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Sunday, August 27, 2017

August 25: The T34s, T36As, T37, and T37Bs

On the afternoon of August 25th we heard about killer whales near Waldron Island, so I headed out to Reuben Tarte on the northeast side of San Juan Island to take a look. When I first got there, there were 2 groups, both pretty far away: one near Flattop and one near Jones. Suddenly the group from Jones, which had been aiming south down San Juan Channel, porpoised over to Spieden Channel, and it looked like both groups would go west and out of sight. Something made me pause for a couple minutes before leaving, however, and am I ever glad I did! Suddenly the two groups merged and on their next surfacing where aiming right for the rocks where I was standing! It was the T34s, T36As, T37, and T37Bs - 11 whales.

The above two photos look so much like a group of resident killer whales approaching shore at Lime Kiln. It's still amazing to me that we are having these sorts of encounters here so regularly now with transients! 

It looked like they were going down on a longer dive right as they were reaching us, so I was afraid they would bypass us on shore entirely. Then I looked down and saw the unmistakable form of a killer whale underwater right off the rocks!

This was T34A, who was perhaps sent out on seal patrol, as she went up and back along the rocks, not surfacing until her return trip.

That one close pass would have been enough to make the encounter a special one, but the rest of the whales weren't far behind. Here is a bit of an odd combination in, from top to bottom, T36A1, T37, and new calf of this year T34B.

An odd combo from top to bottom: T36A1, T37, and calf T34B
I had seen T34B a couple times this year, but not until I saw it in this lighting did I realize how pale and mottled he or she is! Really bizarre coloration.

Odd coloring and pigmentation visible on T34B, who was traveling here with T37
The three T37Bs also came in fairly close and all surfaced together:

From left to right: T37B, T37B2, and T37B1
The whales spent some time milling near O'Neal island before getting too far away to see very well, giving me about 45 minutes of observation time from shore - quite a lot for Ts who often pass quickly right on by! This group continued south down San Juan Channel and passed Friday Harbor, but then I heard from a friend that they flipped and were coming back north. The late afternoon timing was perfect for us to jump on the boat and meet up with them again in nearly the same spot I saw them earlier, but now going north. It looked like they might take Spieden Channel, but for the second time that afternoon they doubled back and on this occasion ended up going on the north side of Spieden Island west through New Channel. Talk about a spectacular setting for an evening encounter!

There's just something about backlit blows, something made even more perfect with a black backdrop.

For the whole time I observed them on this day they kept splitting into two groups, nearly coming together and merging into one group, then splitting again, with members of the T36As and T37 regularly switching groups. It made it hard to keep track of who was where, but interesting to speculate on what they might be doing and why.

After giving us those awesome backlit blows, they switched to the other side of the channel where the lighting was equally amazing but totally different.

Yet again after no more than a minute or two they split into 2 groups, and at first we followed one as they made their way west into Haro Strait. The other one was way inshore towards Johns Pass and Stuart Island, so before we left we went over there to see what they were up to. It was a group of 5 of them and they seemingly were on the hunt, perhaps pinning a seal to the bottom as they kept taking turns diving and were circling in the same spot for more than 20 minutes.

If I had to guess, I would say their hunt was successful; we started seeing some surface activity, but never anything definitive like birds coming in for meat scraps.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

August 19: The T36As, T37, T46s and T34s, T37Bs

I heard someone describe our recent invasion by the marine-mammal eating transient killer whales as being like playing orca bingo, because there are a lot more numbers involved than when the Southern Residents are here. It's not "I saw J-Pod" but "I saw the T36As, T37, T46s, T34s, and T37Bs!" which was the case for us on the evening of August 19th.

All 16 of these whales made their way up Haro Strait in the afternoon and then split into two groups in the evening. First we caught up with the T36As, T37, and T46s near Waldron Island. They seemed to make a kill off Point Disney, which provides a spectacular backdrop for watching whales.

They were milling in one area for so long that it gave us a chance to drop the hydrophone. We heard some bizarre calls, plus some whistles and clicks which are even more unusual for transients. Here's a clip of what we heard. 

After deciding to move on, the whales made their way over to Flattop Island. I especially like this next photo, which shows T37 and T46. T46 was involved in the last killer whale capture in Washington State in 1976 but was released, and has become one of the most prolific transients; she's now a great-grandmother. T37 is also a grandmother, so it was cool to see these two matriarchs together.

This group of 10 whales proceeded to do several laps around Flattop Island, and meanwhile about just a mile away we caught sight of the second group of killer whales: the T34s and T37Bs. We headed over there right as they exited Spieden Channel towards San Juan Channel. T37A did a huge lunge so we thought they might be on the hunt, but the next thing we knew they were all logging and resting!

