Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Orca report

It was a nice bit of guesswork that led me to schedule our annual camping trip to San Juan Park on the west side of San Juan Island this last week. Every day had nearly perfect weather -- sunny but not too hot. The wind kicked up enough to keep us from kayaking too much (we used the windy afternoons to visit other places on the island), but we still were on the water a lot.

Oh, and we saw a lot of whales.

One of them was this fellow you see atop the post, a big male who came swooping along the shore at Lime Kiln Lighthouse at the lead of a pod of about 10 killer whales on the afternoon of July 28. We had been observing whales from the campground both the previous day and earlier that morning, a number of them in what appeared to be orca sleeping behavior: a large group of about five to nine orcas aligned in a row, one in a lead position and the others coasting along in a tight arc right behind him. They would surface about every hundred yards or so, exhale a row of plumes into the air, like the fountains in a Vegas plaza, whose mist would linger even in the sun's heat, then dive again. We saw about three other whales (one of them a large male) cruising along in their vicinity, seemingly acting as watchmen should anything go amiss.

We decided to visit the lighthouse, about a mile south of our camp, where the kids could hike the trails and see some sights. They did. A large superpod of about 25 orcas came passing through, directly in front of the crowd that had gathered along the shore. The first group of about 15 orcas performed some half-breaches and tail lobs (or so I am told), but appeared to be intent mostly on moving south. As it happened, I was charged with taking a 4-year-old to the potty when most of this group came through, and I missed them.

But as we watched this last group fade into the horizon, a second group of about 10 came zooming alongside the bank at the lighthouse. This spot is deservedly famed for orca-watching, because beneath the surface, the rocks drop off in a sheer cliff face into the water, so the whales will come right up next to it, trapping the abundant fish and snatching them up. In other cases, like this, they'll just use it to ride the back eddies in the stiff currents that roil these waters.

Among this group was a calf and a female companion, probably its mother (though "aunties" often play the role of guardians). We first saw them shortly after the big male came by. The calf was playing around. but was kept moving steadily by it mother:

Another whale -- either another female or a juvenile male -- seemed to be playing a role in keeping the calf moving forward:

The current was working in their direction, but the wind was against them, which created some wave action that they seemed to enjoy crashing through, especially a couple of other females/young males we saw:

I had a chance to see this group (at least, I think it was them; my identification skills are pretty nonexistent) much closer the next evening, the 29th. We had seen them earlier in the day off our camp site, in transit mode far out in Haro Strait and followed by the usual phalanx of whale-watching boats. That evening, they came back our way, headed north, and they came in close to shore to play a little just as the sun was setting.

I had just headed out in my solo kayak to get some photos -- a plan that did not work, due mostly to the low light and the situation -- toward a kelp bed about 250 yards offshore from the campground when I stopped short. The whales, I realized, were, actually coming in on my side of the kelp bed, as well as through it. Indeed, the same mother and calf, it appeared, were playing in the fronds.

One thing I've learned about orcas is that, despite the cute and cuddly image they may enjoy -- thanks to a gazillion Shamu stuffed dolls -- orcas in the wild are wild animals. It's true that there has never been a recorded attack by an orca in the wild on a human (a fact that, I think, speaks volumes about our relationship to them, considering the potential) -- but there have been some recorded instances of retaliation for harassment.

A lot of kayakers think that the absence of an engine on their boat means they can't possibly harass the whales. And it's true that, while I've witnessed hundreds of close encounters between kayakers and orcas, I've never seen even a smidgen of actual contact. A lot of this, of course, has to do with the amazing gracefulness of these huge animals; and some probably has to do with their well-noted sensitivity to contact with their skin. Still, I did witness on one occasion last summer a large bull make an aggressive, perhaps playful, rush at a group of kayakers, and I've read accounts of numerous real threats from bulls (who seem to play a protective role, which is only natural, considering the real awe they inspire).

But kayaks can harass by their silence. If you paddle directly into an orca's path and expect him or her to avoid you by virtue of their grace, you're more likely to unpleasantly surprise the whale and force it to dive unexpectedly or interrupt its breathing pattern. Certainly you're increasing the stress on the animal and, if it's hunting, you're probably disrupting its ability to feed. Most of all, you're really counting on its good will to keep from knocking you into the water and chewing you to little pieces. Or worse.

Interestingly, one of the behaviors that researchers and watchers have seen in the resident orcas this summer involves an unusual bit of killer-whale brutality: they seem to be killing a few Dall's porpoises. Now, understand: transient orcas -- the whales who traverse the Pacific Coast from Baja to Alaska, including the Puget Sound -- regularly eat Dall's porpoises, who are the fastest marine mammal in these waters (reaching speeds above 30 knots with relative ease); they mostly eat seals and sea lions, but will chase down and eat porpoises too.

But the transients and the residents of these waters seem to have little or nothing in common; their languages and calls are entirely different, as well as their diets -- the residents are strictly fish eaters. Indeed, Dall's have been seen cavorting in the presence of resident whales, seemingly undisturbed by them.

