April 13, 2017

Killer Whales Battle With Lion

Killer Whales

Can I take just a moment to brag?  This morning, when Captain Mike was likely still in his orca print onesie dodging dreamtime flotsam, I was watching orcas from the deck of a Washington state ferry.  Between all of the naturalists, captains, and their associates, there are a lot of eyes on the water, and to be the first to report a killer whale sighting is an honor that has thus far evaded my collection.  Well today I checked it off my list, even though it was not a result of tireless scanning on my behalf but rather the casual announcement of a coffee-sipping ferryboat captain.  Still, I win.

Although I reported the exact location of the pod, our whale-watching guests would not be out on the water for a few more hours, and there was no guarantee that we would be successful in relocating the fast-moving animals.  With an educated guess, Captain Mike fired out of Friday Harbor bearing north, and by the time we were even with Orcas Island, our whale watching network discovered a pod of killer whales off East Point on Saturna Island, British Columbia. 

I am always excited to visit this scenic stretch of water.  The dynamic elements at play here create a boiling reef teeming with wildlife.  As we approached the scene, we could see that the killer whales had found a potential morsel:  a full-grown Steller’s sea lion, running for its life.  We looked on with a mix of fascination and horror as the wolves surrounded their prey and made use of their numbers, taking turns batting, butting, biting, and breaching on top of it to starve it of oxygen.  Several times we caught glimpses of the flailing hind flippers of the lion among the orcas’ thrusting dorsal fins.  Interestingly, the only mature bull in the group hung on the fringes of the fray and appeared to have little involvement in the hunt.  A playful juvenile, perhaps excited by the activity, made two full-breaches near our boat.

We wished we could stay to find out what happened to the sea lion but didn’t want “Big Momma” to feel underappreciated.  Just a mile or two away, the omnipresent humpback boasted her 33 ton presence and 10-foot-tall plume of salt spray as she surfaced between dives. 

As we turned back toward San Juan Island, our guests, some of whom were from as far away as England, buzzed with enthusiasm about the day’s incredible wildlife sightings and the beautiful vistas of the Salish Sea.

Andrew Munson

Naturalist, M/V Sea Lion

San Juan Safaris

Steller's Sea Lion - Friday Harbor
Steller Sea Lions on San Juan Island