March 13, 2018

Big Group of Breaching Bigg's! (Say that five times fast!)

Killer whales breaching outside of Seattle

M/V Sea Lion – 12:00 Noon – Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Just as the first sprinkles fell from the sky the M/V Sea Lion departed from Friday Harbor carrying Captain Mike, Sarah, Erick, myself and an awesome group of kids and kids-at-heart! Heading south along San Juan Channel towards rumors of a large group of orcas in the open waters of the Salish Sea south of San Juan Island. As we closed in on Cattle Pass, we were met with a small group of harbor porpoises swimming in the ripping currents off Cattle Point Lighthouse. These little cetaceans moved gracefully northward while we continued south and if they could hear what we were in store for, they certainly kept their secrets, because we never could have guessed!

As the M/V Sea Lion reached Hein Bank, we came upon a famous little Transient (Bigg’s) orca known as T2C2 or Tumbo. This whale, born in 2005, is the second son of T2C (Tasu) and is known for surviving this long despite a severe case of scoliosis. With the help of his mom, his older brother, T2C1 (Rocky), his little sister, T2C3 (Lucy), and now an even younger sibling, T2C4, Tumbo has thrived. He typically swims along about 300 feet behind his family, so when we saw him, we expected four more whales to show up shortly after, but to our surprise, the rest of the family wasn’t there! We decided to explore a bit further in the direction Tumbo was headed and lo and behold, about two miles in front, a large group black fins erupted from the water!

The scene we arrived on was a rare sight indeed! It was a conglomeration of at least four family lines of Bigg’s orcas! The group of 16 to 20 whales were traveling together, socializing, mating, vocalizing, breaching, and dorsal-, tail-, and pectoral fin-slapping! The group was initially headed southwest and then something happened, the group made an about-face and swam quickly in the direction we’d just come from, back towards Tumbo, where they continued their theatrics!

The reasons such an encounter is really a treat all come down to one very important thing: food. Bigg’s orcas typically travel in small familial groups of about five whales and they are known for being cool, calm, and collected at the surface and silent stalkers under the surf. See, this ecotype of orca hunts marine mammals like seals and sea lions, and intelligent prey requires intelligent predators. If these orcas were to always be in loud, large groups breaching at the surface, they would never eat! The seals would hear them coming miles away and just swim the other direction. So, today we were absolutely in the right place at the right time and were lucky enough to witness these giant, graceful dolphins leaping and lobbing like crazy! 

After we’d taken in the sights it was time to head back to Friday Harbor, but when you’re on the water every moment is another opportunity to see wild animals and on our way back to town we came across a colony of massive Steller sea lions getting soggy in the drizzle of this beautiful PNW day!