July 24, 2020

A Profound Moment Met by the Southern Resident Killer Whales

SRKW near San Juan Island

Olivia | M/V Kestrel | July 24th, 2020 | 14:00

“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

-David Attenborough


I do not even know where to begin with writing tonight’s blog. I have been a naturalist in New Zealand and the San Juan Islands for a total of 4 years now and have never had such a profoundly spectacular trip as I did this afternoon. We left the dock with no reports of orca in the area and decided to go see the same Humpback Whale we watched at the end of our morning trip. This Humpback put on quite a show and fluked with almost every dive, which is not a normal sight with shorter dives. Brian positioned the boat in not only a respectful spot for the baleen whale, but also in a way that provided exceptional views for our guests.

We peeled off and went around Turn Point Lighthouse, up Boundary Pass, and back down past John’s Island. We were discussing our next moves on seeing Harbor Seals, some Bald Eagles, and a Harbor Porpoise hot spot when Brian got the news of orca just off Sandy Point by Waldron Island. He immediately headed that direction in order to be the first PWWA boat on scene and attempt to access the situation on either Transient or Resident Orca, as well as the number of recreational boats in the area to make sure they were being respected. This was already exciting since we did not except to see any black and white dolphins for the day.

Immediately arriving on scene, we were greeted with multiple full body breaches and soon realized there were at least 30 whales all spread out around the southern edge of boundary pass. We knew immediately that these were no transients, especially hearing how later the day before, K and L Pods were spotted north of us in Canada heading south in our direction. We were surrounded by Southern Resident Killer Whales!

Captain Brian told us that it had been a couple years since he had seen K and L like this together in these waters. They were not just traveling south or even foraging in our waters, they were socializing! They were executing all the fun happy dances, celebrating the fact that they were together in their historical home turf. They were even flirting and chatting uncontrollably. Sound familiar with our family/friend reunions?

What do I mean by socializing? They were checking almost every behavior in the book! Porpoising, breaching, lunging, dorsal fin slapping, pectoral slaps, lobtails, backsliding, cartwheeling, aerial scanning, back diving, belly flops, fluke lifts, fluke waves, half breaching, inverted lobtail, pectoral waves, rolling, exposing the almighty sea snake, spy hopping, tactile movements, and tail thrashing. We LITERALLY saw all these behaviors by not just a few Southern Residents, but by ALL of them!

I completely lost my ability to form sentences since the excitement was beyond my control, as with the rest of our passengers. [ Again, apologies for the excessive use of “Oh my gosh!”, “This is Amazing”, “This is insane!”, “This is SO COOL/AWESOME”, “I can’t believe this!”, “This never happens!” … but I was utterly in awe of what we were witnessing.] Let me interlude with the fact that this was not just a five-minute occurrence but transpired for the entire duration of our viewing as they progressively traveled west towards John’s Pass.

Captain Brian who has been out here since 1997 and is very familiar with the Southern Resident Orca population throughout the past two decades, told us some fascinating theories on L87, a male orca born in 1992, also known as “Onyx”. We watched as his large dorsal fin swam past our zodiac, making these stories more connected personally since we were actively watching him. It goes like this: L87 was an orca born to the L Pod but has for much of his life traveled with J Pod. He originally started traveling with J1 and J2, a duo who journeyed together. Once J1 passed away, L87 continued to move around with J2 “Granny” and the accompanying J Pod. Eventually, Granny passed away at 105 years old and Onyx continued to travel along with the rest of J Pod, seeing L Pod occasionally, but ultimately being clumped up with the J’s. Since it is so hard to know details of decades prior to our photo identification, or even the true genetics of which orca is fathered by whom, the majority of this is speculation. There is a theory that J1 may have also been L Pod born based on a hodgepodge of other reasons, and practiced the same behavior as L87 by traveling with J Pod. Was J1 the father of L87? Did L87 view J2 as a mother figure like most of the Southern Residents?  Is L87 the father of many of the new calves between all of J, K, and L Pod? We will never fully know the answers to these questions or the million other ones that we ask ourselves.

What we do know, is that this experience on our 2pm Kestrel trip was a once in a lifetime experience. These Killer Whales are not to dissimilar from ourselves. They have emotions, empathy, family values, family disputes; they social and enjoy family reunions, they flirt and are affectionate. They remember, forgive, show empathy and annoyance. These Killer Whales grieve, form memories, and share those memories that get passed on generationally. They have diverse cultures, language, mimic accents of other orca, and have fun. They are but a mirror image of what we are, with so many more connections and mysteries than we can fathom. This makes it all the more important to save them, to be better and do good by them as well as the rest of our species in this world. Wouldn’t we hope to do the same for our friends and families, even if they speak different languages, eat diverse foods, or travel across the seas?

Our passengers, as well as Brian and me, were a part of something more profound than I can begin to express. Part of your ticket purchases go towards conservation in the Salish Sea, mostly towards Salmon Restoration which in turn helps this critically endangered ecotype of Killer Whales. We listened to them breathe, we watched them play, socialize, and be ultimately happy they were home; a moment we do not know when we will see again, if ever.  We were a part of this experience in its entirety.

And yes, I did cry while stuffing my face with pizza in an attempt to face these overwhelming emotions.