Winter Whales

February 10, 2013  •  Leave a Comment
I was going to blog this weekend about a nice walk I took at the Friday Harbor Labs where I heard lots of Pacific wrens (111), photographed some mushrooms, and searched for owls, but then THIS happened:
 
All Saturday plans quickly went out the window with an early morning head's up from my friend Katie that J-Pod was seen heading towards San Juan Island. I quickly got my gear together and headed out to the westside of San Juan Island where I met up with Katie and some other hopeful whale watchers at Land Bank's Westside Preserve. We spent well over an hour scanning the flat calm waters for whales with no luck. I was getting cold and was just about ready to pack it in when the Center for Whale Research boat came into view. We heard they didn't know exactly where the whales had ended up after being spotted more than two hours ago, but they were out to look. I decided to hang around and see if they would find them. A little while later, I saw them slowly motoring towards us from across the Strait and lifted my bincoulars. Next to them appeared one, then two, then three dorsal fins. They had found them! Staying was the right decision.

It turned out to be Group B of J-Pod (J11s, J17s, and J22s) and they very slowly made their way towards San Juan Island. The question is always which way they'll go when they hit shore (north or south), and luckily they chose north, towards us. The whales were all taking very long dives so there were long stretches of not seeing anything, but then they would pop again, very slightly closer to us than they were before. J17 Princess Angeline was in the lead, with her offspring and grand-offpsring behind her. The action started to pick up when a freighter came by, and the whales decided to briefly surf in the freighter wake. So cool!



The J17s continued north and were hanging out just offshore of Lime Kiln and we waited for the next small group of whales to approach us. In the meantime, there were plenty of other things to point the camera at, like this immature bald eagle, and the following pair of black oystercatchers:



J34 Doublestuf was the next whale to approach, and he spent a long time foraging right offshore from where we were standing. He never made it too close to shore, but I wanted to document how much his fin has grown over the winter:


By now I had been outside for about four hours and needed to warm up and get something to eat. I headed back into town with the heat blasting in the car when I got a message from another friend and fellow naturalist JB that since the whales had finally made it north of the lighthouse he was going to take his boat out for a little bit and did I want to go with them? I hadn't even made it home yet, but the answer was definitely yes! I raced out to Snug Harbor to hop aboard Wavewalker with JB and two other whale lovers, all of us with cameras in hand.

I got even colder and hungrier for the hour and 45 minutes we were on the water, but I am SO glad I went. What followed was a very peaceful and playful whale encounter, where for most of the time we were the only boat with the whales. The group we were with was made up of all the J17s, plus J31 Tsuchi, J22 Oreo, J32 Rhapsody, and possibly J38 Cookie. All "the boys" were apparently elsewhere - J27 Blackberry, J34 Doublestuf, and J39 Mako.

The first whale we saw was J17, who was still off by herself ahead of the other whales. We headed towards the bigger group a little ways behind her. They were still very slowly moving north and going on some long dives, but in between times underwater they were hanging at the surface in a very roly-poly tight group. We had a lot of time like this one, with lots of animals hanging at the surface and a head or two poking out of the water. That's Lime Kiln Lighthouse in the distance:


The other thing we heard a lot of was above water vocalizations. Orcas emit sounds through their melons (foreheads), and when they're hanging at the surface like this if they're vocalizing it can be heard in the air. Occasionally you'll hear one or two calls or a whale blowing a "raspberry", but on this day it was happening all over the place! We had heard it from shore in the morning and even more on the water in the afternoon. It was amazing to even be able to ID the call types they were using: S1, S2, S33... 

(The most amazing above water vocalization incident I've ever witnessed, back in 2004, is documented here.)



The J17 family group is made up of: matriarch J17 Princess Angeline, her adult daughters J28 Polaris and J35 Talequah, her young son J44 Moby, and the first calf of Polaris (J46 Star) and Talequah (J47 Notch). So there's three adult females and three calves under the age of four, and it was fun to just hang out with this family group. As mentioned above, J31 Tsuchi, J22 Oreo, and J32 Rhapsody, all other adult females, were hanging out with them. It seemed like the whales were enjoying some quality time with each other, pushing each other around and playing with the kids. Tsuchi and Rhapsody are also of calf-bearing age but have not ever been seen with a calf. They spend a lot of time with these moms and youngsters, perhaps learning how to be a good mom!

From left to right: J47 Notch, J35 Talequah, J28 Polaris, and J46 Star
 
From left to right: J47 Notch, J35 Talequah, J28 Polaris, and J46 Star

Young J47 Notch is distinct not only for the notch in his fin that is his namesake, but he has a pretty cool saddle patch too. Here's a cropped close up of him from the above photo:


J35 Talequah

J47 Notch


After seemingly spending the day mostly by herself (maybe she needed some "me" time away from the boisterous kids), J17 Princess Angeline came back over to rejoin her family group, and her son J44 Moby immediately returned to her side after spending the day playing with his niece and nephew (who are about the same age as him).

From left to right: one whale diving, then J17 Princess Angeline, J44 Moby, and J28 Polaris

When the whales were at the surface, we saw bouts of different surface behavior, including spyhops, pec slaps, tail slaps, and a few tail waves or headstands:


J31 Tsuchi with one of the kids

You're not getting tired of so many photos in this blog post, are you? I hope not! I wasn't getting tired of taking them:


J46 Star is a special whale to me because I was there the first time she was ever seen in November of 2011. You can see some photos of her as a newborn here. Now she's three years and three months old, but still traveling right next to mama:

J35 Talequah, J28 Polaris, and J46 Star
 
From left to right: J31 Tsuchi, J32 Rhapsody, J28 Polaris, J46 Star

J17 Princess Angeline and J44 Moby

Luckily the whales were taking us back towards Snug Harbor, so we got to maximize our time with them. JB had to be back in at a certain time, but we kept begging him for just a few more minutes. It wasn't hard to convince him - how you can leave with this going on all around you?




We got our last look as the sun was just peeking out below the cloud cover, making for some neat lighting to end the day:


This was my last shot of the day - and if I can anthropomorphize for a bit, it was like the whales were waving goodbye. Until when? This time of year, we never know!


I ended up being outside for seven hours, and while I didn't feel it while I was with the whales (you never do) I was frozen to my core and very hungry! I also hadn't gotten anything done I was supposed to during the day. Was it worth it? Hands down, you bet! Not only was a great pick-me-up to hang out with the whales all day, it was great to catch up with all the local whale watchers, too. Everyone seemed to come out of the woodwork to enjoy this special winter visit from the Southern Residents. So nice of them to come see us on a Saturday!


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