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Thursday, August 7, 2008

It's easier to watch transients from a boat

This morning on the Western Prince we departed from Canoe Island (with the French Camp aboard for a charter) without an orca report - but as we headed south down San Juan Channel, we got a report of whales inbound from Trial Island. We headed out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca without finding out which whales were there, since we were excited enough to get an orca report at all. We assumed it was some group of residents, since they've been split up into 4 or more groups in the last week or so. As we approached though we heard over the radio that they had "just made a kill" - something that definitely refers to the marine mammal feeding transients! It turns out we were looking at a group of what us whale-watchers affectionately call "Ts".

As the whales came into sight they were breaching and tail-slapping, unusual behaviors for the otherwise low-profile transients and something they usually only do after completing a kill when stealth is no longer necessary. The one big male in the group, later identified as T20, repeatedly raised his large, curved flukes in the air and slapped them down on the water.

T20 travels with female T21, who was also seen in the group. There seemed to be about 4-5 other whales, and other whale-watchers had told us the T124s were there. The T124s refers to a large family that currently travels in four separate groups. Based on the presence of a very small juvenile, I'm assuming that we had the four T124As, and the little calf was T124A3, who was born in 2006. Did you follow that? (I think they need to come up with a better method for naming transients, although that would probably just add to the confusion at this point.)

Resident and transient orcas are the same species, and to the casual observer look entirely the same. After looking at residents day after day for many summers in a row, however, I'm amazed at how different they really are. Transients sound different when they breathe at the surface (shorter, quieter breaths, probably part of their stealthy instincts). They also have distinctly pointed dorsal fins. Look at this comparison between a sharply pointed transient fin on the left and a rounded resident fin on the right:

The transient eyepatches also struck me as being larger than those on the residents. Juvenile T124A2 (looked to be a few years older than 2006 born calf T124A3) in particular has an amazing eyepatch. Not only is it especially large, but its oddly shaped and has a black mark in it:


Cindy said...

what a delightful blog! followed your link on NPN and sure glad I did. I have only been on one whale watch when I lived in San Diego and have always longed to visit the gray whales birthing grounds near Mexico.. I've read about how they actually present their young and people touch them. That would be the ultimate!
will add a link to my own blog to refind you.. so many interesting stories and pictures :)

Monika Wieland said...

Cindy, Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and for your kind comments. The gray whale lagoons in Mexico are definitely on my "to visit" list as well. I'm glad you enjoyed both my photos and stories and hope you continue to stop back. I'll add a link to your blog in return.