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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My First Orcas of 2009: Transients in Haro Strait!

Yesterday was a beautiful spring day - sunny, flat calm waters, 60 degrees. What could make it even better? A whale report of course! I heard from Jim Maya in the morning that there was a report of transients heading east from Victoria, right into our neighborhood. Luckily he was heading out in the afternoon and had space on board, so I was excited to have the chance to go out with him, thinking I might see my first orcas of 2009. Little did I know what an amazing transient orca encounter lay ahead of us!!

There were three different groups of transients in the area totaling about 14 animals. Transients are the marine mammal feeding orcas that are in smaller groups, roam less predictably, and have been seen more and more in the area in recent years due to the booming pinniped (seal and sea lion) population. They don't interact or interbreed at all with J-, K-, and L-Pods, the fish-eating residents we see most often in the summer.

The first group of transients we got a good look at was a group of three whales including two females and a very young calf:

Soon after we arrived on scene they started circling, which is typical hunting behavior. Jim had seen some porpoises in the vicinity, and sure enough I soon spotted a little harbor porpoise surfacing in front of the whales, being chased around in circles. Both the females and the calf were involved in the chase. The calf was so small that at times it was hard to tell the calf from the porpoise they were chasing! On the left is the calf (maybe 6-7 feet long) surfacing in front of its mother. On the right is the porpoise (maybe 4-5 feet long) surfacing in front of one of the female Ts:

Were we perhaps seeing this little calf being trained in the hunt? It sure looked like at as they "toyed" with the porpoise for about 20 minutes before the hunt really got serious. And did it ever get serious in a hurry! Suddenly one of the adult orcas lunged completely out of the water, launching the harbor porpoise high into the air! I can't believe I had my camera in the right spot at the right time and even remembered to click to take the photos....I'll be honest I didn't even see the porpoise when the event happened live at real time but the photos revealed what happened:

That was the last we saw of the porpoise - alive anyway. Next the feeding occurred, and here is one of the adults circling a piece of red meat that was floating on the surface. The meat disappeared just after this pass by the orca:

Right after the kill finished we were surprised by the appearance of another group of 5 transients right in our vicinity. We had seen them in the distance earlier but thought they had headed in the opposite direction. It just goes to show how easily these whales can appear and disappear, especially if they're in "stealth mode". This photo shows male T14, also known as Pender, on the left. The first time I saw Pender was back in September; he's a well-known transient locally because of the scars on the front edge of his dorsal fin from a tagging device that was attached to him in the 1970s.

T14 often travels alone, but here he is pictured with the T49s. My best guess from left to right is: T14, T49A1, T49B1, T49B, and T49A. Click on the photo for a better look at it.

Before we headed back to the harbor we had a good look at the 3 stellar sea lions, and then later in the day back at home I had an amazing look at a juvenile bald eagle - so those will be featured in the next post!


Scott said...

Amazing pictures of the feeding transients! I'm a big fan of your blog. Keep up the great work, and great information.

Vickie said...

What an awesome outing. Thank you so much for sharing your photos. It must have been incredible to see the hunt, especially with the young one in the middle of it all.

julie said...

Phenomenal! Those pics will have to be featured in "Orca Encounters, Part II"!

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Wow - ferocious but fascinating. amazing feat of photography too.

Keep the orca news coming.


Unknown said...

Stunning series of images. The one where its leaping out of the water is awesome. Thanks for sharing these.

Monika said...

Scott - Thanks for commenting! I'm glad you're enjoying the blog.

Vickie - It turns out that's the first time that calf has been documented and it looked to be less than a year old for sure, maybe even just a few months old. It will probably still be nursing for a while but it was already participating in "the hunt"!

Julie - I hope so!

Dave - It's getting to be that time of year so hopefully the orca sightings will be on the rise.

T and S - You're welcome!

Thanks so much for the kind comments everyone. I'm glad I've been able to share what was a truly remarkable experience!

Warren Baker said...

Great pics Monika. You must have been thrilled to see that! (with a tinge of sadness as well!)

Larry Jordan said...

Absolutely incredible captures of a gorgeous animal, the Orca! Great job with the camera! I know what you mean about remembering to click the shutter ;-)

Thank you for sharing your great transient encounter. I would have loved to be on that trip!

Monika said...

Warren - you're exactly right. It's truly awesome to see, but you always feel for the underdog.

Larry - It was truly a special trip! I'm glad I have the photos to relive it because in real-time it all happened so fast!