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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

June 25th: All Day With J-Pod and the K14s

Late in the day on June 24th we heard about orcas off Sooke. The first reports were conflicting; initially it sounded like transients going west, but then it turned into residents coming east! It wasn't clear if it was Js, Ks, and/or Ls, but we are not picky, especially this year! We're in a time of year with huge tidal exchanges and there was a large ebb tide overnight, so I was worried they would ride the tide right back out again. But I still set my alarm for early Saturday morning and went out to look.

First stop showed perfect glassy calm conditions but no whales. We kept heading south along the shoreline until the hoped-for sight appeared: a black dorsal fin breaking the flat surface of the water. I saw about four whales who appeared to be milling off False Bay. Not convinced they would come north, we headed to the boat.

There's something so special about being out there early in the morning, either on land or on shore, and looking for and finding whales. Coming on scene on the boat was just as special as we spotted the first blows a couple miles ahead of us. We shut our engine off and dropped the hydrophone as we watched the whales slowly approached. Here's a sample of what we heard. And this is what we saw:

L87 Onyx and J38 Cookie
IDs at first were not easy. Not only were we on the wrong side of the light, but it was already surprisingly warm (T-shirts on the boat before 8 AM!) and the heat distortion made it even harder to see saddle patches. But we quickly recognized the fin silhouettes of L87 Onyx, J38 Cookie, and K26 Lobo among the first group of whales, so we knew we had at least J-Pod (who Onyx travels with) and the K14s. As we learned later in the day, these were in fact the 29 whales that came in.

K26 Lobo on the right
The whales were making slow progress north against the still-ebbing current and we spent a lot of time with them seemingly not moving off County Park. Suddenly, they picked up speed, and at the same time moved offshore, allowing us to switch to the other side and get better light for IDs and photos. This was one of my favorite moments of the day as there were whales everywhere in the blue waters under the Olympic Mountains, and we were the only boat on scene!

The moment was punctuated by a half breach from J26 Mike:

And a nice look at J39 Mako:

While the lead whales initially cruised past Henry Island, by the time we got up there some of the whales had stalled out at Kellett Bluffs. We were getting ready to head back to port, but decided to hang out and see what they would do. For a long time, we didn't see any whales at all, but then this tight group all surfaced together!

The indecision continued for a few more minutes as this close group of whales circled for a while before finally deciding to go back south, cruising quickly on the still ebbing tide. As they made up their mind we headed home - or tried to. This was one of the most extreme tides of the season, and not only was our slip out of reach, our entire dock was sitting in the mud! Thankfully we got permission to tie up somewhere else for a few hours and were close enough to walk back to our car.

Meanwhile, the whales just reached the south end of the island when they turned on the changing tide and made their way north again. We got to Lime Kiln just in time to see them for their third pass of the day.

J27 Blackberry and J31 Tsuchi
The J16s passed by in a tight group right off the rocks, close enough that we could see their dark bodies underwater as they cruised by.

J50 Scarlet, J42 Echo, and J16 Slick

One of my favorite things about photographing whales up close is capturing how the water flows over and off of their bodies. Check out how far up the water is riding on the front of J26 Mike's dorsal fin in this shot!

J26 Mike

With the flood tide increasing I guessed the whales were going to continue north, but we had no sooner moved our boat back to it's rightful place when we heard the whales had flipped again. This was now officially a good old fashioned Westside Shuffle! I got back to Lime Kiln just in time for perhaps the best pass of the day, as all the whales came by in one group after another just yards of the rocks.

The K14s approaching - there's that cool water again off the rostrum of the whale on the right!

Often it's hard to capture a whole group of whales in one shot if they don't surface in perfect synchrony, but the four K14s had excellent form as they came up under the Olympic Mountains just south of us:

The K14s under the Olympic Mountains
We got an even closer look at J27 Blackberry on this pass. Earlier he was traveling with his sister J31 Tsuchi, but now he was with his brother J39 Mako.

J27 Blackberry
Whales and mountains go so well together, so here's another one of J47 Notch:

J47 Notch
The J16s were the trailing group, and as they approached they meandered into the cove just north of the lighthouse, always a sure sign of good things to come.

Since they were born so close together, I've been dreaming of the perfect shot of J50 Scarlet and J52 Sonic surfacing together. As soon as I snapped the shutter I knew I had finally gotten it! I love this one so much.