Sunset surface lunge by T34A
After their cat nap, they started heading south down San Juan Channel.

As they reached O'Neal Island, they split up and seemed to be scouting out the shoreline. This isn't a great photo, but I couldn't believe how deep into this little cove this whale went! Here it is coming out again (see the blow on the left against the rocks), but it was even further in there on the previous surfacing!

While hanging out here we also got a surprise close pass from T34; gotta love that late day lighting.

As the whales continued south, we got our last looks with our friends Barbara and David of All Aboard Sailing in the background. 

It was a beautiful evening on the water, and we were treated to a colorful sunset on the way back home!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

August 4: Alert Bay

On August 4th we packed up camp and took the ferry from Sointula to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. On the way we saw a deer considering making a swim across the same channel - she decided not to:

Alert Bay is one of those places I had read about in books by some of my whale heroes so it was awesome to finally visit. A bald eagle welcomed us at the ferry terminal:

The First Nations cultural heritage in Alert Bay is amazing and well worth the visit. The U'Mista Cultural Centre is home to artifacts of the Kwakwa̱ka̱╩╝wakw people, many of which were taken when the potlatch was outlawed in Canada from 1885 to 1951. Many of the masks and other items were confiscated by the government or in private collections but are slowly making their way back to their rightful owners. No photographs are allowed in the exhibit - so you'll have to make the journey to see for yourself one day. Outside the cultural center I was amazed to see another bald eagle perched on top of a totem pole. I managed to catch this photo just as it was taking flight:

Another must-see sight is the Namgis Burial Grounds, where totem poles and other grave markers are viewable from the road. Some families choose to maintain the totem poles while others believe letting them decay and return to the Earth is part of their natural journey.

One thing that's for certain is that the cultural juxtapositions between the First Nations people and European immigrants are everywhere:

Alert Bay is also a formerly bustling fishing village. There are still a lot of fishing vessels in the harbor, but many have been seemingly abandoned, as was the old cannery near the marina.

We had time to do a little birding too, and the best finds (other than the bald eagles) were a large group of black oystercatchers:

And some black turnstones near the ferry terminal, which I caught in some surreal lighting as the smoke from the wildfires in interior BC made for an orange cast to the sun:

The weekend after leaving Alert Bay, we made our trek back down Vancouver Island to Victoria and then home to San Juan Island, where things had also been pretty quiet on the killer whale front. A group of L-Pod whales made a short visit while we were gone, but then even the transient killer whale sightings dried up for about a week. A combination of wind and bad timing would keep the orca sightings very sparse for me until just last night, August 19th, when I finally had another great transient killer whale encounter. I'll feature photos from that in my next blog post, but in the meantime, incredibly, we've gone more than 2 weeks again without any Southern Residents and are approaching a month without J-Pod. :(

Friday, August 11, 2017

August 1-4: Camping on Malcolm Island

Early in the morning on August 1st we woke up to the sound of killer whale blows. Luckily they were just beginning to pass by, and we saw about 40 whales from A and G Clans very spread out and heading west.

The only Northern Residents I had seen before were the A34s and A36s, so all the whales present on this morning were new to me: the A23s, A25s, A30s, I15s, and I31s. For some reason I've always particularly wanted to see I-Pod, perhaps because they were the original before what most people think of when they hear "iPod" today.

I51 in the background, then from left to right I16 with her three year-old grandchild I144 and child I128
Interestingly, only 6 of the Northern Resident pods seem to have been given names like our Southern Residents. They're named through the orca adoption program at the Vancouver Aquarium, but none of the I-Pod whales I saw have names. Additionally, many of the whales up there are of unknown gender, at least until they get a fin sprout to show they're male or have a calf to show they're female. Down here, so many people are watching the whales that the gender of a new calf is usually figured out within a year or two, by people seeing it breach or roll over at the surface to see its underbelly markings, which can also be used to determine gender. I think it's cool that up there we don't yet know the gender of many of the whales!

In general, keeping track of the whales up there is more complicated/confusing than down here, because there are so many more whales. The Southern Residents are considered one clan (J-Clan) with three pods (Js, Ks, and Ls) who are made up of approximately 6, 4, and 7 matrilines respectively. For the Northern Residents, there are 3 clans (A-Clan, G-Clan, and R-Clan) sorted into 16 pods, but the pods aren't just given single letter names. For example, the original A-Pod proved to really be multiple pods, so there's A1 Pod, A4 Pod, and A5 Pod, each with several matrilines. So the whales we saw can be classified this way:

From A-Clan:
  • A1 Pod
    • A30 matriline
  • A5 Pod 
    • A23 and A25 matrilines

From G-Clan:
  •  I11 Pod
    • The I15s, currently made up of the I16, I27, I4, and I65 matrilines (these 4 whales are the daughters of I15, who is now deceased)
  • I31 Pod
    • I35 matriline
Did you follow all that?! I barely did, after looking through the ID catalogue many times!

