Aboard the Odyssey on August 29th, we were able to spend some time with two marine mammal-eating transient matrilines known as the T100s, T124Ds, and a lone female called T124A1 as they headed down Rosario Strait together. They were in travel mode and did not make a kills while we were with them. It was great to see how big the teenage male, T100C, is getting! His dorsal fin has grown much taller since I last saw him in March, 2016.
While out on the Odyssey on August 30th, we encountered T36A matriline as they headed up President Channel between Orcas and Waldron Island. They were in slow travel mode (perhaps resting) the entire time and were in no hurry to go anywhere.
On the evening of August 31st, my boyfriend and I went out to the west side of San Juan Island near False Bay to watch the T60s as they made their way along the coast. They were in hunting mode as they slowly made their way towards us and checked every crevice along the rocky shoreline for harbor seals. Soon after, they found their prey, began milling about, and quickly made short work of the seal. They then starting celebrating with tail slaps, aerial scans, and even did some backwards swimming as the sun set. Eventually, they were right at our feet in the kelp beds as they continued to share the seal and celebrate. This was the closest either of us have been to transients while on shore and it was absolutely amazing! It was also awesome to see the T60s again after not seeing them since January, 2015. They eventually moved away from us and slowly continued up the island as the light faded.
Aboard the Odyssey on September 2nd, we encountered the T65As as they traveled through New Channel and over to Gull Rock and Flattop Island. As soon as they arrived at Gull Rock, they started chasing a seal. They circled the rock a few times but we could not tell if they successfully caught the seal or not. They then moved over to Flattop Island and circled that island a few times. We could not tell if they successfully caught a seal there either but there were definitely plenty of them to feed on. Many seals watched the orcas nervously from the shallows or from the tops of rocks. We left them as the orcas aimed for White Rock.
On September 3rd, we had the T65As again and this time they were in Canada heading toward Monarch Head, Saturna Island. They were in travel mode but once they reached Monarch, they immediately found and killed harbor seal among the kelp beds. The family celebrated with a spy hop and then headed for East Point.
On September 4th, J pod, K pod, and L pod (minus the L54s) finally returned to the inland waters after a disturbing month-long disappearance. The Center for Whale Research’s Dave Ellifrit and I went out under permit to document them. You can find more of the encounter summary here.
We arrived on scene near Beaumont Shoal as the orcas rocketed across Haro Strait towards San Juan Island. Our first group was made up of Shachi J19, Mako J39, Sequim K12, Sekiu K22, Deadhead K27, Tika K33, Rainshadow K37, and Ripple K44. It was easy to see that the orcas were excited to be back home.
With other orcas further up Haro Strait, we left the group and found Cali K34, then Scoter K25. We could also see Spock K20 and Comet K38 together further inshore. Eclipse J41, Nova J51, and Saturna K43 appeared as they porpoised towards the island together. Then, further offshore, we could see another group. It was all the L12s (including the L22s) in a resting line and it was absolutely beautiful. All ten of them synchronized their breaths as they slowly surfaced shoulder to shoulder. They were all very relaxed, except for Cousteau L113, who was in more of a playful mood.
Further up Haro Strait we could see many more orcas in multiple social groups. These groups were incredibly playful, tactile, and vocal. I had never seen anything quite like it. They were SO happy to be home and together again! There were so many spy hops (even synchronized spy hops), aerial scans, tail slaps, inverted tail slaps, pec slaps, cartwheels, breaches, and above-water vocalizations that I lost count.
One group was made up of the Oreo J22, Hy’shqa J37, Cookie J38, Suttles J40, Moby J44, Star J46, Ti’lem I’nges J49, Lea K14, Opus K16, Lobo K26, Sonata K35, Yoda K36, and Kelp K42. Eventually, this group dispersed. The other group was made up of Slick J16, Mike J26, Blackberry J27, Tsuchi J31, Alki J36, Echo J42, Scarlet J50, and a very emaciated Sonic J52. Unfortunately, this would be the last time I would ever see Sonic J52.
After spending some time with the two social groups, we headed over to another one further inshore that was made up of Tahlequah J35, Se-Yi’-Chn J45, Notch J47, Matia L77, Calypso L94, Cousteau L113, Joy L119, and Windsong L121. Tsuchi J31 then came over to join them. Cappuccino K21 and Mystery L85 were offshore of this group by themselves.
