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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

September 1st and 2nd: Three Transient Encounters in Two Days

The end of August and beginning of September have been even crazier for transient killer whales in the Salish Sea in a season where sightings have already been off the charts. For a couple days we had Ts in as many as a dozen places throughout the Salish Sea, with multiple groups in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Strait of Georgia. By my rough count there were at least 60 whales in the area! Luckily a few of them did pass through the San Juan Islands and within our range as well.

On September 1st, the T60s along with T124A1 and the T124Ds made their way up Haro Strait. Jason and I just missed them at Lime Kiln but heard they were close to shore, so we quickly hopped in the boat and met up with them just north of County Park. I was super excited when it looked like they might go through Mosquito Pass, the narrow channel between San Juan and Henry Islands. Ts go through there occasionally and it's a place I've dreamed of seeing whales. These guys got partway in, and then seemed to second guess themselves. I'm anthropomorphizing here, but it looked like they were just cruising along when they got surprised by how narrow/shallow of a channel they were in, and then they had to have a little powwow to decide how to proceed. we really want to go this way?

All the boats including us were positioned to the outside of the pass, ready to follow behind them as they made their way through. Once they decided to abort continuing on, however, their direction change ended up taking them right through all the boats, giving us and everyone else a memorable head-on look as they aimed for Kellett Bluff.

After another detour deep into Open Bay, they followed the Henry Island shoreline for a while. We left them when they made another sharp turn to aim across Haro into Canadian waters.

T60C sets course for Canada
The next day, September 2nd, we got a surprise early afternoon report that another group of transients had appeared out of nowhere off Lime Kiln. Having again missed them from shore, we again headed to the boat, and again caught up with them not far from Mitchell Bay. It was the T65As and T100s, and at first they were traveling together in one mixed group.

Just north of Henry Island, however, they split into their respective matrilines. The T65As headed inshore, and we briefly followed the T100s as they continued north up Haro.

The T100s
The T100s off Battleship Island
As the T100s continued north, we headed in towards the T65As who were angling towards Spieden Island. At first it looked like they might take Spieden Channel, but instead they cut around the west edge of the island and took New Channel. This area, that we call the "back side" of Spieden, is a magical spot to see whales. The island has a steep cliff and is all forested on this side, with no developments. It makes a perfect backdrop for backlit blows, like we saw on this afternoon.

More of the T65As
Later in the evening, after having been on the water and in general spending a lot of the day running around, yet another report of transients on the west side came in. I'll share here what I wrote when I got home from this encounter, adding in some photos:

A snapshot of my life: I'm at home and tired from a day of running around when a friend lets me know a group of transient killer whales is on the west side of San Juan Island heading south and hugging the shoreline. I'm at the wrong end of the island to try and see them, but to get those magic moments, you learn early on: if you can go, go.

When I get to my first stop at the south end some visitors let me know they've just seen whales pass by, which means I've missed them. I speed walk back to my car and try another spot further down the coast. I see the blows and a couple whale watch boats offshore. They're way further out than before but at least I see them. I settle down on a rock content to take in the sunset and collect what data I can from a distance. The other people beside me head back to their car, the final whale watch boat takes off to their home port, and the whales disappear for a moment offshore as the sun sinks towards the horizon. It sounds like a tranquil scene, and it was, for a moment.

The T36Bs and T99s offshore under the Olympic Mountains
Then I spot the whales again, and now they're all in a line aiming right at me. Even from a distance and even after all these years seeing seven dorsal fins all lined up at the surface takes my breath away.

They continue coming closer to shore, directly where I'm sitting, when they go on their long dive. Which way are they going to go now, up or down the beach? I had taken my shoes off but I put them back on. There's only one thing that can get me to run and I have a feeling I'm about to.

Indeed, the whales surface to my left, aiming right for the Cattle Point Lighthouse and right off the kelp beds off the beach. Let's just say I'm glad no one was their to witness my scrambling after them, though I assure you it was graceful, as I tried to take photos, run, and not lose lens cap, pen, data sheet, keys, cell phone, or sweatshirt, not aided at all by the ridiculously shallow pockets that are always in women's shorts.

I was a little bit behind them, but close enough to follow them around the corner as they cut a sharp turn right by the lighthouse and into Cattle Pass. I went as far as I could on the trail, then sat down to watch them continue on their way in the dimming light. Before making the long trek back to my car (did I really run this far?) I was surprised by a pair of fox kits, saw three deer silhouetted on the top of the hill behind me, and was passed by a bald eagle carrying the remains of a salmon to a nighttime roost. Oh, then on the way home I had to stop to take a photo of an owl.

It's a charmed life, I know, and I'm thankful for it every single day.

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