On December 28th, J pod was back again, this time in San Juan Channel. Jeff Friedman aboard "J1" found them in the channel as they headed north off of Yellow Island. When Dave Ellifrit, as well as my friends and I arrived scene, the orcas were very spread out in singles and small groups, with some individuals already near Spieden Island, while others were still further down the channel. We saw Shachi J19, Tsuchi J31, Hy’shqa J37, Suttles J40, Eclipse J41, Ti’lem I’nges J49, and Nova J51 milling/socializing together before we headed down the channel from Green Point, Spieden Island.
Soon, there were blows up ahead and they turned out to be from Mako J39 and Star J46 as they headed north. We then found Mike J26 foraging and slowly heading north by himself. As we aimed towards Jones Island, we saw Onyx L87 and Se-Yi’-Chn J45 heading north together. We continued towards Jones Island and found Echo J42 and Scarlet J50 milling together. Alki J36 and Sonic J52 joined them soon after and the four headed north together. Slick J16 had joined them by time they reached Flattop Island.
We moved back over to Spieden Island as more and more members of J pod appeared. Eventually all of J pod filed up the shoreline of Spieden Island and into New Channel. I had never seen southern residents in New Channel before, though I know they had used the route before. This was my first time seeing all of J pod after the loss of a few members. It was sad to see the J17s without Polaris J28 and Dipper J54, and hard to see the J22s without Doublestuf J34, who was found dead the week prior.
Someone else was missing too. Granny J2 was not there. Granny was the 10th southern resident to die in 2016 (if you count the unnamed calves). However, she likely died of old age. It has been years since we have had a southern resident die of old age. She likely did not die prematurely like almost everyone else has in recent years. She lived a long life, like very southern resident should but often do not get the opportunity to because of us. I am happy she lived as long as she did (estimated age of 105 years old) and hope other southern residents are able to do the same in the future. Granny will always be missed. We left J pod under an overcast sky and with the sun about to set, as they rounded the backside of Spieden Island and aimed for Battleship Island in Haro Strait.
On the morning of December 30th, I was out on the water with some friends and we had just passed Constance Bank in the Strait of Juan De Fuca when orcas were spotted back at San Juan Island. Dave Ellifrit was alerted and we soon joined him in the search. Dave quickly found them off of Battleship Island. It was T77A and T49A2. The pair zig-zagged their way from Battleship Island, to Spieden Island, and on to Stuart Island, where they entered Reid Harbor. Once in the harbor, they found of what was likely a harbor seal and gave chase. After multiples lunges and direction changes, the smell of blubber oil was in the air. Seagulls noticed and arrived to pick up the scraps. T49A2 celebrated the kill with many tail slaps, as well as a few cartwheels and breaches. T77A tail and pec slapped a few times and breached once.
As Dave was leaving T77A and T49A2 to head back to the dock, he spotted more blows off of Spieden Island! It was the T86As and T124As. And for an added surprise, there were two new calves in tow: T124A6 and T124A2B! The orcas made their way down Haro Strait and then turned toward Sidney Island. Once they neared Sidney Island, they went up Miners Channel. As they passed Halibut Island, a kill took place and T124A2 surfaced with a chunk of a seal in her mouth. The two matrilines regrouped after the kill and quickly passed Mandarte Island. As they neared Forrest and Domville Island, they split up, spread out, and there were many direction changes, but no kill could be confirmed. They then regrouped again and continued on between Forrest and Domville Island. We left them as the sun was about to set, still between the two islands and aiming for Moresby Passage. This was my last encounter in 2016.
On January 5th, I had my first orca encounters of 2017! My friends and I were in the Strait of Juan De Fuca and as we neared the entrance of Port Renfrew from the east, the dorsal fin of a large male orca surfaced inshore of us. Then many more whales appeared. We moved towards the large, tight group and found that there were thirteen individuals from the T11, T41, and T109 matrilines! I had been waiting years to meet the T11s, especially the massive male known as T11A! The group headed west at about 5 knots and we left two miles west of where we found them.
After leaving the T11s, T41s, T109s off of Port Renfrew, we started back home for San Juan Island. As we were crossing Haro Strait and nearly back to Snug Harbor with a little time to spare before sunset, a small group of orcas popped up off the port side. They were T124A3, T124A2, T124A2A, and T124A2’s new calf, T124A2B, again (saw them on Dec 30th, 2016). They headed south at 10-11 knots for a few minutes before we was realized they were joining up with other orcas. Two more groups appeared: the rest of the T124As (with the other new calf, T124A6) and the T86As, who now had the two T124Ds with them. With light fading, we left the whales east of Seabird Point, Discovery Island.
On January 7th, a small group of orcas was spotted off the west side of San Juan Island late in afternoon. With not much light left in the day, my friends and I quickly departed Snug Harbor and found their blows within minutes of leaving the dock. The orcas were just south of Smuggler’s Cove, headed north. When they surfaced again, I was extremely excited to see that it was the T18s! The family contains T19B, my favorite transient male! The family of four continued north, passed Open bay, and rounded Kellet Bluffs on Henry Island. With the sun about to set, we left them as they aimed for Battleship Island. What a great way to end winter break!! See ya'll spring break!