June 26, 2016

Flirty Whales Flaunt their Tails in Boundary Pass

It’s been an excellent year for Transient Killer Whales so far, and today was no exception! Recently there’s been a number of family groups hanging around the San Juan Islands, and we’ve been venturing up to Boundary Pass almost on the daily. Today we left the dock with similar reports and started our trek north.  

On the way up we stopped by a tiny rocky island just off of Waldron Island to look at some harbor seals that were hauled out on the banks. Harbor seals are a super yummy snack for transients, weighing 350 pounds at their heaviest (most of which is blubber and muscle) and not being particularly fast swimmers. Transient killer whales generally focus 60% of their diet on these abundant animals alone.

Also on that island we spotted an adult bald eagle sitting on the highest point, most likely waiting for one of the many seals to catch a fish. Bald eagles are often considered better scavengers than they are hunters, and are known for stealing fish from other animals so they don’t have to catch their own. This bald eagle had the perfect vantage point on the rocks above this rookery of harbor seals!

When we arrived on scene where the last reported whale sighting was, we observed a group of killer whales splashing around just off the south shore of Saturna Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands. We observed two different matrilines travel together, splashing around and popping their tails out of the water periodically. Usually transient killer whales stay quiet to avoid scaring off their prey, so loud, splashy behavior is reserved for special circumstances only.

Usually we observe tail breaches, slaps, and headstands either during the final stages of a hunt, or if there’s some flirtatious mating behavior occurring. In this case, since there were two family groups present, the most likely scenario was mating behavior. Because orcas stay with their matriarch their entire lives, the only time mating will occur is when two unrelated matrilines cross paths, like what was happening today.

We followed this group of seven transients as they hugged the coastline, moving northeast before we turned around and started heading back. On our trip back we paused briefly to catch a look at a peregrine falcon nest with one chick hanging out in it, waiting for its mother to return. We then cut through the Wasp Islands as we made our way back to Friday harbor to enjoy the rest of a beautiful sunny day.