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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Residents in the Second Half of September

After a season where the Southern Residents were scarcer than ever, I had feeling the season might continue to wind down with few sightings of Js, Ks, and Ls. Luckily, September, which has always been my favorite whale month, did not disappoint, and the Southern Residents were around more this month than any other month in 2017. They weren't always nearby, spending some days down in Puget Sound or up at the Fraser River or even further north, but that was okay - just knowing they were in the Salish Sea again for a longer stretch of time made everything feel more "right"!

On September 23rd, J-Pod and the Greater L4s (19 L-Pod whales) came down Rosario. The question was whether they would head west out the Strait of Juan de Fuca or up Haro Strait once they rounded the bottom end of the San Juan Islands. Jason and I waited at Cattle Point to see what they would do. They took their time reaching us, but once they did they sped up, and in the direction favorable for us - up Haro Strait!

Porpoising past Salmon Bank
Some whales were way too far offshore to ID, but the last group to pass us was the J16s. Sadly, it was clear their family had gone from six whales to five. We had learned earlier in the month from the photogrammetry team assessing whale body condition using a drone that J52 was very emaciated and appeared to be in "terminal condition". Indeed, by the 23rd he was no longer with us, bringing the total number of Southern Residents down to 76 - the lowest since the mid-1980s. I have no doubt the whales grieve, but they show amazing resilience, and so must me.

As the whales continued north, the waters were so glassy calm that we decided to hop in the boat and meet up with them north of Lime Kiln. The first whale we encountered was J19 Shachi, who seems to often be in the lead these days. We stopped to watch her forage while other whales were visible to the south. Eventually it looked like the whales decided to head southwest, and before she turned around she surprised us with one big, beautiful breach! Luckily I happened to have the camera ready, and snapped one of my favorite photos of the year.

Breach by J19 Shachi
Before leaving we saw some of the J17s, too, including a very active J53 Kiki.

Cartwheel from J53 Kiki
From their trajectory, I was afraid the whales might leave that night, but they snuck back north during the middle of the night and were found the next morning making their way back to the Fraser River. I caught up with them again on the morning of September 27th when they had looped back to Haro Strait again.

For a couple hours the whales were very spread north to south and east to west, all just milling. It was great to see so much active foraging behavior, with lunging whales in all directions.

I was having trouble figuring out who was who, and later when I took a closer look at my photos I realized why - the whales were all mixed up! By that I mean they weren't in their matrilineal family groups as they are most of the time, so there was no making assumptions about who was traveling with whom.

L82 Kasatka and J31 Tsuchi

Eventually the whales decided to head south, but very slowly against the strong flood tide. I was debating whether or not to leave (I was playing hooky from work, the whales were mostly very far offshore, and the wind was very cold!) when I spotted some blows just past the point to the north of the Lime Kiln Lighthouse. That decided it! I wasn't going anywhere.

The best sight: whales heading strait at you across the cove north of the lighthouse

 It was well worth the wait in the cold for this close pass by another mixed up group of Js and Ls including some of the J19s and J16s, the L72s, and L87. Moments like this are always special, but even more so this year when they were few and far between.


L87 Onyx

Tail slap from J36 Alki

L105 Fluke - getting so big!
Kelp on Onyx's tail
I love my versatile 18-300mm lens that can capture those close-up shots of kelping whales but that I can also quickly zoom out to capture more of the scene to show you the feel of just how close these whales are.

My friend Jimmie with J19 Shachi, J42 Echo, and J50 Scarlet
The day after this the Js and Ls split after nearly two weeks together, with Ls heading west and Js heading down for a quick visit to Puget Sound. Yesterday, September 29th, I was surprised to hear a late day report that J-Pod was at Salmon Bank off the south end of San Juan Island heading north in rough seas. We headed to Lime Kiln in hopes that they would make it that far before sunset. Some of them did, though they were still passing as darkness fell. It's always impressive to see the whales in big seas.

J16 Slick and J50 Scarlet
J42 Echo on the move
They continue north as night fell, meaning they're spending at least another couple days in the Salish Sea. As October arrives, I can only hope that we're treated to another great month of having the whales around. It seems to vary a lot from year to year how much they're here in October, but with the Southern Residents being scarce all summer, we're more than ready for a whale-filled fall!

1 comment:

Vera said...

Amazing photos....again!