Recently in marine life Category

good thinkin'

I've never photographed a humpback whale, what with them being rare in these waters. A couple have been hanging around some 40 miles from my house, so I resolved to photograph them this weekend. Until the moment came to actually leave.

"It's too hot....and it's Seafair weekend so I'll be overwhelmed with stupid boaters...and I'll get boarded by the Coast my data is cold so there won't even be any whales...whine whine whine..." and so forth.
This happened exactly where I would have been exactly when

I would have been there. What was I doing? Watching TV.

Dirt was mowing my lawn for hire and I was inside working when I spotted something unusual in Puget Sound. Seals and sea lions are common as raccoons, but this was...huge. Orcas have been around lately, but them I recognize on sight. Whatever it was, it was a showstopper. Here it is from inside my house, some 40'H and 90'V away.


"DIRT!" I yelled out the window, my finger flailing dramatically toward the ledge. "THERE'S A LARGE ANIMAL!"

Turns out this isn't what you say to your buddy if you want him to run toward what you're pointing at. He bolted into the house.

For the record, it was a gray whale, unprecedented in my little bay. In the first photo, he's in about 10 feet of water.


Me, on phone, from my deck: "Hey! There's a 25' gray whale right in front of my house!"

Area scientist: "That's one we've been tracking. It's dying. We're just waiting for it wash up on shore."

wild kingdom

I was working at my desk when I saw movement in my back yard. This isn't unusual. Ever since Ed died, the cats and raccoons have gotten downright obnoxious. This, though, was neither. It was an otter. It was my first otter in five years of living on Puget Sound. He scooted across my yard and ducked under the gate to my beach stairs. This is where it gets pretty incredible. There are 90-odd stairs. That's one determined otter.

The red line, by the way, is from the story of Ed's leap. One of my favorites.


Whalin' buddy Minette and I have a long-standing rivalry. Her account of the rivalry would be something like "I get the good photos." I would not disagree with that, but I would edit. Specifically, I would add "...because John selflessly mans the helm and points me at the whales."

Because of this, I gave Minette some practice helm time. The idea was that she, too, could operate the boat while someone else got the shot. This weekend, Minette took the helm for the first time during an actual whale situation.

"All stop!" I directed from the slick aft deck. And Minette jammed the throttle to Full, sending me and my camera tumbling hard to the floor.

"Sorry!" she giggled.

I missed the shot. And I almost dropped $3000 worth of camera into Puget Sound.

Later, she joined me aft. I was poised with my camera on the port side, stalking where I thought a whale would rise next to the boat. Minette wriggled her body on to the boat's port side, trying to get a few inches closer. When the whale rose, I had the shot and she didn't. So naturally, she wriggled back off the side and obstructed my lens with her thigh. Hmm.

For the rest of the trip, we traded off. I stalked the whales from the helm, running parallel to their course, getting Minette close for her shot. Click click click. When it was her turn at the helm, Minette cheerfully steered away from the whales. Fuck click fuck. "I feel bad," she said. Yeah, well, me too.

My shot:

grays Mar08 025.JPG

Her shot:

minette gray.jpg

Mind you, our lenses are about the same length.

One time, despite Minette's best efforts to steer away from them, a whale rose next to the boat. Good shot. Not great, but good. (thumbnail, make sure to enlarge)


Yesterday I was tasked with proving that two whales still breathed. The first was old favorite J1, and the second was J-pod's newborn calf. Infant mortality with orcas is very high, so we all cringe every time one isn't seen for a while.

It was a great day. Old J1 surfaced right next to me, dousing my boat's windows and making me wonder who on earth has a hard time finding this whale, what with his enormous dorsal fin and pronounced lack of shyness.


I found the baby, too, happily wedged between its mother, brother, and sister. Once it became clear that I was paparazzi stalking their sibling, the brother and sister went batshit, breaching and tail slapping and generally telling me to piss off. As soon as I stopped my engines, they resumed passive guard duty. Of course, passive guard duty isn't very photogenic, so I had to resist the temptation to gun the engines.

