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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Transients South of Discovery Island

We had a fantastic trip today aboard the Western Prince. For the first time this spring, the waters were glassy calm for our excursion, and while there was still a chill in the air the sun was shining. Our first stop was Whale Rocks, where we saw and heard about a dozen Steller sea lions growling at each other, with the nearby harbor seals seemingly taking no notice. As we continued out Cattle Pass, the water conditions were perfect for getting a nice look at about eight harbor porpoise that all surfaced together in a few brief bursts.

As we cruised out towards Salmon Bank, we spotted a minke whale among the pelagic cormorants, rhinoceros auklets, and glaucous-winged gulls that were foraging. I noticed this particular minke had a notch on the leading edge of its dorsal fin (see photo below - click to see a larger view). I forwarded the sighting with the picture to the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale Project. Not only will our sighting we added to their database, but maybe they can tell me which whale it is!

Next we got the good news that some transient orcas had been sighted heading in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Often transients are in stealth mode, interested in going undetected as they look for the next hunting opportunity. Not so today, as the twelve or so orcas we saw were in more of a playful mood. In fact, our first good look at them included the first of several big spyhops we saw!

Several of our passengers had heard recent news reports about transients recently ramming a gray whale in Puget Sound, just a little ways south of us here. You can check out an article and some video footage about this incident here. There have been several groups of transients roaming the area lately, and some of the whales involved in the recent gray whale incident were among the whales we saw today. Here is a group of them surfacing with the southern tip of Vancouver Island in the background:

While I'm pretty good at identifying Southern Resident orcas, who spend a lot of their time here in the summer months year after year, I'm less familiar with the transient population, which roams further and with less predictability. I did, however, recognize the big male T87 - the same male we saw last Sunday who has a distinct couple of notches near the top of his fin. Here is T87 surfacing with a female whale in front of him:

There were two males in the group: T87, who is pictured above, and T30A, pictured below.

These two males demonstrate nicely how we identify transients when comparing what we see to the photo ID guides. T87 has a notch, and T30A has some black scratches and serious rake marks near on his saddle patch. Those uniform rake marks look like they may have been caused by the teeth of another orca. While orcas aren't ever seen to really fight each other, they may bite each other as a form of discipline or other communication. Here's a cropped version that shows T30A's saddle patch better:

I have to give thanks to Jeanne who filled me in on the whales present today. In addition to T87 and T30A, we had T88, T90, and T90B (also among the whales we saw Sunday); T30, T30B, and T30C; and the final family group was T124, T124C, T124D, and T124E. The T stands for transient, and the number indicates the order in which the whales were identified. If a whale has a name like T124C, it means she was the third offspring (A, B, C) of the whale T124.

Finally, the strangest thing I saw today - something which I had never seen before - a whale surfacing backwards! It's hard to tell based on the photo below except that this whale is facing the opposite direction of all the others as seen in my other pictures above. On two occasions, this whale came up going from left to right but facing backwards. First its dorsal fin came up, followed by its head. This picture was taken right before she resubmerged.

Now, I know belugas are noted for their ability to swim backwards, but what about orcas? I've never heard of it, and indeed I'm not sure if if it possible. So, if this whale wasn't propelling itself, it must have been pushed by another whale underneath it! Very bizarre!


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Well that's my evenings sorted - staring at Orca-cam everyday from now on!!!



eileeninmd said...

Great post on the whales, Monica. Wow, what a interesting closeup of the whale with the scratches. It looks like you had a great trip.

Anonymous said...

unbelieveable day, monika...

and i think we saw that orca swim backwards at least 3 times. :)

they were sure hamming it up!

just magical.

tanya swinney (from renton/montana)

Monika said...

Tanya - so glad you got to experience it with us!

sShepherd88 said...

so ns posts & pics