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Friday, June 26, 2015

June 20: Exotic Ts

On June 20th I heard that a big group of resident orcas was inbound, so I was keen to get out to try and see them. While scanning from Land Bank, I saw some blows on the far side of Haro Strait near Discovery Island. It's odd for the residents to stay on the west side of Haro, but was that them? I kept scanning further south and didn't see any sign of whales down there. Curious, I decided to take the boat out - with a couple of people who hadn't seen orcas before - and investigate.

The faces of some eager whale watchers

We met up with the whales near Kelp Reef in Haro Strait - and it was Ts! Not only that, it was Ts that I haven't seen before, including some whales that are known as "exotics" because they aren't seen here very much. In this group were the T125s, a group of four whales that have been around somewhat frequently since May 31st, but before that hadn't been seen in the area since 1992!! (The residents, by the way, did come in, but were much further south all night.)

I've decided the T125s are the most badass looking group of orcas around, made up of female T125 and what are likely her three sons: T127, T128, and T125A. 

Mom, female T125

The most iconic whale in this family group is T127, who a friend of mine recently nicknamed "Hacksaw":

31 year old male T127 "Hacksaw" - his fin looked like this in 1992, too, and undoubtedly has quite a story
The other males hold their own in dorsal fin style, too, though...

17 year-old male T125A
27 year-old male T128 - check out that notch at the base of his dorsal fin
These whales were traveling with another male, T49C - I've never seen so many adult male transeints in one group. There were at least three other groups of transients in the area on this day, and interestingly T49C was traveling with a different group earlier in the day - one that included T63 Chainsaw. Of the nine whales present, T49C is the only one I had seen before.

17 year-old male T49C, a lone male who travels with various groups
It took me a while to figure out the other whales in this group, but I finally was able to identify them as the T46Cs, another new family group to me.

T46C1, T46C2, and T46C3
I was surprised to see there were four whales in this family group. T46C2, nicknamed Sam, was found alone and seemingly "stuck" in a small inlet in Central BC in August 2013 as a four year old. After a few weeks when it looked like his health was deteriorating, the Vancouver Aquarium and DFO intervened to help get him out of the bay he was trapped in. In October, he was seen with the T123 family group, though they were seen again a bit later without him. It was unclear if he would successfully reintegrate with any transients or find his own family back. I never really heard what ended up happening to him, but after looking at my photos Dave Ellifrit from the Center for Whale Research is pretty certain this was him back where he belongs next to mom. A happy ending!

It was a beautiful evening to be out, and these whales were booking it north. We traveled with them for about half an hour before it was time to turn back to home. We stopped and got one more fantastic view, listening to their powerful blows, as they continued north.

Can you pick out the distinct fin of T127? ;)
One more surprise awaited us on our way back home! Back on the US side of Haro Strait I spotted three ancient murrelets, an uncommon species here in the winter but unheard of to me in the summer!

Ancient murrelets (with a pair of marbled murrelets behind) in Haro Strait near San Juan Island

I've since learned about this interesting paper, which documents about 30 observations of ancient murrelets well south of their known breeding range between 1988 and 2011. They theorize that either there's an undocumented breeding area further south, or they're riding strong currents quickly down from their nearest known breeding colony at Haida Gwaii.

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