Baby pictures are the holy grail among my type. I'd show you Minette's shot, but somehow she didn't hear about these whales until it was too late.

Js Nov07 110_390.jpg

Spyhop of protective big sister, with Cascade mountains in background


Photographically, one of my favorite sights: orcas swimmin' straight at me at dusk


seal island

seals with sarah 070b.jpg

seals 083b.jpg

agony of defeat

Rummaging through long-buried archives, I recently unearthed a photo I'd never noticed before. This one really made me wish I'd bought my camera sooner. Or that Minette had gotten it instead.

orcas2 001.jpg

I also found my long forgotten version of Minette's now-kinda-famous double-breach photo. Here's hers:

And here, tragicomically, is mine. (Pause to imagine my old digital camera whirring and sputtering while the whales were in flight. "WHHHHRRRRR-chick-WHHHRRRRRR-click-chick-chick-WHHHRRRRRRRR- KACHICK!")

orcas2 061.jpg

Ever know, in an instant, when something is gonna cost you a fortune?

weekend whining

I detest "what I did yesterday" posts, but I figure if I whine, it'll still fit the theme of this page. So.

I spent Saturday helping my boss, Flo, shop for hot tubs, which was surprisingly like work.

John, why a? WHAT?
Find out b. FUCK. WHAT?
If z, I'm going to x your y-ing w.

Saturday night I went to a local, small-town St. Patrick's Day party, where the conversations went like exactly this:

"I restore classic cars."

"I patina metals for the Guggenheim."

"I build custom surfboards."

"I write technical documentation for software products you've never heard of."
Just call me The Cooler.

Sunday morning, Minette and I headed out on the 24-hour-cold trail of orcas and gray whales. Someone else spotted the orcas many miles south of us, but the grays were there, in all their spectacular unspectacularity. I got a few not-so-noteworthy shots of their backs, so I'll post "cute" instead. We caught this massive California sea lion in the act of leaping on to a buoy. This was his second, successful attempt.

sea lion leap.jpg

Perhaps proud, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit in Minette, he got his nose so high in the air it was practically up his own ass.

sea lion bend.jpg

I was like a stalking paparazzo. "Hey seal! Seal! Look this way!"


ruffles and me

Today I got my absolute favoritist type of phone call. No, it wasn't Minette inviting me to her dinner party tonight. It was a tip that orcas were swarming Metamuville. I dutifully called my whalin' partner. It was then that I learned I rate no higher than 17th in Minette's world. "Sorry," she said. "I can't. I'm hosting a party for 16 tonight."

So I set out by myself and got the only ID photos of the day. Hello, J-Pod. Hello, J1, better known as "Ruffles," a 55 year old behemoth who surfaced right next to my boat and soaked me with his exhalation.

j1 ruffles

orca tail slap.jpg

If you ever wonder why I live with pretentious, soulless, joyless fucks whom I absolutely despise, here's the answer in a nutshell.



minette, cont.

Hmm. That headline is only one letter off.

Says a feelin' satisfied Minette about my previous post: "Nice photo!"

I've previously written about how people gave me credit for Minette's once-in-a-lifetime double breach photo. I feel sorry for her no longer.

On the front page of today's paper, there it is, complete with a richly deserved photo credit. Minette knew this was coming and politely asked me how I felt about it. I impolitely replied that the guy who provided the boat, paid for the fuel, tracked the whales 180 miles, and pointed her at them was just fine with it.

