 Notch, who was traveling with his uncle (who is just one year older than him), J44 Moby.

Seven year-old J44 Moby (left) and six year-old J47 Notch (right)

I was at the south end of the park, and as the whales approached the lighthouse several of them did a series of breaches, including J40 Suttles.

Nice big breach by J40 Suttles
I could get used to this seeing whales every day thing again! Fingers crossed there's enough fish for these guys to stick around, and for the rest of the Southern Residents to come in soon too!