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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!

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