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|
|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|
|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:
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.