Bigg's Killer Whales

[Sarah M – 07/14/2017 – M/V Seahawk – 02:00pm]


With such spread-out sightings geographically this year, we are often “forced” to go the extra mile to show our whale watch guests orcas here in the Salish Sea. Yesterday was a perfect illustration of this new whale watching, and the distance, as well as patience, that it can sometimes take to see orcas in their natural habitat.

A Shifting Ecosystem

This year we have seen historically low salmon runs here in the inland waters. Usually we expect to see huge numbers of fish migrating back to their natal rivers and streams to spawn and then die. With such a narrow area for these fish to swim through this means that the density of fish here can resemble an all you can eat buffet for our Resident ecotype of killer whales. These unique whales specialize on fishing for Chinook salmon, the largest and the fattiest of the salmonid species in our area. Usually this means that they can be found in Haro Strait fishing up and down the west side of the island from May through September. This year we have barely had the salmon return, so we have only caught glimpses of our Southern Resident killer whales.

Orca Sightings this Summer

This does not mean that we haven’t been seeing orcas, however! We have been spending plenty of time with Bigg’s killer whales who are marine mammal eaters. Since the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) we have started to seen growth within especially our small marine mammal populations, especially harbor seals and other pinnipeds. This means that while Resident orcas and salmon have been on the decline, Bigg’s killer whale population and their prey populations have been seen more and more frequently. Now, eating smart prey means that these cunning predators cannot and travel in predictable patterns, which in turn means that everyday on the water is diverse.

A Family called the T077s

Yesterday, Captain Joe and I took the M/V Seahawk to the southern reaches of Haro Strait to encounter a family of killer whales. This year we have seen a huge diversity of individual Bigg’s killer whales, and yesterday was great example. We were able to encounter the T077 family, who are not unusual visitors to our waters, but are certainly not common. It has been very interesting to see the sheer diversity of families we have been sighting.

Transient orcas
Bigg's killer whale and her baby traveling through the Salish Sea
Sarah McCullagh