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!
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!|
|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.