I know, I have already given my top marine mammal moments, but after some discussion I was granted permission to give more details about one of my favorite encounters, and one that I didn’t even mention in my earlier blog because I was unsure about posting it.
I briefly mentioned our encounter with K21, Cappuccino, making the S10 call by our hydrophone before, but here I will give you a few more details.
We had been following the whales from East Point, and had almost reached Turn Point. We had been having trouble all day keeping up with the whales because we can only go 2.5 knots through the water so we don’t get very much flow noise on our hydrophones while recording, so we were hanging out with the stragglers of the group which happened to be K21. He was on our port side for quite awhile at about 9 o’clock, when he very abruptly turned 90o towards us.
Look closely, you can see him underwater!
Catching a breath as he headed for us
As he got closer Todd killed the engine and he sure made a B-line for us. He swam right up to our stern, where our first hydrophone was at the time, stopped, made a vocalization, and went on his way. I like to think he was telling us hello or actually trying to communicate with us since his call was so directed to the hydrophone. He was so close that we could see him swimming underwater!
Since he was so close and gave a call at the right moment we got an awesome recording of it. His call is classified as an S10 call, but he combined two of them to make an extra long call. It came out so beautifully on the spectrogram because he was so close, the background noise couldn’t really be detected.
The spectrogram of the S10 call from K21
Here you can listen! —> S10
9/16/2010 J28 and her calf, J46
Finally, I have saved the best for last. This special encounter happened on our most bio-diverse day and is still the most vivid memory I have with the whales.
There we were aboard the Gato Verde collecting some great data for our research projects, most of the afternoon we had been with members of J-pod. Of course we thought just being around the whales was cool in itself, which it is, but we were in for a special treat. J28, Polaris. and her calf J46, Star, had been trailing us for a while, but they were getting some speed and catching up to us on our starboard side. They were probably about 100-150 meters away milling around, and we were all stood on the deck just staring at them. J46 did a couple tail slaps and gave Mama some kisses, it was just too cute.
All of a sudden they both directed their travel towards us, Todd killed the engine and we all observed with excitement.
J28 (left) and J46 (right) swimming towards us
As they approached the boat together, J46 sped up and pulled away from his mama as if she was curious about us. I was standing right on the edge staring into the water as J46 came up to us, turned over on her side, basically gave the boat a hug with her peck fins, and opened her mouth as if she was smiling at us. I even made eye contact with her! As weird as it may sound, I felt like we made a connection of some kind during that moment. We were also able to see his teeth when he smiled at us. I mean, she was RIGHT THERE!
YOU CAN SEE THE TEETH!!
J28 followed behind her, and they both swam off behind us. All this happened in about a matter of two to three minutes, and it all seemed so unreal! Everyone on the boat was so excited, even Todd said that had never happened to him before.
Just to clarify, during all of our time with the whales we follow the Washington State Law and the Be Whale Wise guidelines, but sometimes the whales can surprise us by being curious.
I have could never find a good chance to update the blog. This is most likely due to the fact that I was out at sea for two weeks and no internet connection. Also might be the fact that I have too much to do and I’m always scrounging around to finish everything. I hope everyone is getting updates on our travels and experiences through the other blogs though. We have been through quite a bit these past 2-3 weeks.
We set off on the end of April and headed out to look for the whales. Todd was a bit late picking us up that day because he had to go out to buy groceries to prepare for our two week departure. Jason also got a call from the Stranding Network about another Steller sea lion washed up on a beach on Orcas Island. We ended up departing at a very late time, but two weeks, I was looking forward to it no matter how late we left. The next day, unexpectedly, J-pod returned to San Juan Islands, after a long period of absence. Jason heard the update right when we docked on Stuart Island; my heart jolted straight away. The residents are back! I was really excited from hearing this, trying to contain myself in the middle of Todd’s sailing lecture. We did peek our heads out off of Turn Point to see if we could spot them. We actually did too! They were pretty widespread, as I could only spot two females surface a couple of times. We believed them to be foraging around that time, which was 6 pm. But the next day, they were gone. No updates left of the residents, which made us sad. The salmon runs are probably not quite here yet.
The next few days, we did not hear from Orca Network about any updates on the whales’ whereabouts. We did see quite a number of other marine mammals though, such as harbour seals, dall’s porpoises, and more. But getting lots of science goals out of the way was really great. We calibrated our hydrophones, went through a behavior exercise with Jason on the Gatito, had a couple of sailing lectures, wrapped up our final research proposals, and journal club readings. It was sort of nice that the whales did not come by during this time, because it was indeed crunch time when we had to finish up our proposals. I can recall I was one of the ones that were sleeping later than usual, with my eyes popping out of their sockets from working on the proposal for hours. We finally turned it in on Friday, after what I felt was a long process of hard work.
