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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Welcomed Home by Snow and Whales

We got home from our trip south just as the worst of the winter weather system hit - bye bye California sunshine, hello Washington snow! The local birds at least were very happy we made it back when we did.

We were home a few days, dealing with icy roads and bone-chilling winds, when Jason and I turned to each other and said, "Why do we live here again?" As if on cue, that very afternoon (February 24th) some transient killer whales turned up in San Juan Channel and we were lucky enough to be able to hop out with Maya's Legacy Charters to go see them. Oh yeah, this is one big reason why we live here!

It turned out to be the T124As, a group of five whales including calf T124A6 born in 2016, a little one who would pop his/her head up high on every surfacing!

Successful mama T124A, with the closest I've seen to an open saddle patch on a transient

Head high and eyes wide open for calf T124A6, shown here between mom T124A (left) and sibling T124A3 (right)

They were slowly cruising up San Juan Channel and then, just before turning into Upright Channel, they suddenly made what was presumably a harbor seal kill. They stopped, milled, and moved on so quickly it was amazing they had time to eat whatever they had taken down, but all the bird activity at the surface left no doubt as to their success.

They're efficient hunters but the life of a transient can't always be easy given that their prey has teeth and can and will fight back. When you look closely many whales show their battle scars, like these deep scratches on the dorsal fin of T124A4.

T124A4 with scarring on dorsal fin (click to see a larger view)
After moving on from their first kill and heading north into Upright Channel, the group quickly made their second kill, with a little more theatrics at the surface this time:

If I thought a lot of birds came in before, the number of birds this time was incredible! There were hundreds of gulls trying to take advantage of the work these Ts did.

So many gulls flying around the whales!

A mew gull looks for a morsel at the surface
The light just got amazing then as the sun sank lower into the sky. Look at that lumpy head on T124A, which was really visible from both sides. My friend Sara thinks they're fat rolls - she certainly looked like a robust whale, quite a feat for a mom who may still be nursing!

As we got into the chop where the channels met, the apparently hungry whales made another kill - three one right after another! This time I got a glimpse of the seal at the surface to confirm what they were eating. Not a good day to be a harbor seal in the San Juan Islands.


We left the whales to the third course of their dinner and headed home to get ours under a beautiful winter sunset.

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