April 11, 2016
T18s glide through San Juan Channel
On Saturday, we had a pretty unique trip. Our crew had the honor of assisting in the memorial service of a long-time island resident. Our guests said their goodbyes on a beautiful sunny day in front of the back drop of the Olympic Mountains. As the current gently pushed us along in San Juan Channel and the service ended Captain Mike had a hunch that There may be some Transient Orcas travelling in the thick fog bank sliding through Haro Strait. Transient Orcas usually travel in smaller groups and are erratic in their travel patterns so they are more difficult to find and follow, but we headed out anyway towards the west side of San Juan Island. We soon spotted them a ways off of Salmon Bank in not only one, but two groups! We soon identified them as the T18’s, a small Transient Orca family with some big characters. There are four whales in all, and among them two massive males. This group is one of the Transient families that frequent the islands throughout the year, since their main food source, Harbor Seals, live here year round in large numbers.
The first views of them were impressive as they spread into two pairs in the middle of Haro Strait with the Olympic Mountains standing tall behind them. As we watched and got closer, I realized that these were some of the biggest orcas I have ever seen. The family is T18’s, T18 and T19 are the females and it is believed that T18 is perhaps the mother of T19. The children of T19 are T19B and T19C – both adult males and both huge. T19B and T18 were traveling right next to each towards Cattle Pass near Lopez Island, while T19 and T19C swam towards the pass near San Juan Island. Both pairs zigged and zagged and darted towards two large rocks covered in Steller’s Sea Lions and Harbor Seals. They soon passed seeming to decide that it was not a good time to eat. We continued on into San Juan Channel as these huge and beautiful Transient Orcas effortlessly plowed the water between the shores of Lopez and San Juan. This type of orca travels a little differently than the famous Resident Killer Whales. Since they hunt intelligent marine mammals, they remain super silent both below and above water. They rarely use their echolocation sense, preferring to visually scan in order to not scare their prey away. Above water they will refrain from splashing much.
We followed this family through Griffin Bay, all the way into right outside Friday Harbor. T18 and T19B were on our left near shore and T19 and T19C swam further in the channel on our right. We were just about to bring the M/V Sea Lion back to the harbor when T19B and T18 suddenly changed direction and ‘mugged’ us! This means they small straight towards us! Ah! Those two dove under and gently swam below the boat looking back at us as we saw those black and whites glide through their under water world. Once we saw both go under us, we dashed to the other to see them surface begin to join the other half of their family on the other side. Until next time Naturalists Erick, Sarah, and Capt. Mike are out.