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  • Matt & Clo

Good Whale Hunting

The dream team is pairing up for this one:

Matt's point of view in black // Clo's point of view in pink

Photo: Clotilde Richalet Szuch

September 1st, 2016. The first day of our destiny dawned like most other days, with a full bladder and a worrisome thought of drool on my beard. Clo blew me a sleepy kiss as I quietly (though apparently never quietly enough to let her sleep) tip-toed out of the room and left her to snooze for another hour or so. The day before we had prepared most of the things we were taking, so we didn't need to spend a lot of time finalizing the remaining cargo load for Wilbur. We closed up the house, parked our butts on our warm sheepskin covered seats and headed out on the road!

If there should be only 1 rule ever: don't ask me to be out of bed before 9:00 AM. How hard can it be? It has always been this kind of schedule (or even later) for me, except on working days (yep as a freelance photographer: your entire life is a non working day, and once in a while a working day (that you choose) shows up and then you wake up before 9:00 AM). My point is: I don't like waking up early, more than that: I just don't understand why I should.

Matt has been pretty nice on that first day of our trip, I guess he wanted me in a good mood on the departure line ;-))

We spent most of our first few days with Wilbur parked in a driveway, relaxing. We visited my best friend and his wife in Seattle for the Labor Day weekend, also spending some time to see some of my other Seattle friends for one last time. While we were there we spent one of the days going up to Sunrise on Mount Rainier and doing some hiking, which turned out to be gorgeous and sunny for at least half of the time (quite nice at this time of the year on Rainier).

Monday morning we departed from Seattle on our way to the San Juan islands. We ended up missing the 4:45pm ferry due to traffic and some shopping we did on the way north, so we had a couple hours to burn while we waited for the 8pm boat. We enjoyed walking around the Ship Harbor Nature Reserve beach by the ferry terminal, which used to be the site of a cannery. The bay is currently barely even saline, due to the way the tides flow over the sandbank that has built up over time at the mouth of the harbor. It makes for some very interesting and unique plant life in the water.

This was great to miss the first ferry because we had time to hang out, walk around, have some dinner in the back of Wilbur: very relaxing. Matt loves to read all the signs that explain pretty much everything about what is right in front of our eyes (the "barely saline bay", the "plant life"...) and so much more. I love to say in those moments that I don't speak (in that case 'don't read') English good enough to read it all. So I pass on all of this. And anyways I know Matt is going to talk about it, so why read it. :-)

You know the expression: "one is the brain, the other is the brawn". I like to think that Matt is the brain, the reader, the thinker. I am the brawn: I have legs to run around and take a bunch of pictures that will illustrate his thoughts later. Team work. :-)

Arriving in Friday Harbor around 9:30pm in the rain, we drove towards the area we ended up to camp (by camp, I mean sleep in the back of Wilbur). Our first night was a bit rushed and uncomfortable because of our late arrival, but we still managed to get a good sleep and woke up early the next morning to spend a few hours looking for whales at the Lime Kiln State Park. We didn't see any orcas, but we did spot a group of porpoises swim by and a river otter (contrary to what you may expect, river otters do indeed go into the ocean and are in fact far more populous than sea otters in the islands) frolic by the shore. For most of the two hours we were here, we were the only people around. I found it very relaxing and calm, looking out over the sea and watching the birds, a very occasional fishing boat far away and listening to the waves crash into the rocks.

No comments about that morning because we woke up wayyyyyyy before 9:00 AM. And by now you know what happens when I wake up before 9:00 AM. (i.e. my first paragraph).

Soon enough we headed back towards Friday Harbor, as our main activity was scheduled to start at noon; hunting whales! We chose the organization Maya's Legacy mostly due to good reviews, though a positive selling point for me was the fact they have a brand new (delivered 5 weeks prior) boat, which is the fastest in Friday Harbor. This means we had a wider range to see whales, though as it turned out we didn't need it. As I had been once to see whales about 10 years ago and didn't see any, I wanted to maximize our chances.

We went to the office and the first person we met was Rachel, who was one of the three marine biologists/naturalists/tour guides/whale experts/etc who were with us on the tour. Soon thereafter we met the captain (Spencer) and one of the other marine biologists, Jeff. It was a lengthy three minute walk to the harbor and our speedy looking ride. Shortly thereafter, we pushed off and headed into the Salish Sea to look for some whales.

A whole five minutes later we were watching a group of Transient orcas, specifically known as T65A. This was due mostly to the organization that nearly all of the Friday Harbor whale watching organizations belong to, which focuses on cooperation between the different boats, tourist groups and captains. They all work together to share information about what sea life is where and take turns to do scouting runs each morning to find out where the different animal life is active. This helps to make sure each of the tourists are likely to see whales, and helps to promote a friendly atmosphere between the different organizations. They also work very closely with the scientific and preservation groups that are working with the ocean life, in order to preserve the environment and make sure it stays a healthy tourist destination for the future. Pretty cool. Makes good financial sense too.

We have been wondering so much for the past days if we were going to see anything at all: and BAMMM the first few minutes out in the ocean we start seeing a couple of killer whales jumping out of the water. It is very beautiful to watch. They were sometimes 2 to 5 together. Spectacular.

We spent the next hour watching the group of transients. It was really, really awesome. They would surface three or four times for air, then dive again for a few minutes before reappearing hundreds of meters/yards away. We arrived on site right after they had killed a harbor seal, and were treated to a very rare occurrence of frequent and loud vocalizations for about five minutes. In the northwest region (northern California to Alaska) there are primarily two types of orca's; Residents and Transients. Residents are typically very vocal since their food source (salmon) isn't really impacted by the noise. Transients, on the other hand, hunt mammals and tend to be very quiet since it will alert the prey to their presence. Apparently it is quite rare for them to be so vocal; Jeff had a hydrophone in the water with a speaker and we could hear them loudly chirping (I'm not sure how to describe the sound - it was piercing and very active).

