September 4, 2017

Orca Invasion Continues in the San Juans!

[Naturalist Sarah C. 9/3/17 M/V Sea Lion 1:30pm departure]

Transient orcas have been spotted in the dozens around the San Juans this week. It's not always the case that we get to choose which whale sighting we pursue on our daily departures from Friday Harbor. With multiple families spotted within our range, we chose a company favorite for today's adventure - the T65A's.

Orcas, as a species, are matriarchal, meaning that the oldest female in a family group is in charge. For transients, who like to maintain a smaller group size for better hunting success, a family group is usually a mother and her three to five calves and grandcalves. The T65A's are just that - a mom (T65A) and her four kiddos, including sprouting teen male T65A2. 

This particular family group has been spotted in the Salish Sea pretty much all summer. They're one of our regulars, and are considered near-coastal specialists for their specialization to hunting in the narrow passageways and shorelines that are abundant in the San Juans. Today we get to witness some prime examples of how families like the T65A's use our geography to their advantage.

When we first arrived on scene, these 5 orcas were just cruisng along, moving from the north side of Waldron towards Saturna Island, one of the Canadian Gulf Islands. Soon, though, they started moving really close to the Saturna shoreline, within a couple of yards of the cliffsides. Many of our shorelines drop off drastically below the surface, shooting strait down hundreds of feet. These steep underwater cliffsides make for a perfect barrier to corral prey up against.

The T65A's began stalking the shoreline, but it wasn't long before we started to observe huge splashes and fast direction changes from all members of the family. A hunt was underway! Most likely, some poor harbor seal was having a pretty horrible day underwater. Our killer whales wrapped up their kill quickly, snatching up all the fatty and muscley bits of their prey before moving up-shore.

It was then that we scooted up ahead of their path of travel to take a look at some seals and sea lions hanging out on and around Boiling Reef, just off of East Point on Saturna Island. We watched as a couple of Steller's sea lions swam lazily through the water, popping their noses up for breaths along the way. Behind us, the five orcas were quickly approaching!

Intrigued, we paused beside Boiling Reef to see the action go down, and we were not disappointed. As the mammal-hunting orcas approached, all the sea lions disappeared underwater, and the hauled-out seals looked pretty nervous from their narrow rookery. More splashes and tails in the air indicated that our orcas were once again harrassing a seal below the surface, but they quickly turned their attention to the sea lions just below the surface up ahead. They didn't appear to be in the mood for hunting, but instead just rammed right through the throng of sea lions, marked by one sea lion pectoral flipper breaking the surface in a quick getaway.

The orcas continued up Boundary Pass, leaving the remaining sea lions behind in terror. We watched as they moved quickly away, most likely in search of an easier meal than a 12-foot long sharp-toothed sea lion. As they passed away, though, we noticed half a dozen sea lion heads pop up above the surface, peering in the direction of the orcas. Jury's as to whether this display was in fear or an attempt at intimidation, but we could almost hear them muttering cuss words and sighing in relief from our boat.

With that discovery-channel-type encounter, it was time to head home. We docked in Friday Harbor with sunny, blue skies and temperatures in the 80's. What a perfect way to spend a Labor Day Weekend afternoon!

I'd like to thank all of the lovely people on board for their enthusiasm and amazing questions. You folks really made the trip! Some photos from today's trip are attached below for your downloading and sharing convenience. Thanks for making my last day of the season so sweet!

Naturalist Sarah C.

M/V Sea Lion