Rain…rain…rain…wait… wind! Ugh. Rain…wind…rain…where is the sun? That was what happened for most of February, and into the beginning of March. Weather was a challenge (as are most winters in Washington) for field work, and we were desperate for some sunshine so we could get back into the field. The middle of March brought some relief in the form of sunny (sometimes even a little warm!) days, so we were happy to finally get out into the field and get some pictures of harbor porpoises and harbor seals for our photo-ID database, and hopefully some matches to previous sightings. Now, every day in the field is a good day (even the cold ones) because, well, we are in the field! But some days are just exceptional, and Friday March 16 was one of those EPIC days in the field.
It started off normal enough: we got to our spot, set down our pillows (sitting on rocks for 2 hours at a time, multiple times per week, isn’t super comfortable), got out our equipment and data sheets and started looking. A good field day always must have porpoises and seals, of course, as that is the main reason we are out there! So true to form we had a few sightings of both species. We saw a few harbor seals clumped together, which is always interesting because usually we see them alone. Two different groups of harbor porpoises came through as well. So we were already happy with that, but the day wasn’t done.
There is a group of river otters that live somewhere around Washington Park, and we see them in the water sometimes. In the past we have seen them a couple times per year but in the last month or two alone we have already seen them several times. Today was one of those days, and we were even able to catch one swimming for a bit on video. So the day was getting better…but wait!
We love watching the variety of birds that frequent the area, but are especially excited when we see bald eagles (no matter how many times we get to see them) and Research Assistant Kat’s favorite bird, the kingfisher. Well, we got to add both of them to the list today, with both (at different times) perched on a nearby tree just up the trail from us. The kingfisher even had his crest up as if to say ‘please, take my picture’! So by now we were pretty stoked. But wait for the cherry on top…
It was getting close to the end of our 2 hours and Kat noticed something coming into the Pass: “I think it’s a whale…”. I looked over to see a something slice through the water towards us, and for a minute I wasn’t sure…then it surfaced again. We both yelled “it’s an orca!!!!!” Now we are marine mammal researchers, which means we are professional, but also get super excited about amazing things like this! That’s why we are in this job, seeing these animals still makes us excited like little kids. It was a group of 4-5 orcas and included a young calf. They were likely transient orcas (there were no harbor seals or harbor porpoises in the Pass at the time), and we are sharing the photos with other groups, like Orca Network and Center for Whale Research, so they can add the sighting to their database and possibly identify the whales that were there. They came about ¼ way into the Pass, swam towards the kelp bed/shelf of the Pass just off Juniper Point and stayed for a couple minutes before meandering back out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I was so excited I forgot to check the ISO setting on my camera (I keep it on manual to adjust for lighting, etc. for each sighting) so my pictures didn’t turn out super great, but I was lucky enough to capture some video (yay for standard video settings). It was an amazing sight, and we were lucky to have been there to watch it and capture it on film.
So we went home, practically buzzing, bursting with excitement to share with our friends and family and with our followers on social media. We were lucky to get video of the river otter, seals and orcas in addition to pictures of the porpoises and birds. Kat compiled a short video of this EPIC field day that you can see here on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYd5HfQLh9M&t=23s.
No matter how many times you get to see marine mammals, they are amazing and inspire awe. The natural world around us is beautiful; we are lucky to be able to enjoy it and we have the privilege to help conserve and protect it. We feel these things every day in the field, but on some days, like this one, these feelings are magnified and we really remember what a fantastic place this is that we call home.
Dr. Cindy Elliser