September 21, 2021

Steller Sea Lions, Foraging Bigg’s Killer Whales and Good Vibes

Maxx K. | M/V Sea Lion | 09/21/2021 | 1:30pm

    Today was awesome. 

Not only did I get to work with Abby and Gabe on Sea Lion, we got to watch an incredible family of whales actively hunting and killing what I assumed to be a harbor seal! 

    We left Friday Harbor on a mission: whales had been spotted north of us off of Sucia Island. It was going to take us a little while to get there but the journey was beautiful and full of great chats. As we rounded the northern tip of Orcas Island something large appeared off our starboard. 

    Gabe slowed Sea Lion to a stop as two massive Steller Sea Lions approached, passing alongside us towards Sucia Island. Weighing in at over 2000 lbs these massive animals may as well be dinosaurs. Ironically they were heading straight towards Sucia, where Washington’s first ever dinosaur fossil was uncovered!

    After finally making it towards Sucia’s southern corner we got word that the whales hadn’t been spotted in nearly 10 minutes. Now we’re always prepared for moments like this. As we say, any reports we get are rumors until we see the whales ourselves! A Killer whale is able to hold its breath for 30 minutes if they were really pushing it. Additionally, Orca have been known to reach speeds of over 35 mph! These whales could be good and gone and we would have absolutely no idea. 

    We stopped to scan and before too long the family of four killer whales had been spotted. Sucia Island is shaped like a massive hand and these whales were tracing one of its fingers out towards a now idle M/V Sea Lion. 

This family is quickly becoming one of my favorites: the T065Bs!

T065B’s nickname is Chunk due to a tiny chunk missing from her lower dorsal fin. She was accompanied by two of her children, T065B1 and T065B2, “Birdsall” and “Nettle,” and her sister’s 7 year old son, T065A5, “Elsie.” 

We watched as the family hunted at the mouth of Sucia’s Echo bay, rolling over one another and propelling their tails out of the water. Now, a lot of our observations of the whales that we see are based on assumption. Given they were hanging out so closely to shore and so active at the surface, I assume they were hunting. This theory was only reinforced after the eventual arrival of birds that flocked over the family. We frequently see this as birds congregate to snag any scraps that the whales might leave behind as they tear their food apart.

It’s absolutely remarkable to watch and make guesses and assumptions, yet there’s so much that we simply will never know about these amazing animals. For example, as I watch this family, I wonder why little Elsie is traveling with his Aunt. Did he just want to spend some time with his cousins? Was his mother fed up with his antics and needed a break for a bit? 

These questions run through my brain all the time but I’ll never have the answers. But this is the reason I love this job and these animals so much. They’re mysterious, yet also so relatable. 

I want to thank everyone that came out with us. It was a remarkable tour not only because of the whales but also because of how engaging and approachable everyone was! I thoroughly enjoyed my time out with y’all and truly hope to see y’all again soon!