April 9, 2021

Bigg's Killer Whales T87 and T90s Hunt Sea Lions near Waldron Island!

Bigg's killer whales hunting

Laura | M/V Sea Lion | 4/9/2021 | 1:00PM

What a fun day in April to be out on the water!  The skies were grey and seas a little choppy, but that did not alter the mind set of those set on seeing some amazing wildlife today.  We left the dock in a hurry, as there was a morning report of Bigg’s killer whales in the area!  Back in the office, one of our kayak guides, Clai, phoned in to let us know his guests just saw killer whales on their 3-hour kayak trip with San Juan Outfitters!  They were paddling by McCracken Point near Roche Harbor, when they suddenly saw a California sea lion lunging out of the water headed strait for some rocks.  A few moments later, a family of Bigg’s killer whales surfaced a few hundred yards from their boats!  How exciting!  The whales continued down Spieden Channel and found a perfect hunting area near Waldron Island.  That California sea lion was quite lucky today, however some Steller’s did not find the day as rewarding.


Once we were headed north in Spieden Channel, our Captain Pete was speaking with other captains on the radio who were watching these whales start to hunt some Steller’s right off Crescent Beach on Waldron.  We arrived on scene and were elated to see that we had not yet missed all the action!  T87 was with the T90s, a well known family of Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea.  T87 is the oldest male on record we know of in the area, estimated around 1962.  He is a huge male with a very obvious dorsal fin, as it has a hook to the right side at the tip of his dorsal.  He also has some jaggedness to his dorsal and travels as a lone male.  T87 is a female born in 1980, and has three young so far, a male from 2006, a female from 2010, and a calf from 2017.  We have yet to learn if this calf is a male or female.  It’s exciting to know that we still have so much to learn about these calves, just starting if they are male or female.  And why is T87 traveling with this family today?  Perhaps in courtship with the matriarch, or maybe he recognizes her vocalizations as a distant relative and considers her close family.  Since we do not know individuals that are related to T87 from the 1960’s, the only way to truly know is by genetic testing through small biopsy samples.  Paternity testing is a huge opportunity that awaits us to learn more about social ties between individuals and viable reproductive males. Ongoing research is critical to this population if we are going to ensure their habitat is protected for their future generations.  And it’s simply fun to figure out new information!


Passengers were thrilled to have seen orcas so close to San Juan Island and witness hunting activity!  Early on in the trip we all saw a Steller sea lion lift his/her head up a few times, making their way quickly away from the Bigg’s and towards our boat, never to be seen again.  This animal may have just had the closest encounter with their main predator, and luckily escaped.  Their friend however, was being consumed and passed around under the water by this family as birds swirled overhead looking for chum.  I believe I saw T87 holding the carcass for one of the younger animals in the T90s.  He was repeatedly stationary at the surface, almost bobbling, as the little ones moved in tight circles right in front of him.  It is normal for family members to help out calves as they try to take in pieces of a meal, but I haven’t witnessed a lone male helping out a calf yet!  Maybe it is his calf, or he is trying to impress T90, either way it is fun to speculate what is going on in their intricate society!  After watching these whales for about an hour, seas were building and we wanted to check out more wildlife!  As we left the scene, one of the whales started lobtailing and waving their fluke in the air as a perfect goodbye!


We continued to the back side of Spieden Island and were thrilled to find an active Bald eagle’s nest!  One eagle was already sitting in the nest, as the second swooped in delivering a meal.  The other animal was seen taking the food and feeding chicks!  I couldn’t actually get a good view of the chicks inside, but it was pretty neat to see the motions and get a glimpse of their lives in a cozy nest.  As we rounded the island and headed towards the southern end, we saw at least 15 more bald eagles including juveniles!  Steller sea lions were swimming in abundance, clustered together in what looked like an afternoon hot tub session!  At least 50 sea lions were swimming in the water, and some bobbing in tight clusters.  This was a calmer part of the channel and they seemed to be enjoying the shelter.  They may also know there are Bigg’s killer whales not too far away and wanted to be in a more protected area.  The Steller sea lions are one of my favorite elements to the Salish Sea.  They are not here year round, but the spring and fall have added a spark to our wildlife tours.  These Steller’s are quite charismatic and vocal at times, and I love seeing their exhalations as they lift their heads out of the water on a chilly spring day.  This was such a fun day out on the water, and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to enjoy such wonderful wildlife with everyone aboard!