Congratulations, Minette! You got the shot. I didn't. I'm both consumed with envy and proud. You'd think those mutually exclusive feelings, but you'd be wrong.

pi 020.jpg

You can read the article here.

come, let us adore them

I hereby nickname these guys the "Jesus Seals."

jesus seals harbor seal


When Minette and I spend our time with gray whales discussing either

  1. how boring they are today, or
  2. whether that awful smell is a) decay or b) whale flatulence
it's a feh day. Still, there are worse views.

smelly grays 03May06 008.jpg


I just noticed that the "rainbow" series includes my best-ever shot of the whale's schnoz. I'm sure you have goosebumps.

gray whale blowhole

you should have seen the one that got away

gray whale shallow waterMinette and I headed to Langley today in search of gray whales. We anchored a few feet off shore so that we could check email, and then I said something clever like "Let's go find us some whales." I looked up and saw some mist hanging over the water beside the boat. Ordinarily, I'd think it was a blow, but it was 10 feet from folks' back yards. 25 foot whales don't swim in 12 feet of they? But then again, what was that mist? I strove to articulate the varied nuances of the situation.

"Um. Minette. What the fuck is that?"

And then the whale appeared, swimming right where we happened to anchor, between us and the homes from whom we were stealing broadband. In impossibly shallow water.

gray whale pectoral fin

I snapped 30 blurry pictures plus the ones above. Minette got some even better shots of its pectoral fin as it rubbed in the shallows; I'm sure it's being posted as we speak. It was a great day, filled with as many dives and spy-hops as we could bear. Again, Minette's spy-hop pics are better than mine, but I'll share this one since it looks sort of like my fakes from last year.

grays 18mar06 073.jpg

The best spy-hop was a complete surprise. We had lost our whale for a good 15 minutes, which in this pursuit is an eternity that compels one to do defeatist things like dropping anchor and declaring "Lunch!" I was sniffing my sandwich to ascertain whether it was the one with mayo or mustard when this enormous black monolith of a head elevated out of the water outside my window, towering over my boat. There's no picture, of course, but it was pure magic. Having a creature of that scale take an interest in you is like no other feeling. Of course, the magic dissipates when he swims toward you and you remember the anchor line under your boat, but we won't speak of those moments of sheer terror.

My photographic claim to fame is a remarkable sequence of photos that I just can't bear to shrink down to 390 pixels. Here's one, but if you have broadband, definitely check out the whole sequence.

gray whale spout flukes dive rainbow

j pod returneth

For the first time since fall, J-pod and I were in the same place at the same time. Out by myself, I got brutalized by some four foot waves and took about 300 one-handed shots of sky, water, the ceiling of my cabin, and my tennis shoes. And oh yeah, I got about a dozen shots of orcas. With me positioned in 40 yards offshore near their favorite path, they passed between me and land. That was a surprise.

orca lighthouse

orca lighthouse tailslap

orcas lighthouse

A bigger surprise occurred a few minutes after this pass, when I was following the whales as three of them breached in spectacular synchronization. The fourth spy-hopped right in my path as I moved forward, not 20 feet from my oncoming bow. I got no photo, so this is a fake, but it's precisely what I saw. Pretty heart (and engine) stopping.



Despite the fact that I took care to give Minette credit for her double breach photo, I ended up getting some. To recap, here's her photo:

double orca breach

And here's mine:


To her credit, despite my being falsely associated with her work, Minette doesn't climb to rooftops and shout that I suck. You can rest assured that were our roles reversed, I would not extend her the same courtesy. My nose would bleed from altitude, my throat from all the shouting.

Still, this didn't stop me from calling her 17 times when Ken, a scientist legend in whalin' circles and a hero to us both, stopped by for a visit last night. He was admiring my Whaling Wall, which is composed primarily of pictures that Minette took on our excursions. As always, I took care to give her credit. "You used a Rebel XT, right?" he replied. "Can I see your lens?"


