June 3, 2017

One is the loneliest number - solo orca and humpback spotted in the San Juans


[06/03/2017 - M/V Sea Lion - 12pm]

You could fill a book with everything that we know about orcas and their social structure. You could also fill a book with everything we don't know about them. Why do they breach? What are they talking about down there? And why, despite the fact that they're usually an extremely family oriented society, do we sometimes find one male traveling alone?

Orcas are organized into family groups led by one matriarch, the oldest female. For transients, that's usually the mother, and her family group is made up of her children and sometimes even her grandchildren. All orcas stay with their matriarch for life, even adult males. But sometimes we find an adult male all on his lonesome despite the fact that he has a family traveling in the area. Why?

We can speculate for hours about what made this 24 year old male wander off from his family. Maybe he's scouting for more food, maybe he's seeking a mate, maybe he's just tired of hanging with his younger brother. Nevertheless, here he was, T101A, the eldest son of T101, all by himself in Boundary Bay. 

Mostly, this lone male was surfacing and traveling, moving erratically as he zig-zagged underwater. But at one point he surprised us by raising his entire tail stock out of the water and giving it a huge SLAP. Yet another mystery - what does THAT mean? 

Orcas have a hearing radius of about 10 miles, so any orca within 10 miles of T101A (say, perhaps, his family?) would be able to hear that huge splash below the surface. Potentially he was communicating with them, or potentially with other whales or animals nearby that we didn't have eyes on. Because most of their life happens underwater where we can't see them, or at times when we're not viewing them, our knowledge of orcas is really only a sliver of the pie of what is going on. 

We were lucky enough today to also catch a sighting of a humpback whale. While this animal was also alone, it wasn't nearly as much out of character as seeing a lone orca. Humpbacks, unlike dolphins, don't travel in family groups or pods. Instead they prefer the solitary life, and will only buddy up for a few weeks at a time. They like their space and personal time, and aren't prone to boisterous family get-togethers like orcas are. 

Our trip was balanced out by yet another species of whale found out in the water today. Multiple pods of harbor porpoise fished in the incoming tide as we made our way out and back, showing off their social skills in their little groups of 3-8 porpoises. These tiny whales are our most numerous but also least researched whale! They don't have closely-studied genealogy charts like humpbacks and orcas do, but we do know that you'll generally find them fishing with their friends!