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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!

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