May 13, 2018

Bigg's Orcas (T123) and a Humpback Whale (BCX1210 Slate) in Boundary Pass!

Bigg's Orca

[Friday, 5/11/18 - M/V Sea Lion - 12:00 - Naturalist Erick]


It’s sunny weather here again in the San Juan Islands and it’s definitely starting to feel like summer. On Friday before Mother's’ Day Captain Pete and I took a smaller group out to look for exciting animals. We headed north to look in some of the usual places that we see prey for the larger species of whales that travel through our area. We started out looking at some Harbor Seals at Flattop Island. This whole island is a wildlife refuge and one of their most favorite places to haul out and sun themselves. There was at least 50 on the rocky shoreline and few swimming around in the water as well. We’re right at the beginning of pupping season so we’ll see lots of teenie tiny harbor seals very soon. After we wath those cute and furry rock sausages for a minute we continued northeast towards Boundary Pass. Due to the shapes of the islands around this pass, this area has large, swirling eddies that are formed by the tidal currents moving past the islands in the area. These eddies concentrate nutrients and plankton which draw in fish and animals that eat those fish like whales! We drove through the pass for a while and soon enough there were some blows around Sucia and Patos Islands! It was the T123’s, a family of BIgg’s Orcas (transient orcas)! These are part of the ecotype that lives in these waters and preys on marine mammals exclusively.They were traveling between Clements Reef and East Point - both are great places for them to find seals and sea lions, their preferred prey. It was amazing to watch them zig and zag through the water as they searched for food and snuck up on seals. This family has four members. There is the matriarch, T123, her older son T123A, who is a very large male with a 6-foot dorsal fin, T123C who is  around 6 years old and a new calf! As they traveled along the youngest one would switch spots and swim next to its sibling and then its mom and then its siblings again. A few times it flipped upside down and did some tail flips at the surface - so cool! We stayed with them until we passed the Patos Island Lighthouse and then had to leave. We headed back west into Boundary Pass again and at about mid channel there was another blow! This blow was a lot bigger and bushier than the ones the orcas give off. It was a Humpback Whale! Humpback Whales are a lot bigger than orcas and baleen whales. Instead of having teeth like orcas they have a fibrous material on their upper jaw that allows them to filter tiny food like fish, squid, and krill out of the water. This one was one that has been hanging around the Salish Sea for a few weeks now. He went up and down the eastern coast of Vancouver Island a few times and now he’s back. We identified him as BCX1210 “Slate”. He was swimming and eating as well. We watched him fluke up a few times and show his massive tail above the water. He even spun around and showed a pectoral fluke up above the water as well! We watched slate for a while and compared the two different types of whales we saw today. We left him and continued south. Our next stop was at Green Point on Spieden Island. Here we saw the dwindling colony of Steller Sea Lions. These guys are about 4 times as big as the seals and most are on their way up to Alaska for breeding season. There are a few big males left. They growled and made a fuss when one came out of the water and tried to take its spot on the rocks. They are always so big a goofy to watch. We continued south back towards Friday Harbor, but had time to make one more stop to see a great Bald Eagle! Whale Folks, what another amazing day!


Naturalist Erick

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