Just as the sun was setting, another social group appeared! It was made up of the first group and some of the singles/pairs we saw at the beginning of the encounter plus the other social group that had dispersed. We headed back to Snug Harbor as the orcas continued to celebrate in fading light. I will never forget this very special encounter. The next day, J, K, and L pod (minus the L54s) were up in Georgia Strait.
On September 6th, J pod, K pod, and L pod (minus the L54s) were back at San Juan Island. Aboard the Odyssey, we joined up with them off the south end of the island at Salmon Bank. The orcas were spread out in singles/small groups and were more focused on finding salmon than socializing. Tsuchi J31 and Star J46 fished together while Spirit L22 and Solstice L89 headed offshore. Matia L77 swam by us as she headed inshore towards Mako J39 and Blackberry J27. Then, Rainshadow K37 and Racer L72 came over. Rainshadow K37 was being very flirtatious but Racer L72 didn’t seem very into it. Se-Yi’-Chn J45 soon rocketed over to the pair and tried to get in on the action too.
Eventually, many of the orcas started coming together to form social groups again. Princess Angeline J17, Mike J26, Moby J44, Notch J47, Kiki J53, Opus K16, Scoter K25, Cali K34, Sonata K35, Ocean Sun L25, Mega L41, Surprise L86, Ballena L90, Crewser L92, Calypso L94, Fluke L105, Cousteau L113, and Windsong L121 all trickled into the area and the party began with multiple spy hops, tail slaps, cartwheels, and breaches. The next day, J, K, and L pod (minus the L54s) were seen leaving the area via the Strait of Juan De Fuca.
On September 10th, the southern residents returned to the area again, but this time, is was only the L4 matriline by its lonesome. The family of nine foraged for salmon all day long at San Juan Island.
The next day, the rest of L pod (minus the L54s) arrived at the island. By that time, the L4s were already headed for Georgia Strait far to the north. The Center for Whale Research’s Dave Ellifrit and I went out under permit to check on the L12s, L26s, L47s, and L72s. You can find the encounter summary here. The next day, the L12s were still foraging along the island, while the L26s, L47s, and L72s were up in Georgia Strait with the L4s.
Aboard the Odyssey on September 13th, we got to see the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s travel through San Juan Channel. They were in resting mode but as soon as they neared Cattle Pass, they all woke up and exploded with synchronized breaches, cartwheels, tail slaps, inverted tail slaps, pec slaps, and spy hops. It seems like the southern resident orcas always get excited when they go through Cattle Pass. They even swam right past Whale Rocks, which made the local Steller sea lions a little nervous. Once through Cattle Pass, the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s figured out the L12s were nearby and headed straight for them. Synchronized breach/cartwheels, back dives, dorsal fins slaps, and tail slaps ensued. Once they met up, most everyone calmed down and fanned out to search for salmon. The next day, the L4s, L12s, L26s, L47s, and L72s left for the open ocean through the Strait of Juan De Fuca.
On September 16th, the Odyssey met up with marine mammal-eaters. It was the T65As and T99s in San Juan Channel. They made two kills while we were with them and they celebrated a little each time. After first kill, T99 spy hopped and after the second, T65A2 and T99C started goofing off and did a synchronized spy hop. Interestingly, juveniles T65A3, T65A4, and T99B were missing from their matrilines. Where could they have gone off to we wondered?
We got our answer the next day out on the Odyssey. We arrived on scene with the T46Bs off of Discovery Island, and three juveniles were in tow: T65A3, T65A4, and T99B! It appeared to be a playdate of sorts. And if that wasn’t cool enough, the orcas were harassing seabirds! This was something I had never seen before, though it is not uncommon, especially with the T46Bs. One of the juvenile orcas even came over to a Common Murre floating innocently in the water and tried to grab it while upside down! That bird escaped but others were not so lucky. It wasn’t but a few days later that T65A3, T65A4, and T99B were back with their families.
On the September 18th, the southern resident orcas returned to the area and headed down Admiralty Inlet in search of salmon in Puget Sound. The next day, I went out on the water with some friends. It wasn’t long before we found T49A1, the T65Bs, and T49Bs over near Smith Island. This was very cool group as I had never seen the T65Bs before, and had not seen the T49Bs since 2013. They were all in resting mode and after staying with them for a bit, we headed down into Puget Sound to find the southern residents.
We found the J16s spread out and foraging off of Possession Point all by themselves. Mike J26 and Scarlet J50 fished together while Slick J16, Alki J36, and Echo J42 milled about inshore of them. I looked hard for Sonic J52’s little fin to surface next to his mother. After about an hour, it was obvious he was gone and tears streamed down my face as I remembered my encounters with him.
I thought about how we were now down to 76 southern residents. I caught myself apologizing to him. “I am sorry you suffered so, especially at such a young age. I am sorry that there are people in this world that think what is happening to your population is OK. I am sorry there are people out there that reject the correlation between your population's die offs and low Fraser River Chinook abundance. I am sorry there are people who have concluded that there would be no guaranteed benefit for your population from Chinook salmon harvest reduction. I am sorry there are people in denial that endangered Chinook salmon stocks are declining. I am sorry your body was filled with toxins that impaired your immune system. I am sorry you were not able to make it to adulthood. I am sorry we couldn't save you.”
Then, many more southern residents suddenly appeared to the east of us and rocketed towards us. It was the rest of J pod and all of L pod (minus the L54s). There were orcas suddenly everywhere you looked in singles and small social groups. Some were goofing off while others were fishing. We continued north with them past Useless Bay until we ran out of time and had to head back home. This was another encounter with the southern residents that will stick with me forever. The next day, J pod and the Ls were all up in Georgia Strait checking on the Fraser River.
On the morning of September 22nd, the L12s returned to San Juan Island, while J pod and the other Ls remained up north in Georgia Strait. It wasn’t long before the L12s started making their way out of the area. Later that day, we met up with the T100s and an unrelated juvenile called T46C2 out on my friend’s boat. The orcas cruised past Kelp Reef and Sidney Island and did not appear to make any kills while we were with them. It was great to see T46C2 still looking good. He was rescued back in 2013 when he became trapped in a small bay for several weeks.
On September 23rd, J pod, the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s arrived back at the island from Georgia Strait. The orcas were spread out in singles/small groups as they headed north up the San Juan Island shoreline with purpose. Princess Angeline J17, Suttles J40, Moby J44, Se-Yi’-Chn J45, Kiki J53, Marina L47, Moonlight L83, Crewser L92, Fluke L105, Midnight L110, Mystic L115 and many more passed by the Odyssey. Last to pass by were the J16s and it was still heartbreaking to see Alki J36 without Sonic J52 by her side. J pod and the Ls were back up in Georgia Strait the next day.
On September 26th, my friends and I headed out on the water again. We went all the way out to the entrance of the Strait of Juan De Fuca and into the open ocean. As we motored over Swiftsure Bank, humpback whales started appearing all around us. They were spread out across the area in small groups and singles. As we slowly made our way back into the strait, we continued to find more and more humpbacks, totaling almost 100 by the end of the day. Once we were south of the Sheringham Lighthouse, we got to see a transient family I had never seen before, the T46Cs (family of T46C2)! And it got even better. We were also able to spend some time with the T11s as they made their way past Sooke. T11A remains one of my favorite transient males.
On September 27th, J pod, the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s returned to the island from the north. Aboard the Odyssey, we caught up to them off of Salmon Bank and spotted multiple social groups spread out in the area. The first social group was made up of Tsuchi J31, Tahlequah J35, Suttles J40, Star J46, Marina L47, Moonlight L83, Muncher L91, Pooka L106, and Magic L122. This group logged at the surface together between bouts of play. Both Marina L47 and Muncher L91 also made above water vocalizations. Notch J47 and Mystic L115 joined the group soon after. We then went to check out another group and found that it was Slick J16, Alki J36, Echo J42, Scarlet J50, Racer L72 and Fluke L105 milling about together.
The next day, the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s left for the open ocean while J pod headed down to Puget Sound. On the 29th, J pod left Puget Sound, passed San Juan Island, and headed up to Georgia Strait. They stayed in Georgia Strait until their return to San Juan Island on October 10th. J pod left for the open ocean the next day but returned to the area on the 15th. Surprisingly, the rare L54s were in tow. J pod and the L54s searched for salmon in Puget Sound over the next few days before leaving for the open ocean again. On the 24th, J pod and the L54s returned to San Juan Island. They headed for Georgia Strait but while J pod was committed to going north, the L54s were not and turned back. The L54s passed by the island and exited the area the next day. What will happen next?
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