From left to right: J36 Alki, J52 Sonic, J16 Slick, and J50 Scarlet

The J16s continuing on their way:

There were lots of smiles everywhere by the end of the day on Sunday, as it truly did feel like one of the good ol' days!

Thrilled after a great early morning boat encounter, not knowing many more hours of whale-watching still awaited us!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Spring Changes to Summer

In mid-June we got two brief visits from L-Pod, but they weren't too accommodating for shore-based viewing. The L12s made one trip up as far as Lime Kiln, first spending some time resting off of Land Bank:

The L12s in resting formation
The second visit, from a larger group of L-Pod whales, offered only the most distant of looks over their two-day stay, before they headed back out to the open ocean.

A distant look at L91 Muncher from San Juan Island
Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly given the salmon numbers, the days continue to slip off the calendar and as we edge towards July J-Pod still has not visited us since the first of the month. They have been spotted a couple times - once in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and twice off of Tofino, and luckily off Tofino reports were they were finding a lot to eat. But the times have surely changed, and meanwhile we are left hoping that as the summer progesses, sightings of the Southern Residents in inland waters will increase as the summer goes on as happened later in the year of 2013 when sightings were also at record lows.

Meanwhile, there continue to be some transients around, though fewer than a few weeks ago. We did manage to have one nice shore-based encounter with the T36As and T65Bs where they spent more than half an hour "milling and killing" off of 4th of July Beach.

Other than that, sightings have been pretty slim, and we've taken some of our extra spare time to hand-tame some of the wild birds at our feeders. So far we've gotten red-breasted nuthatches, chestnut-backed chickadees, and even a downy woodpecker to eat from our hands!

Red-breasted nuthatch fledgling on my hand

Other than that, I've been left to enjoy and photograph all the other abundant wildlife (and wildflowers!) that lives in this special place I get to call home. I'll let the variety of the photos speak for themselves!

Curious raccoon
Female rufous hummingbird on nest
Deer fawn
Another deer fawn - this one in our yard!
Red fox in the rain
Lily pads at Three Meadows marsh
Oceanspray in bloom
A bizarre visitor to the intertidal zone - a turkey vulture
A female purple martin
On my last excursion, we headed down to Cattle Point, hoping for a first of the year Heermann's gull. They've been seen in Puget Sound, but not up here yet, though that should change any day. We didn't find out, but it's impossible not to take a photo of the eagles that regularly perch on the Cattle Point Lighthouse:

While looking up at this one, I happened to turn around just in time to see it's (presumed) mate fly by below the cliff behind us with a large fish in its talons:

Sure enough, the lighthouse eagle wasn't far behind, as it soon took flight after it's mate and/or dinner:

It's clear that there will be no shortage of things for me to photograph and report about on my blog, but I strongly hope that my next installment includes at least one visit from our Southern Resident Killer Whales!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

No Rs - But Ts, Ts, Ts!

As the days continue to slip by with no sightings of the Southern Residents (since J-Pod last departed on June 1st), this year is beginning to feel more and more like the summer of 2013 when the Southern Residents were conspicuous only their absence. Despite the fact that we keep hoping for reports of the whales returning to inland waters, the lack of sightings should come as no surprise. Not only are we one 4-year salmon cycle from the dismal year of 2013, but one glance at the Chinook salmon test catch data for the Fraser River shows how low the numbers are. They've been doing regular test catches since the end of April and in all that time have caught less than 10 fish - it's a jaw-droppingly low number.

All we can do is hope they're finding food wherever they are hanging out and continue to advocate for what these whales need - more fish. In the meantime, it's impossible not to enjoy our new neighbors, the transient killer whales. Whether by coincidence or not, as the Southern Residents have become more scarce, the transients have become more abundant, and the last week in particular has been phenomenal. At the Orca Behavior Institute we've had six encounters with them in the last five days.

On June 7th, a large group of transients headed across Haro Strait and as they headed north one group broke off from the rest - the T2Cs. These are a fascinating family group for several reasons. For one, they're descendants of the famous marine mammal-eating whale T2 Florencia, who along with T1 Charlie Chin ate fish after 79 days of starvation in captivity. They had already been sold to marine aquariums when someone lowered their nets and freed them in the middle of the night. Secondly, T2C Tasu is the mother of four living offspring, including T2C2 Tumbo who is a twelve year-old male with scoliosis. 

