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Monday, May 29, 2017

A Weekend to Remember: Northern Lights and Sunset Orcas

Last weekend was absolutely beautiful, but there were no orcas nearby. Still, it was too nice not to get on the water at least a little bit, and a trip through Spieden Channel was in order.

Tranquil blue waters in Spieden Channel
While we did get a few glimpses of a humpback whale, the highlight was this family of river otters along the Spieden Island shoreline:

As we reached two weeks without a sighting of the Southern Residents, the whale withdrawals really started settling in! At least J-Pod used to be around on almost a daily basis in May and even in April, but not so for the last 4 or 5 years. Presumably this has to do with the poor spring returns on Fraser River Chinook, and hopefully the whales are finding enough to eat elsewhere. Even when the orcas aren't around, however, there's plenty of awesome sights to see in San Juan Island, and on the night of May 27th/28th I got to check an item off my bucket list in seeing the northern lights for the first time. It's a rare but not unheard of occurrence here, and having it happen from my home island was even more special. Sometimes they can really only be picked up here with long camera exposures, but this was a pretty big storm and they were apparent as soon as we got an open view to the north, getting brighter after our eyes adjusted to the darkness.

It was amazing to watch them brigthen and dim and change shape before our eyes. On one hand they moved slower than I had pictured from seeing videos; on the other hand it was amazing how quickly they could change. Usually just greens are seen from here, but for a brief time there was a second band of yellow as well:

When I saw what I thought was a satellite approaching I set up a shot hoping to get its track above the northern lights. I was able to confirm later it was actually the International Space Station; talk about being in the right place at the right time!

Just when the cold was starting to set in and we were thinking of leaving the lights got brighter again, and this time we saw some purple too!

The northern lights would have been more than enough to make for an epic weekend, but mid-day on Sunday we got word that J-Pod was heading back into the area after their long absence. Despite being warm, clear, and sunny here on San Juan, it was foggy in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the boats lost the whales so we heard no further reports on their progress. Jimmie, the student working with us at the Orca Behavior Institute this summer, was scanning at Lime Kiln in the evening as we had a hunch they were still coming in. I think it's pretty cool more than 20 whales can totally give everyone the slip for so many hours, especially on Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest boating weekends of the year here. All of a sudden, they appeared in front of the lighthouse out of no where and were north just ten minutes later! I missed them completely but these are the days I'm thankful we made the decision to buy a boat! It sounded like they might be heading north quickly but luckily we caught up with them right at Mitchell Bay and followed them north past the cormorant rookery on Henry Island.

These days, the whales are very spread out more often than not, so seeing them in a tight group has become a special treat. Last night, all 25 whales of J-Pod were traveling together, an absolutely beautiful sight.

Add the sunset lighting to the story, and you run out of adjectives to describe the scene pretty quickly.

To top it off, we had the whales to ourselves for the end of the encounter, which is always extra special.

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