All we want are whales!

Yesterday we got back from our two week session at sea.  We had a rough start.  Our first ten days were whale-less.  Sure, J pod was around, but we always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  At one point we got a call that the whales were up in Active Pass.  We couldn’t catch up to them, but we anchored strategically at Patos Island.  That way, when they came through Active Pass we could see them if they went down either Boundary Pass or President’s Channel.  To be sure that we didn’t miss them, we posted anchor watch that night.  We each took two hour shifts listening to the hydrophone all night.  I slept outside in hopes that I would hear their blows if they came by.  None of us heard anything, so the next day we set ourselves up so that we had a view of everything.  I got  hoisted up onto the mast to have a better view of the surrounding water.  We were there half the day before we heard that there were whales down south at Lime Kiln.  Of course.  They must have gone up Active Pass and then turned around and gone back the way they came, which they almost never do.  We were six hours away, and by the time we made it down to Snug Harbor the whales had gone back out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Our week continued like that until the Saturday before we got off the boat.  We were headed out of Snug when Robin told me that she had seen a minke from the road on her way over.  She figured that it’d be long gone, but I decided to go out and check anyway, just in case the whale had slowed down.  I was out looking for no more than two minutes before Ally came out and asked what I was looking for.  As I turned and told her, she suddenly pointed and said, “What’s that?”  It was our whale!   As the whale arched its back, it was obvious that it was not a minke, but actually a humpback!  Surprise #1!  Another blow rose up and glistened in the sun.  Surprise #2!  There were actually two whales!  It was exceptional.  Humpbacks are rarely seen in Haro Strait, so it was a real treat.  The local humpback population was destroyed by commercial whaling operations in the early 1900s.  In fact, the whole Salish Sea population was wiped out in just one season of industrial whaling.  They are only just starting to return a century later.  We were lucky enough to get to observe two of these leviathons.  I have had the opportunity to see a lot of humpbacks on whale watches on the East Coast, and they are always my favorite to see.  They’re known for being extremely active and acrobatic.  These whales did not disappoint.  We were treated to just about every surface behavior imaginable.  One whale breached, then performed a series of chin slaps before finishing with another breach.  One of the whales slapped his pectorals repeatedly, giving us a beautiful display of his “big wings” that give humpbacks their Latin name (Megaptera novaeangliae translates to ‘big-winged New Englander’).  It was fantastic.  We also got some good looks at the flukes of the humpbacks.  The markings on the undersides of the flukes are like a human’s fingerprint.  The unique patterns and pigmentation  are used to identify individual whales.  For a catalog of the humpbacks that are seen in these waters, check out this site.

Just two days after this, we were performing a spreading and localization exercise when we got a text saying, “Many whales between False Bay and Lime Kiln.”  When we spotted the first blows and fins I was incoherent with excitement (literally – Captain Todd had to ask me to calm down enough so that he could understand what I was saying).  Finally, after three weeks of searching, J pod had come to us.  It was amazing.  The whales were extremely vocal, and we were the last boat with them, so we got some great recordings with minimal boat noise.  We also witnessed a lot of surface active behaviors, including cartwheels, which was fantastic.  We managed to remain with J pod for four hours.  Even if it took us three weeks to find them, it was well worth the wait!  I can’t wait to go back out and hopefully find them again!

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