One of the youngest members of the regional transient killer whale population - calf T2C4

His survival to this point, despite obvious physical deformation, is a testament both to his will to live and the altruism shown by his family. He is regularly seen trailing slowly behind the rest of his matriline, as he was when we encountered them. But when we saw them stop to make a kill, he came to join them in the feasting.

The T2Cs on the hunt
T2C2, the male orca with a deformed spine, did not participate in the hunt, but did come over for the feeding
The hunt itself was an amazing thing to watch as my best guess is that the T2Cs pinned a harbor seal on the bottom, as after an extended time of surfacing and diving together, they started diving in alternate pairs, possibly to drown the seal while they took turns breathing. They were circling in the same spot for a long time and it was impossible to tell which way they would end up traveling; when they continued on their way, we were lucky enough to get a close pass. We know cognitively that orcas are big animals, but it hits you in a different way when you see one dwarf you and your boat:

A close pass from T2C Tasu
T2C1 Rocky and calf T2C4
On a couple of days, we've also gotten to see the T65As off the west side of San Juan Island, and in both cases they spent time in resting formation. This shot was taken from Land Bank in the rain, which along with the calm waters made for a memorable encounter.

The T65As resting in Haro Strait
On the morning of June 9th, word came in of a large group of inbound whales heading for San Juan Island. My first thought was, "Residents?!" I luckily got to the west side right as the whales did, and for 15 minutes had a magical moment where there were no boats on scene and no people with me on the shoreline as they approached.

A big group of whales, close to shore rounding Edwards Point, surfacing a lot and milling - I thought it might be residents, until I got a look at the dorsal fin on this male on the left (click to see a larger version with all his notches):

Not only was this not a Southern Resident, this was a whale I knew right away I had never seen before! Turns out it was T170, a rarely encountered orca. I heard this ID while the whales were still in sight, but who were all the other whales with them? For the moment, it didn't matter, and I just took in the tranquil morning encounter.

Later though, of course I did want to know who all was there. My friend and OBI partner Sara and I spent some time pouring over the transient photo ID catalogues, and were able to identify both some more common local visitors in the T36As and T49C as well as some more "exotic" whales in T172, T117A, and T117B. The T117s in particular were tough to figure out. As far as I know, they've never been seen here in local waters, and have changed a fair amount since their ID photos in the 2012 version of the catalog I have. For one, T117A was thought to be a female and now has a fin sprout! Here's a comparison of their ID catalog photos and my heavily cropped photos of them from June 9th to give you an idea of how we figured out who they were.

T117A: broad fin, "dent" on the front edge of the fin, skinny left side of saddle patch
T117B: Nick at the top of fin, "bump" on saddle patch with unique shape
It was a fun puzzle to solve, and it's always exciting to "meet" some new whales! They were going slow enough that I ran from Land Bank to Lime Kiln, but unfortunately by the time they got there they had pulled way offshore. They continued north throughout the day, and while the "regulars" hung around for the next day, the "exotics" kept on going north and out of the Salish Sea.

That doesn't mean the T encounters were over, however! The T2Cs seemingly took up residence in San Juan Channel for 3 days, and last night, on June 10th, we headed out for an evening encounter near Waldron Island. 

T2C1 Rocky

The whales were slowly moving north and the lighting was gorgeous. Again, T2C2 Tumbo, the male with scoliosis, was trailing behind the rest of his family. It tugged at the heart strings for sure when, on a couple of occasions, his big brother T2C1 Rocky broke off from the others and came over to spend some time with him.

Brothers T2C2 Tumbo (left) and T2C1 Rocky (right)
The other three whales went over to harass some seals hauled out on a small rocky outcropping. I don't know how shallow it was right there, but it was amazing how close the whales were able to get to the seals - close enough to scare the gulls off the rocks! One seal even panicked and slipped into the water, but amazingly the whales, who seemed like they could have practically grabbed the seals right off their haul out, seemed to move on without eating anything.

Scary moment for some harbor seals on a small rock (left) as T2C3 Lucy moved away from them
As the sun sank towards the horizon it was hard to leave, as the lighting just got more magical.

T2C1 Rocky
One of my favorite shots of the night - the T2Cs under a sundog
Eventually, we did turn south and head home to port as the whales headed north towards Canadian waters. The boat ride home was gorgeous and I couldn't help but wonder, "What will the next week bring?"