Dolphin and Whale Magazine :  January issue 2011
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Jodi Smith

Day 30   by Jodi C Smith

Video of Dyes Inlet Slide Show and Audio
Jodi C. Smith is a Cetologist who spent 13 years on San Juan Island in Washington State, studying the J, K and L orca whale pods. After seeing the over indulgence of boaters around whales in Dyes Inlet, she set out to understand the relationships between vessel traffic and orca habitat use and movement in Haro Strait. Her work helped to aid policy makers with the status listing of this population under the Endangered Species Act and supported County and State efforts to create tougher guidelines and stricter fines on boaters harassing marine mammals.

Having spent the last 3 years studying a recovering humpback population off Australia, she now resides in northern California and divides her time between State and Federal contract work and directing her non-profit orca whale sighting network, Naked Whale Research.

To report west coast orca whale sightings or to contact Jodi regarding research or volunteer efforts please call 1-855-SEE-ORCA, or visit www.nakedwhaleresearch.org
 
Photos by
Kelley Balcomb-Bartok
 
 
Video of Dyes Inlet
For 30 days straight, the whales replayed their own version of the movie, “Ground Hog Day.”
And each morning, my partner Kelley and I had the first boat out on the water and each night, the last boat to leave. Our sentiment was always the same: “Goodnight whales, hope we don’t see you here in the morning.” They were stuck, somehow, and try as we might; we held no steadfast answers to sending them on their journey. Their plight had become an unintended public exhibition.

The spectacle could not be denied: 19 Killer whales continued to stay in Dyes Inlet, the narrow passage to Chico Creek, Bremerton, and Silverdale areas. The “Dyes 19,” as they had become known, had come into the area at night, presumably following a Chum salmon run, and had not left. Killer whales are known for checking out an area, then returning later to forage. However, these whales hadn’t left, and after passing beneath two bridges to enter into the inlet; they seemed to fear crossing back under. Countless times I had watched the matriarch L21, lead her families to the first bridge, and then turn back. Often she would roll to the side and look up at the looming structure. Once while up on the four lane bridge, staring down at her, we had locked eyes. Ordinarily whales leave an area when their food source is depleted. It was now almost a week past that point. The white patches on their skin were turning an unhealthy yellow. A few animals looked like they were succumbing to the dreaded
“peanut head,” where severe dips are seen behind their blowhole; a sure sign of dehydration from illness or lack of food. We made calls to the National Marine Fisheries Service. NMFS had the power to harass whales in order to save them.

The fog had obscured our line of sight into the inlet, and we decided to drive the perimeter. At
each boat ramp, we stopped and listened for killer whale “blows.” Not until the entrance to the inlet did we hear them. The characteristic rifle shot of their exhaling breath was tight and forceful. The fog loosened and we started to see all 19 animals tightly bunched. Kelley and I had the same thought -“They’re going for it!” We raced to the Bremerton Yacht club where our vessel was docked. We spotted the orcas within the narrows, approaching the first bridge. It was perfect; a dark and stormy morning obstructing both the audio and visual psychological barrier that the bridge had become for the animals. The whales were queuing, with L21 leading the pack, and the adult 21-year-old male, L57, taking up the rear. The animals paused 300 yards from the bridge. L21 leaned onto her side and slapped her pectoral fin on the water. In response, L57 breached back in the opposite direction toward the inlet. It was clear that the group was split. Slowly they started breaking up and began to move back toward the inlet. “No, don’t give up!” I thought. In frustration and an attempt at communicating, I slapped my hand on the water, mimicking L21. The animals gave pause. Kelley picked up his large plastic waterproof camera
case and slammed it down on the water. A few whales spyhopped and looked our way. We had
gotten their attention, but that was all. Next we charged the boat ahead of the whales and started racing it back and forth across the narrows. We stopped as the whales continued moving toward us. The sub adult male L62 tail-slapped showing his annoyance with us as he passed beneath our boat

The whales turned to make another effort at the bridge. We calmly paralleled them. Once again they tightened up in the same formation, and stalled. As they turned back toward the inlet, we
began racing ahead of them. The whales showed no fear of us, and ran silently beneath us as if to let us get it out of our system. We spotted a NMFS boat. Its crew Brad and Marilyn came over and we started discussing options. As they left to take photographs, we noticed the whales had again turned. This time we flanked left and the NMFS boat flanked right. The orcas were closely bunched, with dissenters L57 and L62 now up front with the leaders. As the sun peaked through the rain, the whales moved closer to the bridge on an ebbing tide. In barely 25 feet of water, L21 did a high arching dive and breached on the outer side of the bridge. Other whales followed, each making high arching dives and breaching on the opposite side of the bridge as if to get as far away from it as possible and let the others know that it was okay. We motored through, blood pumping, watching the animals swim full speed to the second bridge.

And then I saw her. Off our bow, L7, another matriarch, was floating at the surface, looking
back past the bridge toward the inlet. I followed her gaze and turned to see that a female and calf had not passed underneath with the rest of the pod. My heart sank. What would they do? Would the others come back? Then the explosion: subadult male L62 breached on our side of the bridge. All four whales dove. It was the longest two minutes of my life. Suddenly we spotted L7, L62 and who later we learned was his mother and baby sister, up with the rest of the animals. We trailed them to Sinclair Inlet. The animals passed easily beneath this taller second bridge, and immediately scattered. They were diving, and lunging, and chasing after fish, ravenous from not eating.

The rain had stopped and the sun came out as Kelley and I steered the boat to do a head count.
One by one, individuals passed by us to their exit. I saw a single tall dorsal fin with a distinctive bend at the tip, lower and approach our stern. In a scene from “Jaws”, L57 kept his fin raised just above the water’s surface and swam to us. In our open vessel, I stood and watched as this 30 foot long animal gently swam the entire length of our boat, looking up at us the whole time. He rose up off our bow, took a breath, and then dove. “Well”, I said, “I guess that was our thanks.” Porpoising six and seven whales abreast, they headed toward Rich Passage and Puget Sound, unconstrained.