We received another misty Monday yesterday. Clouds floated low in the sky, slowly tearing away from the treetops on the islands. We headed north, and since we’re still in the shoulder season before the main schools of salmon start running through these waters we were looking mostly for Transient Orcas. Of the two ecotypes of orcas that live here one, the Residents, arrive in the summer to eat the salmon runs that occur annually. They are fish eaters and around 90% of their diet ends up being Salmon. The other ecotype, the Transients, feast on marine mammals, and since there are marine mammal species living around the islands year round their groups pop in and out year round.
Heading north we passed Shaw Island then Yellow and O’Neal as we approached the north end of San Juan Island and Spieden Channel. In the distance, through the mist, we started to see other puffs of mist! “Spsshh, Spshh” a group of Orcas almost floated in the distance. Their dark dorsal fins cut through the intermingling calm waters and foggy sky. We approached this group slowly as they headed south and we north. It was multiple families of Transients traveling together. It was the T65A’s and the T123’s. Orcas travel in matrilineal family groups and researchers give each individual whale an ID code. They use T’s for Transients and other letters for other ecotypes, and each family is named after the matriarch (the oldest female in the group usual the mother to most of the other orcas in the group). T65A has four children and most of them are still pretty young and super adorable! T123 has two children, and one of them, T123A is an adult male so he’s a little easier to spot with his 6-foot tall dorsal fin.
They were traveling and hunting just east of San Juan Island, and it was amazing to see how both families interacted and socialized, but all very quietly because they were hunting very intelligent marine mammals that can hear very well. As we looked at this group, we started to see other puffs of mist on the other side of the channel. More Transient Orcas!!! It was another multifamily group skimming by close to Jones Island, so obviously we went over to check them out!
It was the T99’s and the T36’s along with two lone males T93 and T97. They were also travelling and hunting, then both groups turned! They headed straight for each other and the group we were closest to got in front of the other as the other one trailed behind at about 100 yards. This is when the fun began, I Had never seen this many Transients in one place (around 20) and definitely and never seen them ‘meet up’ before. They soon started socializing, slapping their tails and pectoral fins. The young ones played with each other while the older ones had more romantic endeavors on their minds. We hung around for awhile but them scooted a little bit further off to check out some different wildlife among the Cactus Islands and Spieden Island. We saw a few Bald Eagles majestically watching from tall trees. A few Harbor Seals (the main food source for Transient Orcas in the area) hauled out on rocks and kelp looking back at us with their dog-like faces, and then we watched a Peregrine Falcon perched atop a cliff take off a soar back to its nest – so cool!
After circumnavigating Spieden Island we headed back to those two groups of orcas except now they were one! And boy were they excited. Tail slapping, pectoral slapping, the baby orcas were breaching and spyhopping. We arrived at a place where we could turn everything on the boat off, and Captain Mike dropped the hydrophone in the water. We could hear them! I’ve never heard Transient Orcas before because usually they’re so quite, but these families were chatting away. It was so cool to see them playing and interacting, and having fun while listening to them communicate in their own unique dialect all the while. So….Cool.
Whale folks, until next time, I’m out.
M/V Sea Lion