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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Our Resident Transients: The T65As

On the evening of June 9th I got the chance to go out with Western Prince Whale and Wildlife Tours, the company I used to work for. After running their daily trips, the owner offered to take crew and friends out to see more whales, and of course we were all up for that! We left aboard the Western Explorer and met up with the T65As in Presidents Channel heading north.

The T65As, who I've seen a couple of times over the years including in early May while out with Western Prince, have been spending a lot of time here this spring. Certain groups of transients tend to visit the Salish Sea more often than others, but typically these marine mammal eaters are around for a day or two and then take off, with weeks, months, or even years before their next visit. This family group, made up of mama T65A and her four living offspring, have been plying these waters regularly over the last 2-3 months, becoming more "resident" of late than our so-called resident fish-eating whales. Part of the reason may be fish numbers have been low, but marine mammal populations (harbor seals, Steller sea lions, harbor porpoise), have been booming!

At first, the whales were quite distant, surfacing a few times, then going on a longer dive while traveling steadily. Suddenly, it seemed like they stalled out on one surfacing, so we cut the engines and waited to see where they would pop up next. They appeared much further away, but still seemed to be milling, so we did the same thing again. This time, we were in for a surprise!

They came up right by the other boat and then much to our delight meandered their way right over to where we were parked!

T65A4 and T65A

Three year-old T65A4 with mom, 28 year-old T65A
In case you're wondering about the somewhat convoluted names, when it became apparent that transients were more easily tracked by family than by "pod", they re-named them all with "T" and a number, and decided to encode observed births into the names. So, T65A was the firstborn of whale T65. T65A4 is the fourth born to T65A. Get it?

T65A3 (seven years old) and T65A4
Someone pointed out while we were watching that these whales don't have the pointy triangular-shaped fins typical of transients. Smoother curved dorsal fins are more characteristic of residents. Is it just me, or can you almost imagine T65A3's saddlepatch in the photo above almost looking like an "open" patch? Again, open saddle patches are a characteristic of residents, compared to transients who almost universally have closed saddles. Maybe these guys really are part-resident? No, don't quote me on that!! Genetic research published in 2010 shows that the transient ecotype genetically diverged from other killer whales populations an astounding (estimated) 700,000 years ago. Comparatively, residents and offshores likely diverged only 80,000 years ago.



In addition to being around a lot, this group is particularly photogenic because of their newest member, little T65A5 who was first seen in March of this year. This little guy (or gal) has been photographed a lot by local naturalists this spring!

If anyone thinks the life of a transient orca is easy, even in a world full of prey, think again. These guys eat something that fights back with claws and teeth of their own. Look at the scarring these whales from a couple different angles (of course, some of it is likely inflicted from rough-housing with other whales, too):


Ten year-old T65A2 - this whale was trailing behind the other four for most of our encounter, then suddenly surfacing in with the group!

The whole evening was a pretty special treat!

As the whales moved off from us, it seemed like they may have made a stealthy kill, as a couple gulls came down to grab scraps off the surface of the water. That, and the whales got a little playful, as transients often do after a kill:

Perhaps a meal explained the milling behavior, but whatever the reason, they were done hanging out and started heading north again.

From left to right: T65A, T65A5, T65A3

From left to right: T65A, T65A5, T65A4

When it was time to leave, we were at Point Doughty on Orcas Isand. Things *almost* lined up for a Point Doughty/Mt. Baker/ orca shot, but not quite, before it was time to leave. The scenery was pretty darn beautiful even without the whales in it, though.

Riding back to Friday Harbor, I just felt so thankful both to have experienced such a special evening and to have shared it with so many fellow (human) whale friends!

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