Today the Sea Hawk left the dock with great news! Captain Jim had reports of both a Humpback whale and some transient killer whales in the San Juan Island region. Our passengers were excited to see some wildlife so we headed Southeast into Haro Strait where we got some fantastic looks at "Big Mama," a whale that has been spending time in the Salish Sea over the past few weeks. When Humpbacks initiate a deep dive (known as a "sounding") they typically raise their tail, or flukes, into the air and show off the pattern underneath. This pattern is unique for each Humpback, and researchers take detailed photographs of these patterns to identify individuals. Big Mama has two white ovals in the upper corners of her flukes, and gave us a great show!
After watching her for a while we got Orca fever, and decided to make the long chug over to Lopez Sound to catch up with a group of Transient Orcas. Transients, unlike the Resident orcas that exclusively eat fish, are active hunters of marine mammals. This fact is evident in their behavior and characteristics. They tend to travel in small, tightly packed pods (2 to 10 individuals) in order to maintain stealth while hunting. The dorsal fins tend to be more triangular and pointed in males than in their Resident counterparts, and they wear lots of battlescars from their encounters with seals' and sea lions' claws and teeth.
When we got on scene with this pod of Transients, they were anything but stealthy! We had perfect timing and were able to witness a group of 11 or 12 orcas, including the T124 and T125 matrilines, actively hunting harbor seals. A notable member of this pod was T127, a 31-year-old male with a 6' dorsal fin that is deeply gashed at its peak and had a conspicuous notch about mid way down. ***Slightly graphic description to follow*** One moment we would see a 300lb seal and then it would be dwarfed by a 30ft Orca as it was stunned by a well placed tail slap. The unfortunate harbor seal then found itself in the jaws of an offspring of T124 and spun around before being shared amongst the pod members. The Orcas must have enjoyed the experience, because it was followed with rolls, tails in the air and even a breach!
While graphic, this act of nature was an incredible demonstration of the predatory expertise of the Killer Whale. As quickly as the attack began, it was over and this rather large pod resumed milling around. We took this as our cue to begin our journey back to Roche Harbor, during which we saw several bald eagles and a fair number of harbor porpoise.
Needless to say this was an unforgettable experience, and we all had a Whale of a time!
Naturalist Mike J
M/V Sea Hawk
San Juan Outfitters