This year, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) celebrates 45 years of ORCA SURVEY: documenting and studying the Southern Resident orca population. In this Orca Month 2021 Blog, long-time CWR staff member and orca photo identification specialist, Dave Ellifrit, takes us back to June 1995—and on a memorable encounter with J pod and the L12s.
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L10 in June 1995.
A mini-Superpod with J pod and the L12s in June of 1995
By Dave Ellifrit, CWR Senior Staff and Photo Identification Specialist (story and photographs)
This is an encounter that has always stayed on my ever changing “top five encounters” list and this is the way I remember it without actually looking up any of the details.
After an early morning pass by the Center from members of the L12 sub pod, fellow staff person Jooke Robbins and I took the Earthwatch team out on the 37ft motor trimaran “High Spirits” to catch up. “High Spirits” was not exactly a fast boat—especially if we were fighting the tide—and we did not catch up until the whales were at Turn Point. The whales had spread out and were heading up Boundary Pass toward East Point [Saturna Island, British Columbia] like they usually did in those days. We tried to get to as many whales as possible but, again, “High Spirits” was kinda slow so we spent a lot of time with L10 and L44 as they foraged by themselves. L44 was a whale that Jooke and I had named “Sqonk” because he had such a “sqonky” dorsal fin and the name stuck with Ken’s [Ken Balcomb] staff for the rest of L44’s life. We only seemed to have the L28 and L32 matrilines present as I don’t remember the L11s being there. L12 was present since she had been traveling with L38 and L85 in 1995 after a little shake up in the L12s in 1994.
L10 (top photograph) and L38.
In 1994, L28 had died sometime in the few days it took to travel down from Johnstone Strait to the central Salish Sea. This orphaned the 3-year-old L85 and he spent the rest of the summer traveling with his older brother L38. L12 lost her main traveling companion in 1994 when L11’s oldest son L42 wasted away and died late in the season. From 1995 through 1998, L85 traveled with either L38 or L12. After L38’s death sometime before the 1999 field season, L12 was L85’s main traveling companion for another fourteen years until her death. So the June 1995 line up for the L12s present included L10, L12, L22, L32, L38, L44, L63 (who would die later in the summer), L79, L85, L87, and L89. With just 11 whales spread out all over Boundary Pass on an overcast morning with periodic light rain, the first part of the encounter wasn’t very flashy but we did get some nice looks at a couple/few individuals. We were content since we had the whales all to ourselves.
As the morning progressed, we heard that K pod was back on the west side of San Juan Island and other L pod whales were off Victoria. This was great because it meant there were closer whales for everyone else to go to and we ended up by ourselves with the whales for the rest of the day. The L12s made their way slowly up Boundary Pass and were north of Narvaez Bay [Saturna Island] when we decided to pull ahead and drop the hydrophone at East Point. We hoped the whales would be talking as they passed us on their way north into the Strait of Georgia. East Point was where we always left the whales because, in “High Spirits”, it was then a three-and-a-half-hour boat ride home.
The L12s began grouping up and started milling a few hundred yards south of us while we sat there with our engine off. We were busy watching what the L12s were doing when we all jumped after hearing a sudden loud blow right behind us. We spun around to see J1’s dorsal fin disappearing as he headed south—J pod had arrived from the north! The rest of J pod filed around and under us on their way to greet the L12s.
J1 (top photograph), J pod meeting the L12s (middle),
and J18 and J6 pass close by High Spirits.
J pod mixed with the L12s and there was a lot more milling and spyhops before all the whales filed back toward, around, and under us again. Instead of heading north past East Point toward Pt. Roberts, the whales began socializing in what looked very much like superpod behavior. There were small groups of whales spread around the East Point area all rolling around and interacting with one another. A “seasnake” from J6 was seen as he vigorously followed another whale. There were a lot of good vocals going on so we decided to record some of it. Unfortunately, all we had to record with was a mini-tape recorder that Jooke had to hold next to the hydrophone speaker while the rest of us tried to be really quiet. The team did a stellar job, though, of keeping their enthusiasm under wraps while all the action went on around them.
J22 spyhops next to J11 and High Spirits (top photograph),
L10 and L44 at East Point (middle), and L79 and J2.
Our friend and returning Earthwatcher at the time, Stefan Jacobs, was aboard and got some video of the day that captures the whales filing back past us and some superpod action with us trying to be all quiet. I have a bit of this on VHS tape but it really needs to get transferred to something more…permanent. We were all glad when we had a nice recording and we could all enjoy the whales in a normal voice again. The sun began peeking out as the day wore on and the whales were still socializing when we finally had to start thinking about the three-and-a- half-hour boat ride home. Reluctantly, we left the whales to themselves and began the long putt home-but it was a gorgeous boat ride and we were all glowing from a memorable encounter.
L10 and L12 (top photograph); L89, L22, J5, and J28 (middle);
and J pod and the L12s socializing.