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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Part 1: Meet the T2Cs

The T2Cs have been spending more time in the San Juan Islands in the last two years, and they have quickly become local favorites due to their unique family history. If you're not familiar with their story, I thought it might be worth a quick recap and an introduction into their current members before continuing with the three encounters I was lucky enough to have with them over the last four days. Because if it weren't for a legendary piece of local history, these whales wouldn't exist today.

T2, also known as the Pointednose Cow, Florencia, and M2, was the presumed matriarch of a unique group of killer whales that became known in the area about 50 years ago. Her family was distinct because many of its members had physical deformities. Her presumed son, T1 Charlie Chin, had a severe underbite. Another young relation, T4 Chimo, was mostly white in color. (It was determined this was due to a genetic disease  known as Chediak-Higashi syndrome.) In 1970, this family was captured in Pedder Bay between Sooke and Victoria with the intent of being sold to marine aquaria for a live in captivity. A month after capture, Chimo and another young whale named Nootka were the first to go, to Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria. Meanwhile, three of their relatives - T1, T2, and T3 remained in Pedder Bay.

These whales of course were marine mammal eating transients, but in 1970 nothing was known about the difference between residents and transients. The whales were repeatedly offered fish, but didn't eat. They became very emaciated, until one of them, T3, died 75 days after capture. Four days later, T1 and T2 finally accepted and ate a salmon - a fact even more remarkable when we consider what we know about the cultural divide between residents and transients today. They began to regain their health as they awaited their transport to Seven Seas in Texas. But in late October of 1970, after more than seven months in the pen, someone sunk the nets and gave the remaining two whales a chance to escape. T1 and T2 improbably regained their freedom.

T2 Florencia went on to give birth to three more offspring: T2A Bajo, a male who was last seen in the late 1980s, T2B Pedder, a still-living female who regularly travels with the T60s and has no living offspring of her own, and T2C Tasu, who would travel with her mother until T2's death in 2009. I was lucky enough to meet the famous Florencia just months before her death when I saw her in Haro Strait in late 2008.

T2 Florencia in 2008
This is also the first time I met T2C Tasu, who had her two oldest offspring with her at that time. Fast forward to today, and both of those sons are still with her!

T2C Tasu and her oldest son T2C1 Rocky in 2008 (top) and 2018 (bottom)
So thanks to the mysterious person or persons who freed T1 and T2 back in 1970, T2C was born in 1989 and now has four offspring of her own. As they've spent more time around the San Juan Islands in recent years I've gotten to know this family of 5, and thought I would introduce them to you one by one before recapping today's epic encounter.

T2C Tasu - born 1989

T2C Tasu - Mother - Notch at the base of her fin
T2C1 Rocky - Born 2002

T2C1 Rocky - Oldest son - Large male at age 16
 T2C2 Tumbo - Born 2005

T2C2 Tumbo - Second born son - Has scoliosis, leading to a curved spine and dorsal fin
 T2C3 Lucy - Born 2011

T2C3 Lucy - Daughter - Lots of scratching and scarring
 T2C4 Unnamed - First Seen 2017

T2C4 Unnamed - Youngest son - Calf of the group
What makes this family so memorable is T2C2 Tumbo, who has scoliosis. Like several of his ancestors, this has led to him being physically deformed, although more severely, as he has a twisted spine. He tends to swim fairly slow, and is unlikely to be an efficient hunter. What is incredible is that his family has supported him to the age of 13. Over the last two years as I've spent more time with this family, Tumbo is often trailing behind the other 4 whales, but each of the others take turns to swim with him, and sometimes the whole family stalls out to wait for him. They don't travel as far or as fast as other groups of killer whales, but they've seemingly been willing to give that up in order to stay together as a family unit. Whenever I've seen them make a kill, some or all of the 4 other whales are involved in the hunt, and then Tumbo comes in to join them for the feasting. It is almost certain he wouldn't survive on his own.

T2C2 Tumbo and T2C4 in March 2018 - the other 3 whales were ahead and the calf was swimming slowly with his big brother
When you just get a glimpse into the lives of these whales, who live underwater in a world so alien to our own, sometimes it can be hard to see their intelligence or complex social systems. It's through long term observation that these aspects of their being are more apparent, but with the T2Cs, a single encounter with them immediately reaches the heart. The compassion, caring, support, and - dare I say it? - love this family shows for one another has found them a spot in the hearts of all who are lucky enough to meet them. 

Now that you have an idea of who these whales are and what their incredible family history has been, the stage is set for my next blog post where I will share my Sunday morning encounter with them that lived up to the word "epic".

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