April 10, 2019

Killer Whales Found in Presidents Channel! : Bigg's Orca Family, the T123's, hunt in the San Juans

Bigg's male orca

Erick | Wednesday, April 10, 2019 | M/V Sea Lion | 12:00 


This Wednesday brought us back to very on brand Pacific Northwest spring weather. Low-lying clouds scraped the canopy of the evergreen forests that cover the San Juan Islands intermittently dipping low enough to brush us with a light rain. Captain Brian and I took a smaller group out on M/V Sea Lion to look for a wonderful array of wildlife in the Salish Sea. As we left Friday Harbor, we turned north to travel up San Juan Channel. We made our first stop just in between Shaw and San Juan Islands. We spotted a Steller Sea Lion chowing down on some big snack. It looked most likely like he was eating a fish and he was tearing it apart. After watching this swimming grizzly bear sized animal for a little bit we continued on our way north. We made our next stop at Green Point on Spieden Island. Here we saw a bunch more Steller Sea Lions lounging on the rocks. There was about 40 Sea Lions lounging and growling around. These are the biggest ‘eared seals’ (otariids) in the world! We usually only get to see them in the winter when they come here to rest and relax before they head back up north to their traditional mating grounds. We floated along the shoreline with the formidable ebb tide and soon saw a huge raft of about 15 Steller Sea Lions calmly floating in the current curiously watching us float by them. Right as this point, we also saw a few Bald Eagles sitting on top of the steep, grassy bluff staring back at us.  A few soared just a few feet above us and we also got to see a huge heard of Mouflon Sheep grazing on the hillside as well. These sheep are originally from the Mediterranean but were brought and left here by some brothers who opened an exotic game hunting ranch on Spieden Island. We then turned and started to head more northeast past Flattop Island and into Presidents Channel. After a while, just about in the middle of the middle of the Channel we saw some black fins pop up! They were orcas! We slowly approached them and soon figured out that this was a group of Bigg’s (Transient) Orcas! Bigg’s Orcas are the ecotype of orca that lives here but only feeds on marine mammals. There are many types of orcas around the world and they are all distinct populations that don’t interbreed and have different vocalizations. These Bigg’s are seen more than the Southern Resident Orcas during the springtime. The Southern Residents are the other type (J, K, L pods) that only eat fish (mostly salmon). This family group (one matriarch and her three offspring) was in the process of eating whatever they had just killed. Based on the place we were it was most likely a Harbor Porpoise! They splished and splashed all over the place and it was awesome to see a mom, a huge adult male, a juvenile, and a new baby eating and then playing! We identified this family as the T123’s and it was so much fun to watch them play and socialize after a big meal. We watched a few of them swim backward and splash their tales out of the water. The youngest, T123C, practiced jumping out of the water looking gleeful! We then saw, T123A, the big adult male spyhop and then the baby copied him and did a baby spyhop! This is how orcas learn (just like humans) they repeat what their older family members do! After playing they headed more towards Waldron Island and gave use a great view! What a spectacular encounter and one we won’t soon forget! Until next time!



male Bigg's orca