This summer, though, there have been at least three confirmed instances in which resident orcas were seen "capturing" a young Dall's porpoise, "playing" with it at length -- in on instance clearly penning it in and pushing it, in another tossing it into the air, and finally in another case of chasing,they submerged with it for an extended period, only to emerge a little while later on the surface with the porpoise's body, which they pushed around on the surface for awhile. Researchers recovered the porpoise's body and found it had been drowned.

Doug M summed it up on the Orca Network's listserv:
... [Killer whales are big predators and deserve respect. Often we've encountered people who look at the resident population as the the kindly vegetarian intellectual version of killer whales. From many of these same people we have heard the desire to call them "orcas" instead of killer whales. It is noteworthy to mention that the root of orca is roughly translated to mean "demon from hell" (think of the "Orcs" from Lord of the Rings). While many people emphasize the fact there has not been a recorded human kill from a killer whale in the wild, it should not take away from the fact that they are large, efficient predators. I don't mean this to instill fear in anyone, just a healthy dose of respect. Something to consider before chasing after the whales in a kayak or small dinghy.

Those thoughts clearly never crossed the minds of some of the other kayakers out on the water in the strait that evening. One fellow drove his kayak directly into the path of the orcas as they headed toward the kelp bed, then hooted loudly as several of them sprayed him with their plumes (which is indeed a great but putrid experience; whale breath reeks of rotting fish). Other kayakers he was attached with kept seeking out new whales as they came by and paddling toward their path in hopes of being similarly sprayed, and a few of them were. Some got warning tail lobs too.

I didn't manage to get any good shots off that evening, because my camera was still in its dry bag, tucked under my spray skirt when I first suddenly encountered the whales near the kelp bed; and the light had grown too dim in short order to photograph any of the others farther out. I could have gotten a great shot, I suppose, by diving into them, but some things are more important than a good shot. And besides, I saw them quite close up, which was what mattered more.


The next day, the whales returned at about 3 in the afternoon, and one of the other fathers in our group, Adam Peck, headed out with me in our two-man kayak. I rode in front in hopes of getting off some good shots. The whales were spread out, it seemed, across the entire nine-mile swath of Haro Strait, but they all were consistently headed south.

We caught up with a group of them about a mile offshore and got a good look at a big male about 50 yards in front of us, and about four more smaller whales followed in short order, but I didn't manage to capture any decent images of any of them; I was discovering that, on a long flat surface like these waters, my autofocus was having diffculty settling on a setting before snapping the shutter, since a flick of the wrist on a bobbing kayak could shift the range from fifty yards to five miles. By the time I realized I needed to turn it off, the whales were gone.

It was such a pleasant day, Adam and I decided to head south in their general direction and go take a look at the lime kiln and lighthouse in the distance. We paddled for another 45 minutes or so that way, and then realized that the pod had turned around and was headed back northward. We decided to follow along from a distance, sticking close to shore, since the current favored us there, and we wouldn't be harassing the whales.

As luck would have it, though, a mother and calf chose to go very close to the rocky shore too. In fact, when we spotted them, they were on the inside of our path, and as we caught up to them, we decided to stop before coming perpendicular to them, so as not to "trap" them. The mother appeared to be teaching the calf how to catch fish, and she was using the sheer cliff of the rocky shore as a training ground, trapping the fish next to the rock wall while the little one grabbed away. They shortly headed back toward the larger group, the calf spyhopping and frolicking in a kelp bed along the way.

We continued to follow for awhile, but as we approached the campground, we hugged the shoreline and rode the current and wind back into camp. We'd been on the water two and a half hours and were a little worn out; it looked as if the whales were heading out for good northward anyway, and there was no point chasing them.

Well, whales are nothing if not unpredictable. They also have a gift for confounding their pursuers. Sure enough, no sooner had we landed and walked up the bank than it became clear that the entire group that had spread across the strait throughout the day had coalesced in an area about a mile offshore from the park -- just far enough to make their figures too small even with my telephoto lens. This was about 30 whales, as near as I could tell, and they proceeded to put on the most spectacular display of breaching I've ever watched.

The show lasted for about 15 minutes, and featured at least 30 breaches, by my count. In one instance, two whales breached simultaneously next to each other, one peeling off left and another to the right. At times, it resembled a large ballet, with massive leaps and splashes almost synchronized to the whales' own mysterious music.

If you've never seen a whale breach in the flesh, it's hard to describe the effect on your psyche, but two words spring to mind: joy and awe. There is a something profoundly exuberant about these bursts into our world, but the whales -- who are always checking us humans out -- also can't seem to help knowing that the displays strike us dumb with wonder. And you know what? I suspect they like that, too.

In any event, it was a woundrous show. My wife is one of those people who always seems to be looking the other direction when whales breach in our vicinity. That day, she saw more breaches than in her entire 15-year career of whale watching. She just sat on the grass and soaked it in through her binoculars.

Adam and I sat on the bank with our little ones -- my daughter and his son, in fact, are best pals -- and watched the show. And the truth was, while we wanted to be out there (and I was chagrined that I had guessed wrong once again), we didn't really mind a bit that we weren't. I didn't have any photos, but I had the memories, memories that included watching the whales with my little girl. Some things, after all, are more important than a great shot.

[Note: last year's orca report is here.]

No comments: