March 8, 2019

Last Minute Report of Orcas! Bigg's killer whales spotted in the Salish Sea

T123A Stanley

Sarah | 03/08/2019 | M/V Sea Lion | 12:00pm

Wowza what a day whale watching in the San Juan Islands. March is one of my favorite times to be out on the water because there is just so much wildlife that can be found in and around the islands while there is always the possibility of finding whales. Leaving Friday Harbor we experienced all of the possible weather conditions we could think of - flurries, a drizzle, clouds, and then bright sunshine – and we found amazing wildlife!

Based on the whale behavior the previous day we elected to head north towards Canadian waters. Though we can make educated guesses about the next day’s sightings based on whales that we see in a day, it is never a guarantee that we will see orcas that next day. Killer whales are capable of traveling over 100 miles per day, so even if we have whales around one day we might not see them the next. Every day is different. Yesterday we had the T046 family group traveling quickly North on the western side of Haro Strait, no guarantees that they would still be north, but it was the best guess that we had.

As we travelled north we stopped at Flattop Island to look for some wildlife, finding some harbor seals hauled out on the rocks of the small island and harbor porpoise foraging in the calm waters. We headed over towards Spieden Island looking for bald eagles up in the trees along the lush north-side of the island. Mike and I decided to next search for whales and other wildlife in the northern reaches of Haro Strait towards the Canadian Gulf Islands. We crossed the border and wove through the maze of islands: Gooch, Domville, Coal, Portland, and Moresby Islands… no whales, but tons of seals, bald eagles, and seabirds. We ducked out into Swanson Channel, deciding to loop south towards Boundary Pass to continue our search, when we got the report: killer whales in Active Pass.

Mike steered M/V Sea Lion north along the North and South Pender Island shoreline, as the mouth of Active Pass came into view in the distance, we both began to furiously scan for blows and dorsal fins. We approached Enterprise Reef at the mouth of the pass and still hadn’t seen any whales. Fully prepared to duck into the narrow channel between Mayne and Galiano Islands, Mike spotted the group! We had found them! The whales took a dive before we could get an ID on the family, but on their next surfacing we were able to look at the whales’ fins and saddle patch markings to identify them as the T123 matriline of Bigg’s killer whales. This family is made up of four individuals: T123 “Sidney,” T123A “Stanley,” T123C “Lucky,” and T123D one of the newest calves in our community of killer whales. This little one was first spotted last fall, and the only word that comes to mind while watching tis calf is robust! Mom, T123, seems to be doing a great job raising this new baby, and it is always a pleasure to see other family members take turns watching the infant. While we were on scene T123D travelled not only in its mother’s slipstream but also next to both of its older siblings as well. I love seeing large males like nineteen-year-old T123A next to their tiny siblings or nieces and nephews. It always makes them seem like such softies in and amongst the many gory seal hunts.

The orcas continued slowly south through Swanson Channel and we peeled away through Navy Channel to start heading home towards Friday Harbor. As we made our way south we talked about how we are able to identify individual whales and chatted more about the ecosystem as a whole. We enjoyed the late afternoon light and reveled in our amazing luck. I can’t wait for work tomorrow!