September 20, 2020

Bigg's Killer Whales Playing Near Point Roberts!

Laura | M/V Sea Lion | 9/20/2020 | 1:00

This afternoon consisted of the most beautiful and wonderful wildlife excursion!  M/V Sea Lion departed Friday Harbor with full steam ahead, as there was an early morning report of Bigg’s killer whales in US waters.  They were headed NW from Patos Island, so we wanted to head north as quickly as possible in case they decided to go into the Strait of Georgia.  Along the way, we passed so many harbor porpoises I completely lost count.  A few of them were porpoising, or jumping around our boat and started chasing our wake!  It was so fun to see such an active pod of these curious mammals!

The skies were clear and the seas calm as we cruised up through President Channel and aimed for point Roberts.  Some passengers started exclaiming off our port side, and we surprisingly witnessed a pair of humpback whales making repeated splashes from miles away!  After taking a closer look with my binos, I kept seeing breaching, tail lobbing and flipper slapping!  I speculated that this behavior could be a form of communication between individuals, perhaps to push off parasites or barnacles, or simply to have a good time!  The associated pair of whales seemed to be enjoying one another’s company, but they could also have been attempting to call other humpbacks into the area.  Some scientists have shown that collective feeding on a large school of fish could be energetically efficient for all parties involved, instead of trying to corral a cluster of fish with one single animal.  In this instance there was a lot of energy expenditure on all this aerial activity, but perhaps they are anticipating feeding later in the day.  At this point in science, we can only speculate what are on whales’ minds and try our best to analyze their behavior.  The breaching activity went on for at least 20 minutes until the whales were no longer in view and our vessel continued north.  They were unfortunately in Canada at the time and due to COVID regulations we had to stay on our side.  Luckily, we also had orcas on our agenda and were trying to find the family of Bigg’s killer whales.

After a long yet beautiful voyage to Point Roberts from Friday Harbor, we finally saw our first orca!  It was Stanley, or T123A, traveling a few hundred yards away from the rest of his siblings and mom, Sidney.  Stanley is a 20-year-old male whale, with two younger sisters, Lucky and Darcy.  The T123s are one of my favorite families to see, and they have a heart-warming story of survival.  Around 2011, Stanley and his mother, Sidney, were in shallow waters hunting seals and got caught in a mudflat as the tide went out.  Their lives were in danger and locals feared that the mother and son would not make it out of the mudflats.  Sidney had another offspring at that time, T123B, who was MIA and has since presumed dead.  Luckily, Sidney and Stanley made it out of the mudflat with the help of local islanders and survived that horrible situation.  Sidney was pregnant at the time and people feared that her unborn baby would not make it.  Luckily, several months later Sidney had a successful birth and the calf was named “Lucky”.  She now has a sister, Darcy, who is currently 2-years-old.  It is so warming to see this family doing well out in the Salish Sea today, healthy and happy, as they should be! 

We stayed in the area to see several spyhops from Darcy and Stanley checking out the scene above them, and watched this family mill around and interact with one another for quite some time.  It is hard to pull away from such a beautiful natural scene of a family of orcas enjoying the day with a calm sea and mountain backdrop.  Eventually, we said our so longs and headed towards home.  We were excited to hear on the radio that the pair of humpbacks during that time made it into US waters so as we headed towards home we were able to sneak in a closer humpback whale encounter!  I love when we can see multiple types of whales in one trip.  Orcas and humpbacks are so incredibly different from one another but they both share the same waters and are integral parts of our marine ecosystem.  The humpbacks were icing on the cake today and everyone reported back to Friday Harbor with smiles on their faces after having such a wonderful day on the water among whales!