For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Saturday, August 27, 2016

August 21-23: Mixed Pod Sub-Group, And Some Sad News

From August 21st-23rd we had an odd group of about 30 whales traveling together: members of all three pods, but not all the whales from any pod! Over the course of those three days I was lucky to have several great encounters with them both by boat and from shore. Here are some highlights:

L72 Racer, L105 Fluke, and J45 Se-Yi'-Chn

L87 Onyx

Members of L-Pod along the Henry Island shoreline

Mixed group of Ks and Ls

Mixed group of Ks and Ls

Such speed! Porpoising whales

Look close for the third whale - a calf barely visible!

Three porpoising all together

L92 Crewser on the right

L103 Lapis and her son L123, who will be named at the end of this month

Baby face! Love seeing L123's shadow on his mom's back

K27 Deadhead and her son K44 Ripple in the middle

L82 Kasatka silhouetted in a golden sunset
L116 Finn

K34 Cali

Half breach by L82 under the Olympic Mountains

The Sidney-Friday Harbor run of the Washington State Ferry in the background!

K20 Spock off Stuart Island

The evening of August 23rd ended when it was almost too dark to see, sitting on the rocks at Lime Kiln and listening to the echoing blows of part of J-Pod passing bay. I tried to soak up the sound - such a peaceful, mysterious one - knowing we're just a month away from whale sightings dwindling, and wanting to keep it within me for the long winter months.

Sadly, the next day, August 24th, the Center for Whale Research announced that J14 Samish is missing and presumed dead. I hadn't seen her during our last few encounters with her family group, but the whales have been so spread out most of the time and also so mixed up it's been hard to figure out who all is there. From what I've heard, it sounds like she didn't look bad ahead of time, just disappeared in early August. Here's my last photo of her, taken in mid-July off the rocks at Lime Kiln, during a memorable passby that I now have another reason to never forget:

J14 Samish

Samish, as a 42 year-old female, leaves us too young, and leaves behind her children and grandson who will hopefully bond together and do have the ultimate leader in J2 Granny, Samish's presumed grandmother. I prepare myself to lose a couple whales every year, but whenever it's a J-Pod whale it seems especially hard to take, as I have spent so much time with them over the years. 

J37 Hy'shqa and J49 T'ilem I'nges - now without their mother and grandmother, J14 Samish

Unfortunately this wasn't the only bad news. The Center also announced that J28 Polaris was looking very underweight, and was likely within days of her death. This was an even bigger blow to hear, as she's a breeding age female with a nursing calf - the most important age/sex class if this population has any hope of survival. Her family group came in on August 25th, and I caught a distant glimpse of Polaris. Yesterday, the 26th, the J17s were foraging off the west side for hours, and I got a better look at her off Land Bank's Westside Preserve.

J28 Polaris, looking thin - click to see a larger version and notice the depressions around her eyepatches and blowholes, an area that should be robust on a healthy whale
I have to take the fact that she's still alive as a hopeful sign. She's made it this far, and she's clearly a fighter - with a son and daughter who depend on her. There's a good chance J46 Star would make it on her own, with the support of her extended family, but little J54, who is less than a year old, would likely perish if he lost his mother so young. We're all sending Polaris and her family all the positive healing energy we can to continue to fight and hopefully pull through.

With the loss of Samish the Southern Resident population stands at 82 individuals. While we've been lucky to have whales around on almost a daily basis, the pods and sub-groups continue to fracture. Gone are the days of a decade ago when we would see all of J- and K-Pods traveling together on a daily basis. Now we're seeing smaller sub-groups, and in many cases these are even spread over miles as a single matriline might be the only whales you see as they forage throughout their traditional summer feeding grounds. We've technically had a couple "superpods" this summer, with all the whales in inland waters, but in my mind it doesn't really count if their spread from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Fraser River, utilizing the entire inland sea. The term "superpod" conjures up an image of 80 whales all together, so many dorsal fins every direction you look. I can only hope that's a sight we'll still see this year.

So, what can we do? While the phone calls, e-mails, letters, and petitions feel like they're falling on deaf ears, we have to remember that big changes take time. There are things going on behind the scenes that will hopefully still lead to major actions - such as the breaching of the four Lower Snake River dams. A year and a half ago this issue wasn't on the radar of major politicians, or even many major environmental groups. Now, everyone has been briefed on the situation, and we just need public opinion to continue to encourage someone in a position of power to be bold enough to stand up and do the right thing. Check out this recent blog post by the international group Ocean, and sign this petition by the National Resources Defense Council urging the administrator of NOAA to take action. Also please continue to call the White House comment hotline at 202-456-1111 and ask for the President to issue an executive order to breach the four Lower Snake River dams. 

