April 17, 2021

Bigg's Killer Whales T77A and T49A2 in the Haro Strait, Dall's Porpoises AND a Gray Whale Encounter!

Dall's Porpoises Near Salmon Bank

Laura | M/V Kestrel | 4/17/2021 | 2:00PM

It was a miraculous Sunday out in the Salish Sea on M/V Kestrel!  Passengers suited up in their gear and we left the dock with a loose report of Bigg’s killer whales headed towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca and towards Canadian waters.  It was a long shot, but we quickly headed south in San Juan Channel and into the Haro Strait.  Along the way we passed Steller Sea Lions and plenty of birds, but we were committed to giving passengers the best opportunity to see something big black and white.  It was a gorgeous day in the Haro Strait, with full picturesque views of the Olympic Peninsula, Mt. Rainer, and Mt. Baker, all along glass calm waters.  This is my favorite sea condition to experience on M/V Kestrel, as we are right on the water line at sea level and seeing expansive picturesque views in every direction.

After what seemed like a slim chance of finding these whales in time, we finally approached the area of the last known whale report and it wasn’t long before we started seeing blows in the distance!  On such a clear day like today, we could see blows from miles away and I was so excited to arrive on scene.  After one look at a large male dorsal fin and a smaller side kick, I instantly recognized these Bigg’s killer whales as T77A and T49A2, two well known whales in our population!  T77A is a full-grown male in his mid-twenties and has a record of being very inquisitive and playful in marinas.  There is a video of this single male carting around a sailboat around the harbor on his own, pulling its anchor with his mouth and crashing it into another sailboat!  He also tends to play with fishing gear in the water and has been seen multiple times in this area conducting bizarre behavior like this.  Orcas are playful animals and are the largest of the dolphin family, so this male seems to be just simply having a good time and using all these objects around him like bath toys!  He was with T49A2 today, a 14-year-old male who has been interested in hanging out with T77A for a few days now.  These whales recognize one another, and though it is typical for males to stay with their mothers and siblings throughout their whole lives, some males become lone travelers or visit friends or distant family members for a few days at a time.  This male pair seemed to be enjoying the beautiful calm day just as much as passengers, as they were resting and just slowly cruising at the surface.  Their dorsal fins and exhalations created gorgeous photos with the Olympics in the distance as a perfect backdrop. 

At some point our vessel had to move on after everyone was happy with the time we were able to spend with these peaceful orcas.  We continued on our trip to check out more wildlife!  It wasn’t long before we found at least 10 Dall’s porpoises near Salmon Bank!  These porpoises surprised me because they jumped out of the water right next to the boat on both our sides at the same time!  This was the closest I have ever been to a Dall’s porpoise and they are huge!!  And it was spectacular seeing their black and white bodies zooming back and forth under our vessel as some of them started bow riding!  We stayed in this area for a bit until all the porpoises started foraging for baitfish and then continued toward Cattle Pass.  We were so excited to find a gray whale in the area!  Gray whales are typically not seen near Salmon Bank, but they will go wherever their prey is, and it is interesting to notice an ecological shift in our lower-level organisms over the years.  Gray whales feed on benthic invertebrates and scrape along the bottom of a sandy shoal or bank area, like a lawn mower.  They leave parallel marks, or tunnels, with their rostrums as they filter prey along the seafloor.  This gray whale was fluking today as well, a wonderful activity to see from this huge animal!  Baleen whales fluke to push their body down towards the bottom of the ocean on a dive.  The more buoyant the whale, the more likely he or she is to bring their tails up out of the water for extra propulsion.  The depth of the water was around 150 feet so it would take a handful of body lengths for this animal to make its way to the bottom.  We got awesome looks at this whale today, one of the best gray whale encounters I have had to date!  Our Captain Brian continued driving M/V Kestrel towards home and along the way we topped off the day with some Steller sea lions and harbor seals at Whale Rocks!  They were fishing in the kelp beds, strutting their funny vocalizations, and basking in the afternoon sun.  We all felt completely fulfilled with the trip!  It was truly an amazing time out on the water, filled with all different types of wildlife and incredibly unique encounters!