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Friday, February 13, 2015

A Transient Superpod - on February 10th!

My blog posts have fallen off in the last month, and that was directly correlated to our dismal weather (nearly three weeks straight of rain) and poor wildlife sightings. That's all turning around in a hurry, however, as I've had two amazing killer whale encounters this week, a real surprise and treat for February!

On Tuesday afternoon I jumped aboard the Western Explorer with a few fellow naturalists after hearing there was a group of orcas heading for San Juan Channel. We barely left Friday Harbor when we saw them. With initial reports of 10-12 whales, we weren't sure who we were going to encounter, but with the very first dorsal fin I saw I knew they weren't Southern Residents! This is the whale I saw, who turned out to be T100C:

13 year-old male T100C
This family group was the T100s, who I last saw in 2008. Interestingly enough they were involved the first time I saw a transient "superpod" of several family groups totaling over 15 whales.

T100C seven years ago in the Strait of Juan de Fuca....awww, he's grown so much!!

The T100s weren't the only ones present today, either, as while they were the leaders, we could see at least two more groups of whales behind them! The T100s were going up the middle of the channel. Further towards the east side of the channel we found the T124As.

31 year-old mama T124A followed by two of her offspring, T124A5 (a year old) and T1242 (14 years old)
Across the channel to the west were more blows illuminated by the sun (the sun! as rare of a sight as the orcas so far in 2015). The T124s and T86As!

16 year-old male T124E - look at the height on those blows!
If you're wondering about the matriline names, T124A is indeed the first offspring of T124. But since she's an adult female with her own offspring, she's split off and regularly travels away from the other T124s, which is not uncommon in transients. Today, though, the whole extended family was together!

In the wake of this western group of Ts we saw a huge oil slick in the water and lots of gulls actively picking scraps off the surface of the water. The whales continued north, so we drifted closer to investigate, and we could smell the remnants of the kill....it actually smelled like watermelon! I found out from a researcher friend of mine that this smell is associated with porpoise kills, and judging by the size of the oil slick I was pretty sure they had killed something larger than a harbor seal, so this all matched up!

Gull comes down to grab a meat morsel - the sheen you see on the water is oil from a harbor porpoise

As we moved to catch up with the whales, the groups were starting to converge. We caught sight of a beautiful line-up as a bunch of whales surfaced in synchrony:

From left to right: T124A1, T86A1, T124D, T124D1 (less than a year old!), T86A

Let's get a closer look at that little baby...

T124D with her first calf T124D1, and on the right is T86A

T124D1

As cumbersome as a name as T124D1 is, it contains his/her matrilineal history right in its name, which is handy for keeping track of transients who are more fluid in their social associations. T124D1 is the first offspring born to T124D, who was the fourth offspring (A, B, C, D) born to T124.

The lighting was just amazing for seeing the blows all day - this is another shot of T86A, T124D, and T124D1

In this whole group of over 20 Ts, there was only one adult male - it was almost all females and juveniles. In fact, at least seven of them were under 10 years old! Perhaps it was time for the little ones to learn about harbor porpoise hunting or maybe this is just what family meal time looks like, but all the whales converged and were prey sharing. There was lots of converging at the surface and surface activity - it was clear we were only seeing part of the picture as they tore up and shared the meat!



When we see Southern Residents in these roly-poly surface groups we sometimes call them "cuddle puddles" (sometimes social in nature, the residents are probably prey sharing in some of these instances too); in this case, where the surface activity was accompanied by the occasional splash of blood or glimpse of red meat, the name "carnage cluster" seemed more appropriate.

What's the best angle to get a bite....right side up? From the left?


Upside down from the right?


Or perhaps straight down from the top?


They were converging on it from all sides....

Look carefully in the middle - the pinkish red is porpoise meat (click to see a larger version)

Every once and a while amid the tail-slapping we'd see a tiny tail pop up. With two calves a year old or less, we thought at first it was a baby orca tail, til someone pointed out it was a little too small even for that. Turns out we were seeing the porpoise tail being waved up into the air by the whales!

The T124s, T124As, and T86As were all together in this group, while the T100s were on the opposite side of the boat. Again with the amazing lighting....



Turns out the T100s took out another porpoise of their own. This is one them (maybe T100B?) carrying a porpoise in its mouth - the blip you see at the front of its head is the porpoise fluke sticking out:



Oh, which way to look? (Such a problem to have, I know.) Maybe it was time to celebrate the kills?




The fun thing about days like this is that they only people out there are total whale fanatics like myself. In addition to my friends on our boat, there were three other boats on scene - all of them just captains, naturalists, and/or whale researchers.

Friends on another boat, doin' what we do
It was time for us to head back, and right before we left it looked like the whales shifted into travel mode as well. Given that they were headed to Spieden Channel I figured my whale-watching day might not be done just yet - my boat is moored not far from there! After returning to Friday Harbor I jetted over to the other side of the island where I met up with some different friends and we took Serenity out. We caught up with the whales again northwest of Battleship Island. The T100s were already several miles ahead, but all the rest were in one big group. No more hunting or playing - it was clearly travel time now.


T124A (left) and T124C (right)

Four year-old T86A3 with the Turn Point Light Station in the background

It was such a beautiful sight to see them all traveling in such a tight group that it was hard to leave, but they were cruising at such a fast pace all too soon it was time to let them continue on into Canada alone. One last nice look:

T124C - regular blog readers may remember this was the lone male (kinda a short guy for an adult male) I saw in Georgia Strait in May - see more photos of him here.

I went home grinning and with over 700 photos to sort through, ready to ride this whale "high" for several weeks if necessary til my next encounter, because this time of year especially you just never know. Little did I know at the time that I was just 48 hours away from another fantastic whale afternoon, this time with Southern Residents!

2 comments:

Kaylyn Jones said...

Does it get annoying having other whale watchers out there?

Monika said...

Kaylyn - Not at all, especially not this time of year when there's just a handful of boats. The only time it gets frustrating is in the middle of summer when there's a large group of boats with a small group of whales.