It's amazing to watch these whales who, in the midst of loss and struggling to find enough to eat, also find time to surf freighter wakes (check out this video from August 24th!) and breach like crazy as they pass their favorite places. We, too, must find ways to carry on, and absolutely to continue to find joy in spending time with these amazing wild whales. In the meantime, we must also continue to do all that we can to help them fight for their survival.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

August 20th: A Whale of a Day With All Three Pods

On the evening of August 19th, after a day with no whales in the area, we heard about a large group of residents heading in from out west. With hopes of perhaps our first real superpod of the season, we headed out to the west side on the morning of August 20th with word of whales heading up towards Lime Kiln. The first marine mammal sighting of the day, however, wasn't an orca but this harbor seal pup in the kelp:

With the potential for all the whales to be in the area and no idea at all who's out there, it always takes a bit to figure out just who we're looking at. The whales being all mixed up makes it a little bit harder, too! The first whales we saw were some members of the K13s with some members of the L47s.

K25 Scoter and L47 Marina

If you were surprised like I was to not have J2 Granny in the lead group as usual, turns out that's just because she was so far in the lead she passed Lime Kiln before sun-up. I heard later that Granny's group of J-Pod was way up in Swanson Channel already with the L4s at this time.

The mixed group of Ks and Ls hung out for a long while in front of Lime Kiln, apparently actively foraging. They were spread out, but we saw lots of surface activity, including some impressive lunges as they presumably pursued a salmon.

Awesome surface lunge by K13 Skagit
Even though they weren't as close to shore as a couple days ago, the morning light was again awesome for seeing photographing all their surface behavior.

Tail slap by K25 Scoter
As a few more whales came north to join the group, they all converged and were zipping around in tight groups. They don't really cooperatively hunt for salmon as far as we know, but it sure looked like the feeding was good in that spot for everyone!

An odd combo: K20 Spock and baby L122

A couple of foraging whales zoomed past this boat (who had cut their engines - the whales approached them), wowing the people on the board. I particularly love the look of disbelief from the woman on the left as she experiences a moment she'll never forget! The girls on top look pretty thrilled, too.

K27 Deadhead and another whale thrill these onlookers
The photos didn't really capture the excitement of the foraging whales, but we had our hydrophone in the water, and the vocalizations sure did. Check out a clip of what we heard here

After a time this group of whales continued north, and next to pass us were K38 Comet and K34 Cali to complete the K13 family group.

K38 Comet heading north to catch up with the rest of his family

Next came some more L-Pod whales, including a couple I haven't seen much of at all this year, like L72 Racer and L105 Fluke!

L105 Fluke - who has grown so much since last year that I had to do a double take when I saw him!
After a few more Ls went by, we thought that was probably it, as no other whales were in sight to the south. Perhaps all the whales that were coming in the night before hadn't stayed? We headed home to have a late breakfast, and then heard from a friend that other whales were heading towards the south end of San Juan Island from offshore! We headed back out to the west side, but the only whales that made it north past Lime Kiln were the J16s - all the other Js, Ks, and Ls stayed near False Bay or further south.

J16 Slick and J50 Scarlet make a mid-afternoon pass by Lime Kiln

In the evening, the seas remained flat calm as they had all day, so after an early dinner we decided to head out on the boat to see if we could meet up with the whales off False Bay. Surprisingly, we ended up finding whales right near Open Bay! The J16s were on their way back south. But even more surprisingly, they weren't alone! I had seen all the members of the J16s when we spotted another male offshore. I took a photo to figure out who it was, and you should have heard my excitement when I realized it was L84 Nyssa, a member of the greater L54 sub-group of L-Pod who don't generally spend much time here at all.

You wouldn't think this average photo would cause so much excitement, but....L84 NYSSA!!!

After he passed we swung around to the outside of him to get a better shot of his other side lit up by the evening light.

L84 Nyssa about one and a half miles offshore of San Juan County Park
I figured it was unlikely he would be there without the others in his sub-group, and sure enough we found two more of them. (The other two were apparently well to the south with the other whales - it's a mystery how these guys made it up to the J16s seemingly undetected, though they were so far offshore maybe it's not surprising.) I love getting to spend time with these guys, the members of the Southern Resident Community that I know the least well.

L108 Coho with the Lime Kiln Lighthouse in the distance
We dropped the hydrophone a couple times, and while they were mostly just echolocating we did get a few vocals from L108. He stopped a couple times to actively forage, and we saw more surface lunges much like we saw from the other group first thing this morning.