L57 and me

When I'm out whalin' in my boat, I usually have plenty of company. There will be the odd research vessel, but most of the other craft are drunken recreational boaters who see a whale and aim right for it, full throttle. I mean right on top of it. The equation is as simple as it is obvious. Props + whale flesh = mortal wound. Here's the latest asshat, who repeatedly mowed down L pod. The ship's name is the Vita Bella. If you're the captain, drop me a line. I have something for you.

residents 057_sm.jpg

With all the boating activity around orcas, it's seldom a relaxing moment. Infuriating, yes, but never serene. This last time, as the residents moved off and led the drunken reprobates a mile or more away, I floated alone near Useless Bay and decided to make lunch before I headed back. With tea and soup on, I floated on the now-quiet and placid waters and perused my photos from that day. After maybe ten minutes, I heard a familiar gunshot crack: a large male, L57, surfaced right next to me. Surprised, I watched as he fed all around and under my little boat for a half an hour. I had him all to myself, and vice-versa. I lowered my hydrophone into the water. Normally, it's useless because of all the boat noise, but this time my stereo came alive with the sounds of L57 talking to his podmates. (It always astounds me that a 10,000 pound whale can sense and avoid the eighth-inch thick black hydrophone cable, but it's never been so much as brushed.) And so we fed together, he on salmon and me on Progresso chicken noodle. The moment was divine. Funny how orcas don't flee when you don't chase. With whales as with people, I guess.


top o'the morning

The call came around 9am. I heard the sweetest six words in the English language: "There are orcas near your house." Within minutes, I was watching a triple breach (really, more of a 2.5) with one eye, keeping the other eye on the Ohio State game, and cookin' gumbo. Some days, I don't mind life so much.

Off to the boat I went. I can record the Ohio State game. Just so long as some asshat doesn't tell me the results, I'll be fine.

Thanks heaps, Frank Frank.

residents 245_sm.jpg

residents 175_sm.jpg

residents 238_sm.jpg



minke, orcas, and porpoises, oh my

In what was surely my last long-distance excursion of the year, Minette and I boated the 100 mile round-trip to San Juan Island. She saw her first harbor porpoises immediately, so we got that merit badge out of the way. Between Smith and Whidbey Islands, she spotted our first Minke whale (~25'), which proved maddeningly hard to photograph—it dove for four minutes at a time in 150' deep water, and, well, I certainly didn't spot a pattern. We headed up to Lopez to look for the solitary gray whale there but didn't find it, and the resident orcas weren't where we'd hoped they'd be west of SJI, so we headed due south for Hein Bank. Voila. A pod of residents. All in all, a fabulously successful day.

No terribly exciting whale photos, but the harbor seals accommodated me nicely.



Minke dorsal fin

su-per pod!

Saturday started delightfully, became downright elegant, and then finished as stupidly as possible: I watched whales in the sun, sipped wines in the sun, and then slept drunkenly in my car. I don't know if it was my knees' or head's throbbing that woke me up first.

So I shot out to the far side of San Juan Island to see J, K, and L pods all mingling and, hopefully, to see the new baby. Success!


As a bonus, we saw a gray whale on our way back. Minette, who had skewered me all day about the historical superiority of her photos over mine, was listening to her film wind when I snapped this. Yep. They really should put some sort of frame counter on cameras so one doesn't get taken by surprise like that.


Mount Baker was absolutely glorious.


Originally published February 6, 2005

I cannot remember a better day than today.

Today began yesterday, naturally. I packed up Ed the dog and boated south to Dabob Bay, at 30 miles away the nearest location where the ever-elusive transient orcas have been recently sighted. It is also occasionally a restricted military area, as the nice man with the deck-mounted, high caliber machine gun patiently explained to me. After a half hour of weighing my options, I decided to go all the way to Hoodsport, the southernmost location the whales have been spotted, and work my way back north the next day. I found a slip at the absurdly nice Alderbrook Resort in Union, where I slept on the boat Saturday night (room: $300; moorage: 11 bucks). A quick check of my email revealed that the orcas were indeed in Dabob Bay when I was talking to the machine gun. Shit. So I grabbed some breakfast, fell in love with a waitress named Emmy, and hit the water as soon as the fog lifted at 10am. I was watching whales by 10:15. I lowered the hydrophone into the water, and soon the stereo was alive with their cries. They put on quite a show—hunting, playing, spy-hopping, diving. They stayed about 1000 yards away.

