May 14, 2019

Bigg's Killer Whales in Canada! And Then More in the US!

Piper | Tuesday, May 14, 2019 | M/V Kestrel | 11:00 AM

Sitting down to write this blog I'm still reeling from what an awesome trip we had today on the M/V Kestrel. It started off so dreary in Friday Harbor today; the rain came overnight and dried up just before I got to the dock to clean up the boat, and luckily it held off the rest of our four hour trip! Captain Gabe and I headed out of the marina with our wonderful guests and pointed the boat south into San Juan Channel. It became clear as we rounded the corner of Turn Island that the seas were going to be in our favor today for searching for wildlife. The surface was a glassy silver and we searched the waters as we headed down to Cattle Pass. As we arrived, we spotted a mature bald eagle perched atop one of Whale Rocks, it took off in flight, a majestic sight, just to loop around and soar directly off our bow and land on the rocks again. Around the corner sitting in the shallows we spotted the little head of a harbor seal poking up out of the water, eyes on us. Into the sea and out, his head bobbed as we looked on. We motored just a short distance to the other part of Whale Rocks where a haul out of Steller sea lions were resting on the rocks, preparing themselves for the long migration to Alaskan waters for their breeding season. We expect to see these guys head out anytime now but we sure are enjoying seeing them before they leave!

We left Whale Rocks and headed out across Salmon Bank and into the convergence of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait, searching for wildlife that might be feeding in these productive waters. Continuing southwest we got a report of Bigg's killer whales south of Race Rocks, an outcropping in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, about 10 miles west of Victoria on Vancouver Island. We raced our vessel over to them and had an amazing sighting of a group of three families of killer whales traveling together, totaling five orcas! We had T65B, the 26 year old momma of T65B1, an eight year old male; T75B, the 25 year old mom of T75B2 who is a little four year old orca; and T75C, the 21 year old sister of T75B. 

At first these orcas were traveling pretty leisurely, taking some time to socialize, and even spyhopping twice! But after a while they picked up the pace and were almost porpoising southwest so after hanging out with them for quite a while we turned around and headed northeast, passing by Victoria and Discovery Island and up through Haro Strait. A few groups of harbor porpoises graced our sights for one or two breaths here and there as we made our way up to the western side of Spieden Channel where we came across even MORE Bigg's killer whales!! This was yet another group of multiple families of Bigg's orcas. We had T87, a lone male who we estimate to have been born in 1962! That makes him about 67 years old and he's likely a "lone male" because his mother passed away already. He's often seen with the T90s and that was the case today! The T90s consist of the matriarch, T90, a 39 year old mom, and her offspring T90B (13 year old male), and T90C (9 year old female). This was a large group of whales and we believe that the T124As were also present. They're a group of mom and four of her offspring.

We watched as this group hunted and killed what we guess was a harbor seal! We got to see them spyhop multiple times, tail slap, and we even saw five or six breaches and a not-so-graceful cartwheel! Bigg's killer whales are known for being stealthy at the surface, sneaking up on prey, but sometimes once some food is caught we see what almost seem like "celebration" leaps! It was just such an amazing sight! While the orcas shared their meal we humans got to taste some bull kelp that I pulled from the water. Harbor seals often hide in bull kelp forests, but today the bull kelp treated us better than it did the harbor seal that became those orcas' meal! 

After the spectacle finished we headed back towards Friday Harbor, motoring across the north side of Spieden Island and down into San Juan Channel, which took us home! What a fantastic day on the water! We traveled about 80 miles on Kestrel today and it was so very worth it!