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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:

3 comments:

Kate said...

Very cool

Cher Renke said...

A clan calls.,... Kitten... My favorite is G clan... Donkeys!!

Vera said...

Wow! Cool photos and some great experiences. I am amazed how you learn to identify the whales so quickly.