September 1, 2019

Orcas Hunting Seals and Humpbacks Seen Fluking for Fish!

Bigg's killer whales!

Laura C. | M/V Kestrel | 9/1/2019 | 11:00am 

We had a lovely day aboard M/V Kestrel exploring the diverse wildlife found in the Salish Sea!  The radio was booming with reports of whale sightings so Captain Gabe was excited to tell passengers of the great news!  As our vessel left Friday Harbor, I was talking to passengers about the unique wildlife we were hoping to see just as a harbor seal came into view!  The harbor seal was basking on the rocks right near the harbor and was foreshadowing that the day was about to be full of marine life!

As we headed north into the San Juan Channel we made a nice stop along a small cove area to see a bald eagle perched overhead.  I love seeing these beautiful birds quietly monitor the splendor of the seas below. I always wonder what goes through their minds as our vessel slowly approaches, stops, and a bunch of humans in red jackets stare up at them for several minutes before continuing along their merry way.  This individual did not seem to mind our presence in the slightest and stared out beyond our vessel, surveying the area and its inhabitants.

Continuing east, we voyaged to President Channel and found a humpback whale!  This was a beautiful animal, averaging 45-50 feet in length!  Humpback whale tails or flukes are about 15 feet wide and this whale lifted it majestically into the air right before going on a dive!  We spent a perfect amount of time watching this animal forage in the area for small schooling fish and then continued our journey in search of more wildlife!

Common murres, harbor seals and harbor porpoises clustered on the east side of Johns Island and magnified the biodiversity readily seen throughout the Salish Sea and how every animal has their own role to play in this productive marine food chain.

As we rounded Turn Point on Stewart Island everyone was in anticipation to see some orcas!  We had whale reports of Bigg’s killer whales, historically known as transients, near Sidney Island.  After scanning the horizon, we were all so excited to see a cluster of blows up ahead and some very large black dorsal fins!  These killer whales turned out to be T18, T19, and T19B, and T19C!  This family of four is one of my favorite families to find in these waters and T19B is instantly recognizable by his large, curved and floppy dorsal fin!  This fin arches to the left and may have grown too much too quickly, similar to a great dane puppy at home with floppy ears!

This family showed passengers a prime demonstration of how these mammal-eaters are considered the ocean’s top predator.  They were all traveling closely together, when they suddenly rounded Little D’Arcy Island which was fully stocked with anxious harbor seals!  Harbor seals are a top prey item for Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea and were all very aware of these towering dorsal fins cruising only feet from the rocks!  Many seals were safely on top of the rocks, but it was clear that these orcas found some unexpecting individuals below the water’s surface.  With a couple of splashes and twists, these predators demonstrated a quick clean kill right before our eyes!  Families share all the food that they hunt together, and we were able to watch this sharing from the luxury of our vessel.  It was a thrilling hunt today and solidified why the T18s are one of my favorite whale families to observe and appreciate.

We headed towards home, just to cap off the day, stumbled upon a second humpback foraging on the south side of Spieden Island!  I was so excited to see a second humpback of the day!  It was identified as a second individual by the unique markings found on the underside of his/her fluke.  The first humpback carried an all-black fluke but this second individual had white markings on the left side towards the bottom of his/her tail.  Other than the coloration pattern on the underside, we can also distinguish individuals from their dorsal fins, which can be different in shape and bear unique markings are scars.  I must say that this day was consistently full of fun and exciting wildlife and confirms the many reasons I love spending my days out in the Salish Sea!