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Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Southern Residents Return in September

The Southern Residents had last been seen in inland waters on August 4th (and with our trip to northern Vancouver Island, I hadn't seen them since July 24th), when on September 4th the long-awaited news came in of many resident killer whales inbound in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Over the next few hours we heard that Js, Ks, and Ls were all there, and it turned out to be by far the closest thing we've had to a superpod in 2017. I believe everyone but the L54 sub-group was there, for a total of 72 whales. It was definitely noticeable that the days are getting shorter as we waited with many other hopeful whale-watchers for the residents to arrive at Lime Kiln Point State Park.

The first large group of whales made up of most of J-Pod and the L12 sub-group headed north on the far side of Haro Strait, while others hit the island to the south of us an initially went south. While for a while there weren't many whales close enough to see, the vocals were still amazing. Here's a clip of what we heard.

Finally our patience paid off as the southern whales also decided to go north. The J19s, K12s, and K13s came by decently close to Lime Kiln, and it was like saying hi to some long-lost friends. I've very much enjoyed getting to know our regional transient killer whales better this season, but it has not filled the void the absence of the Southern Residents for so much of the year has left.

J19 Shachi and J51 Nova

The majority of K-Pod (all but the K14s) had not been seen in inland waters since mid-February. I had seriously been beginning to wonder if for the first time ever I would actually not see them for a season. I was so glad to get the chance to see some whales I hadn't seen yet in 2017, like K33 Tika.

K33 Tika - my first look at him in 2017
There was another gap between this group before any more whales passed by. It quickly got too dark to see, but not before we spotted L87 Onyx heading north offshore in the sunset lighting.

L87 Onyx
The rest of Ks and Ls did pass by after dark, not seen but heard on the hydrophones as the amazing vocals continued. I was so thankful they were going north up to the Fraser River, meaning that they would be around for at least a couple days rather than straight back westbound in the morning. Indeed, they spent the day of September 5th up in the Strait of Georgia, hopefully gorging on salmon. On September 6th, they all made their way back down Haro Strait.

Amazingly, while waiting for them at Lime Kiln, not residents but transients were the first orcas we saw! One group of transients was coming south ahead of the residents, and another group was going north up Haro but did a quick 180 to follow the others south. They were all offshore and porpoising or swimming quickly south. Whether or not this was because of the residents is hard to say for sure, but there are so many anecdotal cases of transients ceding ground to residents that it really does look like avoidance. So fascinating, and so many questions arise about what will happen in the future as transient groups keep getting larger and residents are often fractioning into smaller groups locally.

Transients cruise south in Haro Strait about 45 minutes before the residents arrive

In the gap between the transients and residents, I snapped some photos of the foraging Heermann's gulls off Lime Kiln. They were definitely in the region "on time" for the late summer, but not seen as much for some reason right around San Juan Island until later than usual. Also unusual is the feeding technique I saw from them - more like skimmers than gulls!


 The residents were less than an hour behind the transients, and as they passed they were in two large groups. J-Pod and the L12 sub-group were first. It was cool to see the two oldest males in J-Pod hanging out together, whales about the same age who also used to play together as youngsters:

J26 Mike
J27 Blackberry
The bizarre lighting, by the way, was courtesy of all the regional wildfires. We had a respite from the smoke for a few weeks, but it came back again for a few days before the wind shifted.

The whales made a few quick stops, presumably to forage, giving us a nice head-on look at L121 Windsong next to mom L94 Calypso:

Baby face! L121 Windsong

L94 Calypso and her other offspring, L113 Cousteau

About 20 minutes after the Js and L12s passed by came the rest of the whales, all mixed up!

L82 Kasatka and K36 Yoda
L123 Lazuli behind L55 Nugget
K27 Deadhead
With the recent news of the loss of K13 Skagit, it was especially bittersweet to see K25 Scoter, her oldest son. He was a real mama's boy, so I'm worried about how he'll do without his mother, but it was good to see him going strong for now at least.

K25 Scoter
Sadly, but somewhat predictably, all three pods left after that, but thankfully we didn't have another month to wait before some of them returned. On September 10th we were surprised when the L4s (on their own) showed up in Haro Strait and spent the day doing the westside shuffle. I caught up with them off American Camp.

L82 Kasatka off American Camp on September 10th

The next day, September 11th, most of the rest of L-Pod came in to join them, but interestingly they were in three groups. Two of the groups went north to the Fraser, while the others (the L12s) spent the day off the south end of the island. I only got distant looks at the L12s on the 11th and 12th, but then on September 13th the sub-group of L-Pod made up of 19 whales I call the Greater L4s came back down from the Fraser via San Juan Channel. Two things that seem to make the Southern Residents excited are waking up from a nap and meeting up with other whales. Both of them happened at once as the Ls were exiting Cattle Pass. They were a bit far away, but it was amazing to see all the breaches, cartwheels, and tail slaps from a distance as they made a bee-line for the L12s as they left San Juan Channel.

Distant breach from L92 Crewser
The Greater L4s head for the L12s
With just a matter of weeks left in what is usually the peak whale-watching season and sightings have been so scarce as it is, we decided to jump in the boat and meet up with them again. I'm glad we did, because they all left again that evening. We did catch up with them off of False Bay, where the waters were glassy calm.


On one side we had L55 Nugget, L118 Jade, and L123 Lazuli all rolling around together:


On the other side we had L72 Racer and her son L105 Fluke traveling together under the Olympic Mountains:

L72 Racer and L105 Fluke
More whales were visible in the distance in all directions. Before departing, we dropped the hydrophone, and listening to their distinct echoing calls for about 10 minutes as they headed southwest, a direction that would eventually take them back out to the Pacific. It's hard to know when your last encounter with the Southern Residents for the summer season will be, especially this year when they've been absent far more than present. I fully hope and expect they will still return once or twice in the coming weeks, but I have a feeling this will be the last time with them this year where it really feels like summer. It looks like today (the 16th, as I write this will be our last warm, sunny day for a while, perhaps until next year. Fall is undeniably here, and I just hope the fall salmon runs come and bring the whales back with them for some late season encounters!

1 comment:

Greg Prosmushkin said...

What an amazing gathering to see. Such beautiful pictures, love checking out your blog. Thanks for the share.
Greg