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Saturday, May 25, 2019

May Bigg's Killer Whale Encounters

2018 was the first year on record with no Southern Residents in the inland waters in the month of May. This year, J-Pod was seen a few days early in the month, but there has been no sign of them since May 6th. While their absence in the spring months is continuing, the presence of Bigg's/transient killer whales is still on the rise, with more reports this year than last year, continuing the incredible upward trend of the West Coast Transient population increasing their usage of the Salish Sea. Many of those sightings have been too far away for us, such as up in Howe Sound or down in Puget Sound, but we have had several great encounters so far this month. Here are highlights from a few of them:

May 3 with the T49As, T65Bs, T75Bs, T75Cs, and T123s in San Juan Channel

On this incredible day when we encountered these 17 whales heading north up San Juan Channel, there were more than 50 Bigg's killer whales total in the Salish Sea. This group was in steady travel mode when we saw them, and despite the more frequent occurrence of larger groups in the area, it's always impressive to see so many whales surfacing side by side.
Incredibly, every one of the 5 matrilines present had a calf under the age of 2. We are so incredibly lucky not only to have these mammal-eating orcas around, but to have them as a comparative population for the struggling Southern Residents. There were more thriving little ones in this group of Bigg's killer whales than the entire Southern Resident population has had in the last four years.

We also got to see the largest whale (T49A) and smallest whale (T123D) present surfacing side by side, highlighting the major size difference!

T123D (~8 months old) and 18 year-old male T49A1
May 19th with the T65Bs, T75Bs, T75Cs, and T124C in Moresby Passage

With wind and rain in the forecast, and sandwiched by days with no nearby orcas, we were incredibly lucky on this day to encounter these 9 whales when we headed out for our Orca Behavior Institute fundraising whale-watch with Maya's Legacy out of Snug Harbor. Earlier in the day they had killed a Steller sea lion, and when we arrived they were in full-out play mode, literally flinging around the pelt that remained from the sea lion. It was not for the faint of heart, but it was incredible to watch.
T65B flinging the Steller sea lion pelt
Sea lion pelt being launched into the air by an inverted tail slap

Of course I happened to have my camera down when the most epic photo opportunity of the day happened, but luckily my husband Jason caught it!

Side view of T65B flinging the Steller sea lion pelt....again!
In general there were just a lot of shenanigans going on, including two whales playing with the lines on a couple of crab pots, and a lot of spyhopping, tail slapping, and rolling a the surface in general.

May 24 with the T65As in San Juan Channel

After spending the better part of 2 weeks in Puget Sound, the T65As were picked up heading north towards the San Juan Islands. Luckily for us, they chose to come up San Juan Channel, and we hopped in our boat to watch them as they passed Friday Harbor.

They were in what I would call social travel mode as they passed Turn Island, rolling at the surface while in contact with one another and tail slapping as they meandered north. They made a sharp turn towards San Juan as they rounded Turn Island.

This family group is made up of six whales, the youngest of which (T65A6) was seen for the first time just over a year ago.

From left to right, T65A3, T65A6, and T65A4
The second youngest, T65A5, is five years old this year.

T65A5 next to mom T65A
Just south of Brown Island, they stopped to take out a couple of harbor seals.

T65A2 surfacing after a long dive. It looked like they were tag teaming pinning a harbor seal to the bottom.
Afterwards, they started quickly moving north past Friday Harbor and continuing up San Juan Channel.

A moment these sailors will be unlikely to forget!
When we got our last look, they were in perfect flanking formation: successful mom surrounded by all her offspring.

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