Hardly Sea Pandas

Most of the whales I saw in Haro Strait this summer were members of the Southern Resident population, fish-eaters that travel in large, social, noisy groups. 

One morning was different: we awoke to a thick fog, as usual, but the hydrophones in the main room of the Center for Whale research were silent. Whales were passing, but in complete silence and in groups of three and four, jogging along close to the rocky shore with deadly purpose. 

Even I, new to the ways of the whales of the Pacific northwest, could feel a visceral difference between this group and the playful bunch I’d seen porpoising by in the days prior. These animals, over twenty feet in length, dorsal fins slicing the surface of the water, were apex predators… and they were on the hunt. 

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Transients eat marine mammals like seals and porpoises, for the most part, but have been known to take down prey as large and diverse as moose, swimming the channels between the islands, and gray and minke whales, many times the size of the transients but vulnerable to their speed and dogged pursuance. They’ve never been known to take a human in the wild- any accounts of “killer” killer whales are invariably from aquariums- but there’s something in the way they move that pricks an evolutionary nerve. You can tell- you’d be digestible.

Right off the porch, I’d been watching a harbor seal for days. He and another, smaller female had been resident on the rocky reef a few hundred feet from shore, spending afternoons lazing on the old volcanic rock, then disappearing at high tide along with the reef itself. As three sharp fins neared the place I knew the rocks to be, they split suddenly around it. A quick splash of water and the sudden appearance of diving gulls were the only obvious signs that we probably wouldn’t be seeing that seal any longer… 

Later that day we got much closer to the scene of the carnage- out on the boat, we found a few groups of transients still hunting. They must be masters of maneuvering underwater. I was almost certain they would hit the rocks, they got so close.Image

We were rooting for this girl to get away:

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She was smart and stayed up on the rocks. Lucky this time… 

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Good Morning, Whales!

This morning I woke leisurely, confident that the fog and the threatened rain would leave us on shore. That didn’t keep the whales from making another appearance, however- right off the deck of the Center we could see and hear a number of killer whales headed north along the shore. Dave, this incredible guy who works at the center, captains the tiny boat (the Orca) that we photograph from, and knows every single whale in this population by sight and by relation to its fellows (along with their life histories and general attitudes) marked which whales we were seeing. I’m still working on photo-ID’ing just a few of my favorite (and most easily-discernible) whales… I can’t imagine knowing them as well as he does. It’s like they’re all old friends to him, J2 an ancient matriarch who avoids the camera and K25 a young one he’s watched grow up into a “funny-looking little guy” with a smallish dorsal for a male. K20, his big sister, presumably “sucked all the growth” out of their mother, K13, because she’s as robust as any whale he’s seen. They take on so much more life and character when seen through his eyes- I’m still trying to get past the strange combination of awe and incomprehension that are always present when I see these massive animals break the surface of the water. 

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I’m sure these kayakers didn’t MEAN to get so close… after all, they were putting themselves directly in the paths of not only endangered animals, but apex predators on the hunt. Who would possibly do that on purpose? Oh yeah. Maybe the girl running along the shore with camera, dog, socks, and sandals, oversized flannel shirt flapping in the breeze. Regardless, it was inspiring seeing them in so close to shore and so calm, fins breaking the surface and blowholes hissing out clouds that mingled with the incredibly dense fog.

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It wasn’t long before the whale watch boats found us (well they weren’t really looking for me, just the whales…) but Marron and I didn’t mind too much when the whales and boats all moved off faster than we could follow. We were having a good shoreline wander. I took too many photos of jellyfish and liked them all, so they’ll be showing up probably in future posts. Here’s one of my favorites: 

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It’s a Lion’s Mane jelly, I think- star of a Sherlock Holmes mystery and one of the biggest (if not the biggest by length) animals on the planet at full size. In cold waters, they can loose tentacles 120 feet in length. I tried to keep Marron from swimming with them and met with mild success… and mild failure. Luckily, it didn’t appear that she got stung.

She’s a good beach walk buddy, though I worry that I’m letting her get too wet. She doesn’t appear to mind:

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Tomorrow’s hopefully going to be nice and clear, sunny and whale-ful. We need to photograph more of K pod, especially their males because they’re likely to be first and most impacted by food shortages. Stay posted- the next few days are likely to be busy and fruitful as the weather turns back toward summer.