The moment when we listened to them via the hydrophone was pretty emotional. Not really personally, it's just sounds like what you hear in movies/documentary about dolphins or any other marine mammals. But it was very intense to look at our 3 guide/captain/marine biologists who were so stunned by it. It looks like it's pretty rare to hear that group talking. I have no idea really, but you understood that it looked pretty dammed important when you saw the sparkles in their eyes.

During the time we were following the transients around we learned a lot about the whales. While there is too much to go into detail for everything, there are a few parts that really stood out to me. The first one is that many of the groups of killer whales around the world are actually now (just within the past few years) considered to be completely different species. They have been genetically different for nearly a million years and only appear to share the same general "paint job". While orcas are considered one of the most social mammals (even more than humans), these different groups of killer whales never interact. They don't socialize, don't breed with each other and apparently don't even speak the same language. It's quite fascinating how much we are still learning about them. Actually, it's fascinating how little we know about our oceans and the wildlife within. In many cases we know less about our own oceans than we do about space. Crazy. I really like the idea of living on the ocean, some day.

Living on the ocean would present a problem of socialization, though, which isn't shared by killer whales. As I mentioned above they are extremely social, having an extremely strong focus on the family groups. Transients and resident orcas are a bit different in this respect, but both of them are the same in that their social groups are built around a matriarchal structure. While the transient orcas generally stay in smaller pods of 2-10 whales, the resident orcas tend to group their pods together more frequently when feeding opportunities present themselves. Unfortunately the resident population has been declining recently, due in part to a reduction of the salmon (their primary food source) and partly due to the "live-capture" program instituted in the 1960's for aquariums. They were easier to capture compared to the more mobile transients.

The transient pods don't generally tend to group together except for short periods of time, as they usually are quite mobile in their search for mammals. All of the orca pods are based around the oldest female, with her children normally staying with her for life. The exception to this is non-first-born males, who will sometimes leave the pod for days or weeks at a time to go hunting and socializing on their own (or occasionally with other males). Females stay with their mother and raise their own offspring in the same pod, benefiting from the help and teaching of the older females (and maybe the males :-)) in the group. The transient population in this region is also growing about 5% each year in the past few years, since their food sources are quite readily available and they have no natural predators in the wild. Since humans have also been leaving them alone in the past 20-30 years, their populations are doing better and better.

After about an hour of watching the T65A pod and many hundreds (thousands if you include the other 7 tourists on the boat) of pictures taken, Spencer decided to search for a minke whale that had been spotted nearby. We saw a bunch of harbor seals, but unfortunately we didn't see or smell the minke. Apparently minkes are often referred to as "stinkies" as it is common to smell them before they are seen. They are baleen whales, which means they basically strain fish through strands of baleen in their mouth and tend to smell like rotten fish. A lot of rotten fish.

Meandering around the islands in search of wildlife, the next highlight we saw was Spieden Island. This island was initially a private game reserve in the 1970's, but was shut down after the owners invited Walter Cronkite to do a story on their private game park. Instead of being impressed and giving them some friendly press, he was rather disgusted by the whole operation and instead did a bit of an expose. The reserve was shut down soon after, with most of the exotic animals (tigers, lions, bears, etc) being shipped off to zoos or other reserves. However, there are a few animals that one would certainly not expect to see in the northwest of the US. The island residents still include Mouflon Sheep from Corsica, fallow deer from Europe and Sika deer from Asia.

CORSICA!! Yeah!!! They are MY sheep!! Hihi, I have a tendency to call mine everything coming from the other side of the Atlantic lately, so sheep from Corsica: I had to say (a dozen times) that they were from MY country: MY sheep :-) Chauvinism in French. I never thought that would happen to me!

While we were slowly motoring along the coast of Spieden Island, we had to some time to chat with the folks who worked for the tour company. Spencer (the captain) is a naturalist who grew up in the San Juan Islands, and about 10 years moved back home to pursue doing something that involved his love of the outdoors. Jeff used to work in the IT field, but some years ago decided he wanted to pursue his passion and so became a captain and pursued advocacy for ocean and whale causes. Rachel is a marine biologist who moved here a year ago from Colorado, and is doing research while also working as a naturalist. Personally I found this rather cool, as these people are all doing something in a field they love and/or are passionate about. It made me think about my own reasons for wanting to take this trip that Clo and I are on, and how people end up in different places in their lives. I need to get moving with my volunteer plans for the upcoming months.

It was very nice to boat around with such passionate people, willing to share what they know and what they love; for sure their life stories are very interesting and inspiring, only driven by passion. And even better: passion for animals. :-) Got to love those.

Finally getting back to Friday Harbor after three fantastic hours in the Salish Sea, we said our goodbyes and headed towards our evening sleeping location, the San Juan Island National Historic Park. Nestled in the picturesque Roche Harbor, the park is the location of the English Camp during the time when both the Americans and English shared the islands. I'll let you read Wikipedia yourself if you are interested, but the short version is a war between America and England was started here in 1859 because a pig was killed. Thankfully it turned out to be a bloodless (besides the pig) war and after twelve years the treaty of Washington was signed thanks to the negotiations of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany.

We walked around for a few hours, had a very relaxing sleep, and rather early the next morning we headed to get the early morning ferry to Anacortes. Next stop the Olympic Peninsula!

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