On the morning of 8/15/13, L pod was on the West side of San Juan Island and J and K pod were inbound through the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Aboard "Natsilane" of San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours we headed out of Friday Harbor and were with the orcas soon after. The first whales we saw was a group of four made up Mike J26, Racer L72, Fluke L105, and Se-Yi'-Chm J45.
Mike was acting quite frisky towards Racer, chasing her around while on his back with his penis flying around.
All around us I could see members of J, K and L pod spread out. As we headed back to the dock I got shots Crewser L92, Lulu L53, Wave Walker L88, Samish J14, Suttles J40, and others.
Later that evening I caught a ride on the "Sea Lion" of San Juan Safaris, and we all headed back out to see the orcas in the sunset. The superpod was spread out for miles, most of the orcas being in small socializing groups around Hein Bank as they slowly made their way back to the West side of San Juan Island. The first orca I identified was Cappuccino K21, who was off by himself. Many of the socializing groups were females accompanied by a flirtatious male.
We then came upon Nigel L95 who was flirting with Polaris J28, who had her daughter Star J46 with her.
There was another group not to far away so we went over to see who they were too. It was Onyx L97, Calypso L94, and her daughter Cousteau L113. Onyx was not attempting to mate with Calypso but instead was just calmly swimming along beside her. He then turned away and headed North, probably to join Granny J2 and Spieden J8, who he has been traveling with ever since her lost his other adoptive mothers in K pod and his actual mother is L pod.
Off in the distance we could see a bundle of orcas in resting formation. We slowly motored over and I identified Mega L41, Matia L77, L119, Ocean Sun L25, Spirit L22, and Solstice L89. I never saw Spirit's other son Skana L79 during this encounter, or during any of the other few times I have seen his family recently.
As the resting group swam past, another socializing group came up from behind us. It was Nigel, Polaris, and Star again, but Blackberry J27 had joined them. The two boys paused and began to get very playful, tactile, and even frisky. It is pretty common to see a group of males get together and do this type of thing.
As the sun began to disappear from view we said goodbye to the orcas, thanked them for such an amazing evening, and headed back to the dock at Friday Harbor.
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On the morning of 8/11/13, J,K, and L pod returned to the area and headed up the West side of San Juan Island. The next morning, all the orcas in the population made their way back down from the Fraser River and past the West side of San Juan Island. I headed to Lime Kiln State Park for a close encounter from shore. The first orcas to pass by were two matrilines from K pod called the K14's, and K12's. Then came a mix of J, K and L pod members spread over miles.
Soon after my encounter from shore, it was time to board the "Odyssey" of San Juan Excursions,
teach guests about the orcas and have another awesome encounter! A short time later we were with J,K and L pod at Hein Bank off the South end of San Juan Island. The orcas were spread out in socializing groups all over the place. The first group we encountered was made up of mothers with only one child: Hy'shqa J37, and her son Ti'lem I'nges J49, Calypso L94, and her daughter Cousteau L113, Moonlight L110, with her son Midnight L110, Shachi J19, and her daughter Eclipse J41, Surprise L86, and her son Pooka L106.
We then went to go check out the identities of an adult male and female off in the distance, far away from all the other orcas. The male turned out to be Mike J26, and it was clear that he was in a very romantic mood.The female would surface quickly and he would be right on her tail rolling around. After a bit of this, the female laid on her back at the surface of the water, where Mike surfaced right beside her, his head out of the water. He then slid over her, creating a lot of commotion in the water.
They both went down for a bit and when Mike re-surfaced he was on his side with his penis flying around. The female was beside him with her belly pointed toward his, but she still seemed to be avoiding him as she zoomed past him. She then slapped Mike's face hard with her tail flukes, creating a big splash.
They both went underwater again and when they appeared, Mike was heading away at a quick pace and was off on his own for the rest of our encounter, and the female, who turned out to be Ocean Sun L25. She is estimated to have been born in 1928 and went through menopause a long while back. Why Mike was trying to mate with a female who can't even reproduce anymore is any ones guess. It's good he is trying though, as we need a lot more babies in this population. Ocean Sun joined a socializing group nearby. Fun fact about Ocean Sun: she is thought to be mother of close relative to a wild caught captive orca named Lolita. To learn more about Lolita click here.
As if this day couldn't get any more amazing, as we were heading back to the dock we saw a rare sight, a lunge feeding minke whale! Baleen whales, like minke whales, have bristles in their mouth used for filter feeding. They open up their mouth, take in gallons of sea water filled with tiny fish or krill, and then use their tongue to push the water out through their baleen. The prey then gets caught in the baleen and is swallowed. Beleen whales are able to have such large amounts of water in their mouths because of expandable pleats on the underside of their throats. We watched the minke whale as he/she fed on schools of herring multiple times around the boat.
What a crazy amazing, awesome day!!! What will happen next??
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During the wind and rain early this morning, J,K, and L pod returned into the inland waters and headed up the West side of San Juan Island. By time the "Odyssey" of San Juan Excursions left Friday Harbor, the weather was calm and sunny, but all three Southern Resident orca pods had made it out of our range as they headed for the Fraser River. Not to fear though, Transient orcas were close by! We headed on over to Mandarte Island in Haro Strait to check them out and they turned out to be T020 and T021, a probable mother and son pair. Unlike the Chinook salmon eating Southern Residents, Transient orcas like these two prey on marine mammals, and that is what they were searching for.
As we were heading back to Friday Harbor, we got word that two matrilines from L pod called the L12's and L22's had turned around and were making their way down President Channel and into San Juan Channel, were Friday Harbor is. By sunset, as I sat on the rocky shoreline near the harbor, the orcas swam past as they slowly milled and traveled South right past the Friday Harbor.
In the lead was Mystery L85, followed by Ocean Sun L25 and Mega L41. Then came Matia L77, with her one year old daughter L119, and Calypso L94, with her daughter Cousteau L113. L119 was active with some spy hops, tail slaps, and then porpoised along to catch up with her mother who had just kept on swimming. Bringing up the rear was Spirit L22 and then Solstice L89, who came the closest to shore (about 100 feet or so), but my camera struggled to take pictures of him as the sun was setting.
As the orcas began to disappear from view, Ocean Sun, estimated to have been born in 1928, breached two times in a row, the slap of her body impacting the surface of the water resembled the sound of a canon going off. Ocean Sun is also belived to be captive orca Lolita's mother or close relative.
All the members from the two matrilines were accounted for except for one from the L22 family, Skana. He was seen with his family when they were last here on 7/16/13. We will all continue to keep an eye out for him over the next few days if the orcas find enough Chinook salmon and stick around.
I haven't written a blog post on here for awhile now, and there is a reason behind that; there were never any orcas to encounter. After seeing K pod on 7/20/13, there was a Southern Resident orca dry spell. Then, on 8/7/13, six members from an L pod matriline called the L54's appeared on the West side of San Juan Island and have been there for the last few days now.
The L54 matriline is made up of matriarch Ino L54, her young offspring Indigo L100, Coho L108, and Keta L117, and two unrelated adult males named Nyssa L84 and Wave Walker L88, who Ino has taken into her matriline after they became the last members of their own families.
This year has been a record low for Southern Resident orca sightings around San Juan Island and there is a reason behind that too; this year there is also a SUPER low amount of Chinook salmon in the area. Thus, J, K, and L pod must search somewhere else for their food, which never used to happen. Historically these orcas could be seen the area all year round, nearly every day.
Some observations of this season:
Over the next few years, will we continue to see a trend of the Southern Resident orcas arriving later and later into the year until they pop in maybe once or twice a year, maybe even never? Instead of waiting to see if this happens, let's make sure it doesn't.
While L pod left on the night of 7/19/13, K pod spent the night up at the Fraser River in Canada before coming back down to San Juan Island the next morning. The water was super choppy and the tide was flooding as the orcas fought their way South against the waves and current. Aboard the "Odyssey" of San Juan Excursions, I was able to get some photos of the males of K pod, as they were easier to spot within the waves because of their tall dorsal fins. Scoter K25 breached a few times inshore of us, right off of Lime Kiln State Park, on the West side of San Juan Island while Lobo K26, and Tika K33 surfaced high out of the water to breathe.
I was able to spot every member from K pod except for Opus K16, Sonata K35, and Cappuccino K21, which is normal because these three orcas that will sometimes split off from K pod and do their own thing. Overnight, K pod left for the open ocean, an indicator that there is not enough Chinook salmon here to sustain them like there once was historically. After we over fished the Chinook here, destroyed/polluted habitat around their spawning rivers and dammed the rivers up, among other things, we hardly left any for the orcas to eat. Hopefully we can all reverse these actions together.
All of K pod and everyone from L pod except for the L54, L12, and L22 matrilines returned to area on the night of 7/18/13. Early the next morning they both zoomed up the West side of San Juan Island and were already at Pender Island in Canada soon afterwords. K pod continued North past Saturna Island for the Fraser River while the L's turned around at Patos Island and began to head back South. Aboard the "Odyssey", the San Juan Excursions boat I work on, we headed up to Patos and soon found ourselves with Surprise L86 and her family.
Jade L118, niece/nephew to Surprise, tail slapped and breached a few times, giving me a look at the belly markings. Jade appears to be a female, and this is the second photo I have gotten of a probable Jade showing belly markings, with the other shot showing female markings as well. But the Center for Whale Research will be the one to officially declare the gender of Jade once they get a picture of his/her belly markings.
After Jade L118, Surprise L86, Kasatka L82, Finn L116, and Lapis L103 swam past, Surprise's son Pooka L106 and her nephew Takoda L109 began wrestling and goofing off nearby.
In the distance I could see a few other L pod matrilines, including Racer L72's family, Marina L47's family, and Crewser L92, with his aunt Ballena L90.
