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Thursday, July 27, 2017

July 23rd: Epic Day With Js and Ls

On the morning of Sunday, July 23rd, word came in that some residents were inbound from Sooke. Then, we heard about whales off the south end of the island - some of them were already here! It turned out that the same 19 whales from L-Pod had snuck in overnight, while all of J-Pod was heading east in to join them. L-Pod hung out near False Bay until J-Pod made their way across Haro Strait around noon. Then, in the early afternoon, they made their way north far enough that we could see them from the shores of San Juan Island.

We've all been curious who might take the "leader" role for J-Pod with the passing of J2 Granny at the end of last year. So far, it looks to be J19 Shachi, who has not only regularly been in the lead, but does it in Granny-style, far out ahead on her own in a no-nonsense kind of way.

J19 Shachi leading the way
Everybody else wasn't in such a hurry, and in fact they spent the next hour and a half basically milling right off Land Bank.

The largest group was a ways offshore, seeming playing around in a tide rip, but suddenly a group of half a dozen whales popped up closer to shore.

This close group then made a turn to come even closer - this is the kind of surfacing I just love to see!


Eventually even J19 Shachi came back to re-join the party, passing right along the rocks as she headed back south again.

A bit later it seemed like the whales had finally decided to go north, as they grouped up into two large groups and rode the strong flood tide up the lighthouse. We were just getting ready to leave Land Bank and try to catch the tail end of them at Lime Kiln when a splash to the north caught our eye. There was a porpoising whale - coming back south again! We ran back down the hill, this time right to the waterline as ALL 35 whales came back south close to shore. I like this shot (click to see a larger view to do it justice) that shows three lines of whales approaching. Talk about excitement!

A pec wave from J27 Blackberry with Whale Watch Point in the background
It's an incredible sight when the whales tuck into the little coves along the shoreline. We were almost looking behind us to the right to see these whales on the rocks!

The most magical moment occurred when a mom and juvenile stopped right in front of us. I didn't even know the water was deep enough this close to shore, but they turned upright and had just their rostrums above the surface for several moments. I can only imagine that underwater they must have been eye to eye. Why they stopped to do this, and why it happened right in front of us, I will never know, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me!

The day had already earned "epic" status by this point, but it was not over! We had just enough time to grab a bite to eat, download photos of the SD cards, and put on a layer of suncreen before running back out to the west side, this time heading to Lime Kiln and getting there just in time for another close pass by all the whales, going north this time.

Incoming again!
Sometimes it takes a wider angle shot to really capture just how close these whales come to the rocks. That's my husband Jason, and there were more whales around the corner to the left IN Deadman's Bay.

It all happened so quickly because they were almost all in one big group, but for a moment there were whales everywhere, all of them just a few yards away!

L92 Crewser

Conditions were too perfect not to head north and hop into our boat, and we met up with the same large group right off Henry Island.

 It's just indescribable to see that many dorsal fins all together...

....andwhen they're in a playful mood it becomes even more magical...

I just love this shot of the whales in front of my friends Barbara and David's sailboat! Check out the special whale-watch sailing trips they offer at All Aboard Sailing.

And I also love this one, with perfect evening lighting off of Spieden Island:

As good as it felt to have them here, and while they did go north to the Fraser River, their stay was also short. The next evening the Ls made their way back down, heading through Haro after dark and back out the Strait. Js would follow two days later, also bypassing the daylight hours of Haro Strait on their way out and leaving on the 26th. Here's hoping their couple of recent visits are a sign that the second half of the summer will be full of more Southern Residents than the first half was, and that there's plenty of salmon to keep them here!

Next up for me, however, is a trip north. I've long wanted to make a summer excursion to the north end of Vancouver Island, and this year it's finally happening! Fingers crossed I get to hang out a bit with the cousins of the Js, Ks, and Ls I know so well - the Northern Residents!

July 18th: Finally! L-Pod!

After 17 days with no Southern Residents in inland waters (in July!), late on the evening of July 17th part of L-Pod made their way towards San Juan Island, reaching the west side just after the sun set. On July 18th, I got enough of a distant glimpse of them in the morning to confirm they were still here, and then after work saw a few of them foraging offshore, but the patience paid off in the evening when they finally came north as far as Land Bank and Lime Kiln. It sure was nice to see some of these familiar fins again!

L82 Kasatka and L116 Finn
L92 Crewser
The photos don't really do it justice, but the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s (the 19 L-Pod whales present) were in one big, slow moving group doing lots of rolling at the surface, spyhopping, and kelping in the kelp offshore of Land Bank.

They were moving slow enough that we could do the run from Land Bank to Lime Kiln to see them again. As the sun got lower, the light got even more amazing, as it looked like their splashes were on fire:

It's uncommon for Ls to go north much further than Lime Kiln when they're here by themselves, and sure enough, just north of the lighthouse they started milling.

They turned back south before dark, and one whale came and gave us an extra close pass!

A close sunset tail slap was the grand finale on the evening!

Sadly, the next morning Ls were westbound out the Strait of Juan de Fuca again, but this time we only had to wait 5 more days for the next return of the Southern Residents.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

July 8-July 16: The Year of the Transients Continues

The first two weeks of July slipped off the calendar with no sightings of Southern Resident Killer Whales in inland waters, which is very unusual. Even with the "new normal" of drastically reduced visits from them in the spring months of April through June, in recent years sightings have at least picked up starting at the beginning of July. Not so this year. We continue to hope that wherever they are hanging out they are finding plentiful food, but in the meantime another amazing phenomenon is unfolding: the marine-mammal transient killer whales are seemingly taking over.