Eight year-old I128 in the foreground with other whales from its family, the I16s
The whales passed us by so early in the morning and in such misty conditions that an hour or two later it already felt like it had all been a dream. We didn't know whether they would come back or not, so we decided to go for a hike through the forest along the shoreline. There were some massive trees!

And some not so massive, but equally photogenic, mushrooms:

Near the end of the trail was a (very steep!) staircase down to the beach.

It was pretty special to be the only ones down there at the time, so we had some fun taking self-portraits.

Every day we were there started out foggy, cleared up by mid-day, and then became windy in the evening. We spent many hours on the beach hoping for whales, with short breaks to go explore the rest of the island.

Looking over towards Vancouver Island
Pulteney Point Lighthouse
On our last full day there, we woke up to the best sunrise yet:

Unfortunately the amazing colors were because the smoke from the wildfires in interior BC was getting closer. We later learned that back home the smoke had already arrived, but thankfully it didn't drift this far north until our last day. On this particular calm morning, we saw many marine mammals on our first beach visit of the day: half a dozen Pacific white-sided dolphins, a Steller sea lion, a few harbor porpoise, and even a sea otter, which is pretty rare up there! Also a humpback whale:

In the evenings, when the wind really picked up, it made for good wave action at the beach, which along with the late-day lighting made it fun to take lots of photos:

A close up wave abstract
Unfortunately, the whales didn't come by within sight for the next several days. (They did pass us twice - once undetected by anyone so presumably far out in the late evening, and once on the other side of the Strait.) We thought the August 1st orcas might be all we would see, but on our last morning in camp we woke up even earlier - at 5:15 AM - to the sound of blows. It was too dark to see anything at first, and even once we could make out the whales, still too dark for photos, so we took the opportunity to drop our hydrophone in the shallow waters off the campground. You should have seen my face light up when the first vocalization came through our speaker! Here's a clip of what we heard:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

July 30-31: Northern Vancouver Island

For many years I've dreamed of making the trip to northern Vancouver Island to explore as well as try to see the Northern Resident Killer Whales. It hasn't happened in part because, though their peak season is a bit later up there, the best time to see the Northern Residents overlaps with the best months of seeing the Southern Residents so I find it hard to leave San Juan Island. I've read about places like Alert Bay, Telegraph Cove, and Johnstone Strait since childhood, the home of some of my whale heroes (both humans and cetacean). In 2010 we traveled through those waters on the Alaska Marine Highway while taking a ferry from Ketchikan to Bellingham, and in 2011 I made it as far as Campbell River in August and up to Johnstone Strait by boat, but this was the first time I've been on land on the northern part of Vancouver Island.

On our way up we stopped at Little Huson Caves, a hidden gem several miles up a washboard logging road. (This would not be the last logging road we would drive this week - they're used as the main source of access to many places up there!) While the part that was open to the public wasn't really a cave, they were still impressive and beautiful rock formations.

Alongside the logging road, the fireweed was in full bloom in the clear cut areas. We stopped to take a picture, and the first plant I approached had this interesting insect on it - a new one to me! A yellow velvet long-horned beetle (Cosmosalia chrysocoma):

Next stop was Telegraph Cove - a hotspot for tourists, but very scenic!

There's a boardwalk around the marina with restaurants and historic buildings restored as lodgings, and the Johnstone Strait Whale Museum!

We spent the night, however, a little further up the road in Port McNeill, in a cottage on top of a hill overlooking the straits. When we woke up in the morning there was a lot of bustling bird activity just outside our front door, including maybe 10 rufous and Anna's hummingbirds!

Anna's hummingbird
I was surprised to see a couple of Townsend's warblers, too - probably the best views I've ever had of this often secretive species!

A little later in the morning we caught a ferry from Port McNeill over to Sointula on Malcolm Island, where we spent four nights camping. I love the BC Ferries, and this one was especially cute.

While waiting for our ferry we bird-watched the waterfront, where the most exciting sight was a couple of gulls harassing a bald eagle:

Eagles would be a highlight throughout the trip, as a pair of immature eagles were right at our campground to welcome us, too!

On the evening of July 31st we spent our first few hours at the beach where we hoped to see Northern Residents. We didn't have any luck that night, but stay tuned for the next post to see what we saw when they woke us up the next morning!