By sunset, L pod was back on the West side of San Juan Island, but was soon exiting the area through the Strait of Juan De Fuca for the open ocean. K pod spent the night up at the Fraser River, continuing to hunt for Chinook salmon.
This encounter made me really think about why orcas may breach, or do other behaviors like cartwheels, spy hops, and pectoral fin/tail/dorsal slaps. These behaviors could indicate the orca is showing an emotion of some sort, which could be both a positive or negative one. These actions could also be used as a signal or communication for telling direction, location or distance to other pod members. Maybe it's an attempt at removing dead skin or parasites, or maybe these behaviors could just simply be done because they are really fun for the orcas. It's definitely something to ponder.
The "Odyssey", the San Juan Excursions whale watching boat I work on, was able to see the L22's once more as they headed from Salmon Bank to False Bay on the West side of San Juan Island. They were in travel mode until Spirit L22 breached. Her two sons Skana L79 and Solstice L89 followed her lead soon after.
No matter why they do all these behaviors, they are differently magical to see. During the night of 7/16/13 though, the L22's exited the area after being alone with no other Southern Resident orcas in around since 7/12/13. I hope where ever they go, they will get more Chinook salmon they were managing to catch here.
By the morning of 7/17/13, there were already Transient orcas at Hein Bank near San Juan Island. They were the T034's and T037's and it is thought that they attacked and killed a minke whale there around nine in the morning and by seven in the evening, they were still feasting. The last known minke whale killed by transients in the area was on October 17th, 2002, at Saltspring Island. The matrilines identified during that event were the T018's, and the T007's among others. What will tomorrow bring? Will the T034's, and T037's still be around? We'll see!
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The L22's have been all alone since the rest of the Southern Resident orcas headed out on the night of 7/12/13. Spirit L22, and her two sons Skana L79, and Solstice L89 have spent almost all their time foraging for Chinook salmon along San Juan Island, but on this day they were at Hein Bank, about six miles South of San Juan. As I watched the three orcas from the "Odyssey" of San Juan Excursions, they seemed to be in an active mood. To read into the history of the L22 matriline, check out my last post about them here.
A few minke whales were even active today, lunging as they ate schools of herring. To learn more about minke whales, check out this post here.
This was the second time I had ever seen a minke whale lunge feed, let alone two doing it within seconds of each other! We left the L22's as they headed back to San Juan Island and as I write this, I can see the L22's swimming past my house on the West side of the island, their breaths illuminated in the sunset.
On the morning of 7/12/13, the L22's, J and K pod began to head offshore of San Juan Island and looked like they were heading out for the open ocean. The "Odyssey", a San Juan Excursions whale watching boat, caught up with Group B of J pod as the orcas headed South West towards Dungeness Spit. They seemed pretty active mood they traveled. Group B was split into two groups, we watched Oreo J22 and her family with Blackberry J27 and his family, and then moved onto Princess Angeline J17's matriline.
When we were hanging with Princess Angeline's family, her son Moby J44 and his cousins Star J46 and Notch were all playing together. Princess Anegline's daughter Polaris J28, born in 1993, was overseeing their playtime and was doing a bit of baby sitting.
About this time all four orcas went on a deep dive, and I believe that they caught a salmon and Polaris let the kids play with it.
Later on in the evening, all the orcas turned around and headed back to San Juan Island, but during the night they exited the area through the Strait of Juan De Fuca for the open ocean. The only Southern Resident members left around the island now were the three L22's again. This is the third time this summer that the L22's have been the only Resident orcas in the area. Wherever J, K, and the rest of L pod are now, I hope they are getting enough Chinook salmon to eat. . .
After all three Southern Resident pods entered the area on 7/8/13, all of J pod and K pod, and a few L pod members were still around on 7/11/13. Aboard San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours we caught up with a mix of J's, K's and L's as they foraged on the West Side of San Juan Island. The first orca I identified was a sprouter male named Lobo K26, who I hadn't seen since 7/6/11, though he had been around many times since then.
Nearby I could see Lobo's mother Lea K14 with her offspring Yoda K36, and Kelp K42. Yoda took off after a salmon at one point, and as she swam top speed close to the surface of the water with her dorsal fin exposed, she created a rooster tail and a big wake!
Later in the day, I tagged along with the Odyssey of San Juan Excursions and was able to see other J, and K pod members. There was lots of cartwheeling from Opus K16, Sonata K35, Yoda K36, and other orcas, as well as a few spy hops and a breach from Sonata, who is starting to sprout!!
It was so great to see J and K pod after their long absence.
Melisa Pinnow grew up on San Juan Island in Washington State. She graduated from Evergreen State College with a Bachelor of Science in marine biology and ornithology. She is a certified marine naturalist for San Juan Excursions and also works at the Center for Whale Research. It is her hope that sharing her orca encounters will inspire others to love and protect these magnificent creatures for generations to come.