Not only have they been around on a nearly daily basis, but there have usually been multiple groups of transients around this month at times numbering more than 30 whales. It has also become the "new normal" to see lots of Ts in the spring (April-May) and late summer (August-September) but having this many of them around in June and July is also unprecedented. It's been amazing to see, and I've very much enjoyed the opportunity to get to spend a lot more time with this other population of orcas of the Salish Sea. It's hard to believe when I first started visiting the San Juans it took four summers here before I ever even saw transients for the first time!

On the evening of July 8th we headed across Haro Strait to Sidney Island, BC to hang out with the T49As, who took up residence near the San Juan Islands for more than a week. When we first got there they were doing long dives with very sporadic surfacings, making them hard to track, but shortly thereafter they hunted a harbor seal and proceeded to hang out for more than half an hour.

Amazing evening light that only got better as the sun set
All the boats were shut down and it was a peaceful atmosphere as we watched the whales go about their business. If I learned one thing about the T49As in our multiple encounters with them in July it's that they are not at all boat shy - in fact, rather boat curious. Every time I saw them they went over to check out at least one boat, and this evening was no exception as in their circling they made a close pass to pretty much everyone who was there drifting in the current.

The T49As: opposite of boat shy

A close look at mom T49A and three year-old T49A4
Male T49A1
The whales weren't the only one hunting for their last meal of the day. I had to focus for a moment on this rhinoceros auklet and his mouthful of fish to take home to his chick:

Just as the sun set, the light got even more amazing. In a perfect magical moment, the whales swam right into the orange light as a flock of sea gulls took off behind them.

Most of the largest groups of transients lately have been hanging out in Rosario Strait or the Strait of Georgia, generally a bit too far for us to go by boat. On July 11th, however, one group made up of 10 whales (T36, T36Bs, T37A1, and T99s) came up San Juan Channel past Friday Harbor and then headed up President's Channel. After seeing them from shore in San Juan Channel, we hopped onto the boat and caught up with them at the north end of President's Channel, following them to Sucia Island (the furthest east we've ever been in the boat!). 

A peek-a-boo spyhop
T37A1 is a very interesting individual, as he/she has dispersed from their matriline the T37As at a very young age. Dispersal is not uncommon in transients, as in some cases both sons and daughters will leave their mother's side, but usually only when they're adults, when the group size is large, and for the case of females when they start having their own offspring. Just 10 years old this year, this whale regularly flips between traveling with different family groups. His/her appearance is also distinct: a very short, broad fin that's sporting some new scarring this year.

T37A1: a reminder of how much we don't know about these whales
After this group made a kill, they rounded Point Doughty on Orcas Island and grouped up, traveling in a slow-moving tight group through, again, brilliantly colored waters.

T99 and T99B (surfacing)
T99 (left) and T99B (center)

On the evening of July 14, it was the T77s' turn to make their way up San Juan Channel. Again we tried to see them from shore near Friday Harbor, and while they were very close to the rocks, they almost completely bypassed where we were standing on a long dive. We got just one quick look at them as they made on surfacing before diving to our south, giving these surprised onlookers (who had no idea the whales were coming) a memorable moment:

The light was fading but with the whales so close we had to try to catch them from the boat. Enabled in part by them making a turn in our direction, we were able to briefly catch up with them for another sunset encounter.

Male T77B off Spieden Island
That Friday evening proved to be the start of a triple header for the weekend. On Saturday morning (July 15th), we met up with the T34s, T37, and T37Bs near Flattop Island. Soon after we arrived they made an apparent pursuit on a harbor porpoise, though it wasn't clear if they got it. Shortly thereafter they did make a kill near White Rock. It was amazing how close they surfaced to these rocks as a group of wide-eyed harbor seals looked on!

Whales moving in towards the seal haul out
The whales milled around here for quite some time and apparently spooked at least one or two into the water, which they made quick work of. Not only did we see gulls coming down to grab scraps off the surface, but a closer look at my photos later showed meat in the mouth of one of the youngsters here on the right (note the pink - click to see a larger view:

Before we departed, we saw these whales give a close pass to the local sailing ship the Spike Africa.

Then on Sunday it looked as if we might go a day without whales when a group of Ts was picked up nearby heading our direction. We caught up with the T37As off Henry Island on the evening of July 16th. This group is made up of mom T37A (mother of the young dispersed whale T37A1) and the three of her offspring that travel with her. She's a very successful young mother, at age 23 having already given birth to 4 surviving offspring. I wonder if her birth rate of a new calf every 2-3 years has anything to do with her oldest dispersing so young. At any rate, she's got her work cut out for her as the only adult and a family of 4 to feed!

At first all 4 whales were traveling together, but soon mom and her oldest non-dispersed offspring completely disappeared for 15 minutes while the two youngest - four year-old T37A3 and two year-old T37A4 played together at the surface. It was like she left them to entertain themselves while going hunting!

No mom in sight while these two little ones frolicked right off the shoreline of Henry Island - so close to shore it looked like they were practically touching the rocks!
Eventually mom did come back to pick them up, and the family booked it over to Open Bay, where they again stalled out. It wasn't clear what they were doing as they were loose and surfacing every which way, looking more like the residents that often forage in this same location.

A young transient dwarfed by a passing container ship
After a long period of milling, they suddenly grouped up again and chose a direction - a direction that happened to be right past us! Their close surfacing startled me enough that I jumped, but I still had composure enough to point the camera in the right direction and click the shutter, capturing another magical sunset whale moment:

I have a feeling we're in for some more transient killer whale encounters in the near future, but next the Southern Residents finally returned to inland waters after a 17 day absence when, on July 17th, part of L-Pod made their way in. Their stay was short, but we did get to see them - those photos in my next blog post!