But, before turning the proposal in on Friday, transients! We were stationed out by Turn Point for almost the entire week, drifting about, waiting for the whales to show up. It was on May 7 that we finally got to see the whales. We got the text that there were two transients heading north on San Juan Channel. Perfect! We were right north of them, heading south. In that sense, we immediately headed down towards them, in hopes to catch them on camera and film after not seeing whales for a long period of time. We motored all the way down towards Orcas and saw several boats off in the horizon. We thought that they were the whale watching fleet out there, and sure enough, they were. There must have been over eight of them surrounding the two whales. It was much more different than the time that Kathryn spotted the whales when we wanted to go to Neah Bay. We were practically the only ones following them. This made such a huge difference for us, since we had to tow the hydrophones this time to get recordings and boats kept getting in our way. It was seriously very frustrating. But we did get a great recording of what we thought of as a call around 17 minutes into the recording!
Afterwards, we sailed back to Friday Harbor Labs in preparation for the open house that was going to happen. The open house was an event in the labs where the area is open to the general public. All the students at the labs get to show off what they have been doing this whole time in the labs and demonstrate what they have learned so far. I thought that this was a great time for everyone to share their findings and interests to the public, hoping to educate them as well about the science out in the world. For their service project, Libby and Kathryn went to a walk to spread awareness about the salmon farms at Vancouver Island and Alexandra Morton was going to be there. She was one of the leaders and since it was during the exact same day as the FHL open house, Nora and I had to take over the entire chore rotations and make sure everyone was attended to during the event. The open house was a success. I loved every bit of it: the enthusiastic kids, parents that had loads of questions, and all the FHL folk that came down to take a gander at the Gato Verde. I really felt my communication skills come out during that day, since several times, Jason and Todd were occupied with another person and I would have to take over along with Nora. Even better, was the fact that it was such a nice warm day. During my break, I went over to visit the Zoobots and Kellen’s genomics class to see what they were up to. I ate some gummi worms while investigating the labs, and learned some pretty neat stuff! Vincent showed me this hermit crab that had a mutualistic relationship with a sea anemone that lived inside of the shell. Whenever the hermit crab was fed, the tentacles would pop out, and gather and food. That is just crazy! I saw scallops also flip around and swim too, rather quickly I would have to say. But all in all, it was such a great day. To top it off, we had internet and stayed another night at the labs. That meant another night of soda, showers, and comfy rest.
It was then, during the next day, that we saw two transients again. We crossed the Canadian border and found two whales being followed by about 8 vessels once more. We were at first very far out so it was difficult to see them. I had the camera for the first time and it was hard for me to get shots of them since we were facing right towards the sun. I tried my very best. This time though, it was much more exciting than the day before. We got to be able to see them act quite strangely. For one, they started heading towards a boat and not going away from it. We thought that there was perhaps a seal or something heading underneath the boat that the orcas were that interested. But for a solid 10 minutes, it would not leave the vicinity of the boat. The whales kept bobbing up and down around the Prince of Whales and stayed there for a long time. They did the exact same thing to Eagle Wing. What was most memorable was when we saw lots of great splashes and some interaction between the two whales. And…what was most intriguing was that we thought we saw a bit of pink flash on the surface of the water. Sea snake perhaps? We all shouted and exclaimed in excitement over the orcas as they were just a spectacular sight to see, yet again.
I felt as if these two weeks zoomed by so quickly, that I did not even notice. Time never waits for anyone does it? But we did accomplish so much, and I have felt that I have grown so much since the very first day of Beam Reach. I am constantly learning, being the youngest and only teen of the group. I have a long way to go but I aspire to end with lifetime lessons and exuberant experiences that I can share to my folks back at home.
Evening sky at Griffin Bay
Hello from the Gato Verde!
Things have been going great so far — it feels wonderful to be out on the water. I have not been sailing since 2008, and the moment I set foot on the Gato Verde, every reason for loving boats I had ever conjured in my mind came rushing back to me. I actually used to have a great fear of boats. I think it began because my idea of being out at sea was based on one or two childhood whale watching experiences. During one trip, I remember being so frightened that my mom had to literally sedate me with medication. I spent most of the whale watch underneath my Little Mermaid towel, hiding from the wrath of the Massachusetts seas. Despite my dramamine-induced drowsiness, I remember my panic reached a high point once we spotted whales. Every single passenger scrambled to one side of the boat to get a better look, causing us to tip precariously (at least in my mind). In this moment I remember feeling desperately out of control of my own fate…this boat was going to sink and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Luckily, my fear of boating has gradually been replaced by a deep love of all forms of marine transportation. This is the only instance where my fear of something has decreased as I have gotten older – all my other phobias have, unfortunately, seemed to increase with time. Thankfully, the time for fear of boats has passed in my life, and I couldn’t be happier to be sailing again. Everything has been working in our favor so far weather-wise (knock on wood), and things have been going very smoothly. I even got to steer the boat for about 20 minutes yesterday!
