June 23, 2016

A Big Day for the Bigg's!


Did you know that our transient killer whales are also known as Bigg's killer whales? Dr. Michael Bigg was instrumental in pioneering killer whale identification research throughout the 1970's and 1980's, revealing the very distinct populations of orcas and also bringing to light the realization that the numbers of orcas in these popoulations were relatively low. Before Bigg, it was generally assumed that there were massive amounts of killer whales in the ocean and that they all ate the same diet. We now know that there are distinct ecotypes of orcas, including the transients and residents that we see in our beautiful Salish Sea, and that they each have very unique cultures.

We had a couple of amazing whale watch tours this afternoon, with the chance to get incredible views of some Bigg's killer whales. These are our marine mammal eaters, slightly larger than the residents, a little more cryptic at the surface, and absolutely awe-inspiring to watch. As we left Friday Harbor, we hugged the shoreline of San Juan Island until we passed Cattle Point, then cruised southwest toward Discovery Island. We encountered two transient orcas on the way, and they looked to be T49C and T91, a male and female frequently seen traveling together. We got several amazing views of these two before continuing on to check out a larger group of orcas a bit further out.

It was the T124's! We saw several members of this family out hunting, and even caught some glimpses of one female taking out a harbor porpoise. The transients have a plethora of prey available to them in this area, being marine mammal eaters, and there's no shortage of harbor porpoises or harbor seals for them to enjoy. Males need to consume about 450 pounds of food a day, females slightly less, so it's not uncommon to encounter the transients as they're hunting. It was certainly humbling to watch the way they kill their prey with such power and cunning. 

We encountered this same pod on our second trip, and we barely had to travel five minutes to see them! They were actually circling Brown Island, and at one point, they swam right past the entrance of Friday Harbor! We saw several excited folks rushing to the shoreline as their evening walks got a whole lot more interesting. 

It was a magical day spent in the presence of some Bigg's killer whales - memories of San Juan Island that will never fade!