Second week highlight: welcoming home the southern resident killer whales!

Sunset over San Juan Island as we welcomed home a superpod of J, K, and L members.

Monday, September 4, 2017

We heard somebody describe today’s dispersion of whales on the west side of San Juan Island as being similar to popcorn, and we couldn’t agree more. After hearing all day that small groups of Southern Resident and Bigg’s killer whales were in the area, we had a hard time deciding where exactly to be and which of our two theodolite tracking stations to use. By late afternoon, we received word that there were Bigg’s killer whales heading northbound toward our southern station. So, we quickly set up there, only to be completely surprised by Bigg’s traveling southbound instead. They were moving fast and we were only able to track them for a little over 5 minutes before they were out of sight. Feeling a little deflated, we then made the decision to head to our northern station in hopes of catching incoming Residents. Luckily, we spotted them from the car on our way there, just before Lime Kiln State Park. It was then that we got our second surprise of the day: we watched them turn completely around and head back towards our southern station. So, we did the same.

Theodolite tracking the killer whales and ships passing by from our southern station.

Finally, at 18:00 from our southern theodolite station, we welcomed home a superpod of J, K, & L members. They were traveling in four small and loosely dispersed groups of two to four individuals. I picked a focal individual to track on the theodolite while also tracking passing ships. Every five minutes, Laura and I would also record a scan sample of the focal group’s activity state – traveling, resting, socializing, or feeding. The groups observed over the next hour were often seen milling and foraging. We also noted plenty of surface-active behavior including breaches, tail slaps, and pectoral fin slaps. We were lucky enough to listen to some surface vocals that the Center for Whale Research broadcasted over the VHF radio.

Overall, it was a quiet evening as we watched them with only The Center for Whale Research boat present along with a few passing ships. You could hear every exhaled breath as they surfaced not far from the shoreline in glassy slack-tide waters. We even saw an individual rolling around with a chinook salmon in its mouth. As we watched them swim off into the sunset, we felt very lucky to call this our job and to have been there to welcome them home after a long hiatus. Who knows where they have been, but hopefully they found a great deal of fish along the way. We can only hope that they stick around for all their biggest fans here on San Juan Island, but my greatest hope is that they find quiet waters with plenty of chinook salmon to go around.



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