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Thursday, July 4, 2019

June: A Month Full of Bigg's Killer Whale Encounters

It still feels very surreal that we've just had our first June on record with no Southern Resident killer whales in inland waters. June used to be a highlight of the year because of the abundance of sightings of all three pods on the west side of San Juan Island. Yet here we are, 58 days without any of them in the Salish Sea. The silence created by their absence is deafening.

It's been an interesting process to hold on to that loss and that grief while simultaneously celebrating and reveling in the mammal-eating transient or Bigg's killer whales, which continue to set records year after year for their presence in the inland waters. It's equally bizarre to think I was here for years before I ever met any of them, and now I'm beginning to know them as families and individuals, too. The encounters I've head with them over the last month or so have been awesome - though there have been multiple occasions where I've had an unexpected moment of heartache when I think to myself, "The Southern Residents used to do this": a large group of whales swimming spread out up Swanson Channel. An early morning report of vocals on the Lime Kiln hydrophone and a surprise close pass of a tail-slapping whale through the kelp. Getting off work and watching two mothers with calves round Edwards Point and swim past Land Bank. I never thought I would see Bigg's killer whales doing those things.

I've been negligent in posting my sightings and photos here, so this post will serve as a quick recap to share a few memorable moments leading up to my next installment about an encounter that deserves its own post.

June 6 - The T65Bs and T137s in San Juan Channel

June 11 - The T49As in Wasp Passage

Having our boat in a new location this year has meant whale encounters in new locations, and Wasp Passage between Orcas and Shaw Islands has quickly become a new favorite spot to see whales.

We even got to see the T49As go through narrow Pole Pass, a channel between Orcas and Crane Islands about 250 feet across and 12 feet deep at low tide. Fun fact: apparently it's so named because, as the story goes, Native Americans would stretch fish nets on poles across the pass to catch migratory waterfowl.

June 12 - The T123s pass Friday Harbor

I lucked out with a close surfacing by the whole family from my shore-based perch.
June 20 - The T46s and T46Bs in Swanson Channel

On this truly memorable evening we headed out with some friends aboard a Maya's Legacy trip out of Snug Harbor. While there was another whale report in the area, we stopped to scan where an additional group of whales had briefly been spotted a short time before. We stopped several times and looked in all directions, but didn't see or hear anything. Then our captain caught sight of a fin 2 miles away, and it turned out to be a group of 13 whales that had gone undetected all day!

The two family groups were the T46s and T46Bs, such a storied group they deserve a longer treatment at some point, but this day it was all about getting to meet T46B1B, a little calf nicknamed Tl'uk ("Moon" in the Bella Coola Coast Salish language) who has made headlines for his very pale appearance.

He had periodically been around for a couple of weeks, but it was my first time meeting him, and I was very excited! We can't say for sure what is causing him to look so light. He's not albino (he doesn't have red eyes), but other conditions are difficult to assess without genetic sampling. Some are calling him leucistic (a condition that prevents pigments from functioning properly), but it's also possible he has another genetic condition called Ch├ędiak–Higashi syndrome. Some whales who have looked this way haven't lived very long, while others have darkened up with age. One thing that's really striking about this little guy is just how different he looks in various lighting conditions - sometimes almost white, and other times just a shade of dark gray instead of black!

We left them heading up Trincomali Channel (my first time in this waterway!) and were treating to a stunning sunset on the way home.

June 21 - The T75Bs and T75Cs at Land Bank

June 21 - T124C at Land Bank

June 23 - The T46Bs and T77A on the west side of San Juan Island

Following this last one I would go a week before having another whale sighting, but it turned out to be well worth the wait! Stay tuned....

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