Until two of them noticed me.

It happened while I was on the phone with an orca researcher, reporting my sighting. One breeched a mere fifty yards away, coming generally toward me. Then he breeched again, only 20 yards off. Then he and his buddy plowed through the water straight at my port side, not even pretending to want to avoid a collision. You've seen this on nature programs, sure. But from the comfort of your couch, you have no idea how fragile you'll feel. Yeah, you know ahead of time that these animals are 27 feet long and weigh six tons each, and yeah, you've seen them at Sea World or maybe from a large vessel, but when you and your tasty mammalian companion are on a 22 foot, 1800 pound boat being bull-rushed by 24,000 pounds of predator...well, it's an adrenaline rush like none I've ever known. If I'd had time to think about it, I would have lost all bladder control, too.

The whales did not hit me, of course. I braced for it, involuntarily getting low to the floor, but there wasn't so much as a dorsal fin scrape. They even somehow avoided the thin 45-foot hydrophone cable. I don't know how they missed my port side. I never saw them flinch; they disappeared only because eventually, the boat obstructed my view of the water. When close, one of them looked at me, or maybe at Ed. He had the pulpous remains of a fresh kill clenched in his jaws. That lucky seal passed within a yard of my feet as the whales swam under me. A second later, my heart was palpably pounding and the whales were to starboard, swimming away, probably laughing amongst themselves.

My camera, sadly, has a 30-second limitation on the length of its video clips. It's never been more aggravating than today, and you'll see why: I missed filming my close encounter. I did, however, get footage of a breach and of the beginning of the charge. And of my idiot dog's schnozz.

duerko del asno

Originally published May 2, 2005

Minette smelled something rotten with the below fake, but god bless'er, Dorkass bit, even after I said it was taken at "Point Adobe."

But now that I've done the hard work, it's time for the CheckRaise World Tour.








may day

Originally published May 1, 2005

Yes, it's fake. I saw bupkis.

whale photos

Originally published May 17, 2005<

The gray whale from two weeks ago.


Hood Canal transient orcas from last week





The same swim-under I shot, just clearer. You're looking at the nose of an upside down orca as it's coming toward the camera, right before it swam under our feet.

the checkraise crew:

john, your captain
minette, your naturalist
dorkass, your ballast

Originally published April 30, 2005

Yesterday was a fun day of whalin', a day that included two beachings (one accidental), bone-jarring four foot waves, the repainting of both sides of my boat, and a boarding by two young men with two big guns. Three, if you count the enormous machine gun mounted on the bow of their Coast Guard boat. I passed my inspection, but that didn't stop a gleeful Dorkass from trying to make a John-skewering anecdote out of it.

"So did he do something wrong?!? " she asked in the same hopeful tone that a child asks "May I have some dessert?" She eagerly had her camera out, hoping to capture for posterity my arrest or, better still, my pistol-whipping. Alas.

Perhaps it was the disappointment, perhaps it was the unremitting waves, but soon her breakfast was adorning the starboard side of my boat. Unfortunately, the waves were coming at us from the same side; with the boat tilted, we were corkscrewing into them. "Tell her to puke off the other side," I snapped, fraught with concern for her comfort.

Oh yeah. And there were whales.

Our best guess is that we observed 1-2 adult and 1 juvenile gray whales as they circled and fed in 50' deep water. We saw several deep dives (which I presume is when their flukes appeared), countless blows, and a lotta barnacles. I got a good look at one's blowhole, and Minette saw a full body roll. The highlight for all was when we lost track of the whales and then an adult surfaced and slowly passed the boat, not 50 feet away. Just exhilarating.

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