I always love abstract whale shots with cool lighting/reflections, so check out this heavily cropped photo of L108 and the water in the amazing evening light:

The tip of the dorsal fin of L108 Coho as he submerges
We saw our first whales of the day around 8 AM and our last whales of the day around 8 PM! By the time it got dark out we were exhausted, but not complaining in the least! We wondered if we would be in for another whale-filled day today, August 21st, but what a difference a day makes. Yesterday there were whales on the west side all day and flat calm seas. Today, no whales nearby, and heavy winds with rough seas! A good time to stay at home and go through all the photos, data, and recordings we collected yesterday!

Friday, August 19, 2016

August 17th: The Morning We've Been Hoping For

It's a good thing I caught up on my other recent whale encounters on a blog post a few days ago, because my "off" streak definitely ended on the morning of August 17th, with an encounter that most definitely deserves its own dedicated post.

We dream of mornings like these. They're the reason we set our alarms from 6 AM on summer Saturdays, the reason we drive out to the west side extra early before going to work, the reason we spend hours sitting on the's because we hope for encounters like this. Calm waters, hardly any people, gorgeous lighting, and whales right off the kelp, so close you can see them swimming underwater.

It started like several other such mornings this summer, with Jason and I arriving at the west side before anybody else, sitting on the rocks eating cereal and straining our ears for that hoped-for sound of a whale breathing. Soon, the sun rose over the island behind us, and a few other dedicated friends gathered along the shoreline. As I chatted with one, Jason continued scanning with binoculars, until he exclaimed, "Whales. We have whales!" as the first dorsal fins came into view off the coast to the south of us.

They - Js and Ks - were swimming north against a strong ebb tide. It was slow progress for them, and they stopped to mill a little ways south of us, which had us all holding our breath against the possibility of the dreaded "T-word" (turnaround). But then, in characteristic fashion, J2 Granny led the way north.

J2 Granny

Behind her, one after another, came members of the K14s: K14 Lea, K26 Lobo, and K42 Kelp. Last year, the K14s were nearly always with Granny's group, but as seems to often be the case, each year brings different association patterns and it's not a group we've seen together too much yet this year.

With a few whales going north, we were hopeful the rest would follow, but it still wasn't guaranteed - we often see Granny and a few others pass Lime Kiln but then come back south before everyone makes it up to us. We anxiously watched the action south of us off Land Bank, where it looked like many whales were quite close to shore. It can be hard in these moments to sit still, when you know if you were somewhere else the whales would be right in front of you and have no guarantee they'll keep swimming to where you are. But, more often than not, patience pays off, as it did on this day.

Two "waves" of whales approaching
The whales were, as we say, "right off the rocks". If you wonder what this phrase means, here's the asnwer:

J26 Mike and J42 Echo
J40 Suttles

The first group to pass including members of the J14s and J16s. The morning light was so perfect, making for awesome reflections and the ability to see the whales underwater.

Awesome reflections

Underwater whales are the best! Prints of this photo available here. <3 br="">
J37 Hy'shqa. Prints of this photo available here.
So many photos, it's hard to narrow down which ones to share....

J37 Hy'shqa
J40 Suttles. Prints of this photo available here.
Prints of this photo available here

While some people have a hard time figuring out what part of the whale they're looking at in photos like these, I tend to love the abstract whale shots the best:

How many whales are in this photo? At least three!

Of course this shot, featuring the two loves of my life, is a contender for favorite of the day, too:

My husband Jason with J16 Slick and her son J26 Mike

On second thought, on days like this, there are too many favorites to pick just one:

Prints of this photo available here.

Closely following the J14s and J16s was another group made up of the J11s and J19s. Interestingly, the J17s and J22s were not present - just another chapter in the constantly changing association patterns! It was a special moment to check in with my favorite whale J41 Eclipse and her one year-old son J51 Nova. (Maybe this one is my favorite? ;) )

J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova. Prints of this photo available here.

J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova. Prints of this photo available here.

J19 Shachi

I feel like I haven't seen this big guy in forever - I was pretty excited to see him emerging from the depths!

J27 Blackberry

Following behind this group, but further offshore, were the K16s and K21. Then bringing up the rear was L87 and his new buddy, J45 Se-Yi-Chn (I've seen them together several times recently, which I love, because Onyx had been on his own a lot lately and J45 can feel like one of the big boys now (in my head anyway, haha).

The close passes like this only last a couple of minutes, but the images stay etched in your memory forever and leave you smiling for days! It's nourishing for the soul, that's for sure.