After a relaxing first evening anchored in Griffin Bay, we rose early to get a head start on what we thought would be a very full day of sailing. We had planned to sail to Neah Bay, where there is a hydrophone in need of repair. Beam Reach has never sailed that far, so we were all looking forward to the exciting challenge of charting new territory. I woke up early after a fitful night of sleep, soothed by early-morning fog banks and loon calls. We departed on schedule and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. Around this time, I happened to look out the window; I had seen some sea lions sunning themselves on some rocks, and I thought I might see more in the water. Instead, I saw a tall black shape sinking beneath the surface. My breath caught. No, I thought, there is absolutely no way. It’s probably just a cormorant. Then, a blow. “Whales!!” I cried, tripping over myself stupidly in an effort to get a better look. “Whales, whales!!!” I clapped happily, laughing in awe – I absolutely could not believe our luck. Here we are, one day out from Friday Harbor, and we happen to stumble upon a beautiful group of transient killer whales. Their pointed dorsal fins sliced through the water, and I sighed contentedly at hearing their piercing blows. All plans of attempting a passage to Neah Bay lost, we followed the whales from nine in the morning until they gave us the slip around 3 pm. The whales came within meters of the Gato Verde several times; during one encounter I even picked up the familiar smell of whale breath on the air (which, in my opinion, smells like rotten pumpkins). I am happy to report that I recorded several videos of our time with the whales today…the quality, however, is somewhat compromised by the fact that I was leaping all over the boat in my uncontainable excitement. If these past two days have been any indication, there will be much more to report soon!
Hope everyone is well,
Coming up for air
I have been waiting to return to San Juan Island for 5 years. The first time I came to Friday Harbor, I was 15 years old. I arrived in Washington with the hopes of seeing a wild orca, and I began my hunt on the ferry to the island. I stood on the chilling bow, wind-whipped and shivering in 4 layers of clothing, scanning the horizon for black dorsal fins and telltale plumes of mist suspended in the air. I knew the chances of seeing whales before I had even reached San Juan Island were slim, but I simply could not contain my excitement. About halfway through the ferry ride, I noticed a zodiac idling a mile or so away. The people on the boat were obviously looking at something, and I squinted my eyes to get a better look. Moments later, a black shape rose out of the water, and my heart skipped a beat – orcas. Somehow my father managed to snap a photo of me at this exact moment, and I can only describe the expression on my face as one of pure, unadulterated joy. In suburban Ohio where I grew up, the closest thing to wild orcas are captive animals who lead sad half-lives at Sea World; it was an absolute thrill to see these animals swimming freely in the Salish Sea. This unexpected encounter set the trend for the remainder of my trip – I saw orcas nearly every day. I watched whales cruise by the lighthouse at Lime Kiln State Park and I followed them through the fog on a whale watch. The only way I managed to leave the island without dissolving into tears was to promise myself that I would return someday.
As I boarded the Anacortes ferry one week ago, I was overcome with the same child-like excitement I felt during my first ferry ride. I had waited so long to be reunited with this thick, fragrant air, the ethereal cathedrals of tall, leaning trees, and, most of all, the whales. After seven days on the island, I have still yet to see an orca, but my disappointment has been tempered by a multitude of other wildlife experiences. Friday Harbor Labs is situated within a biological preserve, and the area is bursting with life. I have had close encounters with deer, sea lions, slugs, foxes, and river otters, temporarily satiating my desire for animal contact. I have started to use our Sibley’s bird guide to identify the birds around our duplex (including a Red-Shafted Northern Flicker that has been drilling noisily on a metal lamp outside our window for the past few days) in an effort to hone my observational skills. While these experiences have been fulfilling, there is still part of me impatient to get out on the water – I listen to the hydrophone network daily, ears tweaked for sweeping killer whale calls, and even though I know they don’t frequent the east side of the island, I keep an ear out for the gunshot ring of whales coming up for air. We’ll be out at sea in two short weeks; in the meantime I will enjoy the company of other creatures and bask in the knowledge that I am finally back in this wonderful place.