August 9, 2019

Thirteen Orcas in Puget Sound Porpoise Take-down!!

Piper | Friday, August 9, 2019 | M/V Kestrel | 3:00 PM

This afternoon Captain Gabe and I took a lovely group of guests out on the Kestrel for an epic trip down to Admiralty Inlet, at the very top of Puget Sound. We left the marina and headed south into San Juan Channel. This channel opens up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Cattle Pass, where a haul out of Steller’s sea lions and harbor seals were soaking up the sun.

We looked on as a giant bull pulled himself out of the icy waters to join in, displacing a smaller adult, but not without a small fight. We’re so excited to have this haul out of sea lions back from Alaska already!

We continued down southeast of San Juan Island, passing by many different types of birds, including rhinoceros auklets, common murres, and even a bald eagle, which flew right overhead! Luckily the seas were very calm for this beautiful trip down to the sound.

Arriving on scene, we could start to see the giant fins of some of the males. The orcas we were seeing today were a family reunion of the T46s with the T46Bs, including the T46B1s, for a total of 13 orcas! Now, if these names sound confusing, this is how we name Bigg’s (transient) killer whales:

The first orcas we ever identified, back in the 70’s and 80’s were given a T (for their old name of transient) and then a number(T46), then the offspring of those orcas were given the same number, plus a letter in alphabetical order of their birth (T46A, T46B, T46C), offspring of those babies were then given another number (T46B1, T46B2), and so it goes, alternating numbers and letters across generations.

So, what we were seeing was the matriarch, great-grandmother, and one of the orcas in the last live capture of killer whales in the Salish Sea, T46, and most of her babies, grandbabies, and great-grandbabies! And boy, were they having a great time!

This family of orcas originally seemed to be traveling south quite slowly, until suddenly they made an about face in a porpoising surface, indicating they were on the hunt!! I glanced through my binoculars and saw a tiny porpoise trying to escape the grips of the orca’s mouth! We thought only the T46Bs were actively hunting this porpoise, but then as they continued back behind us, the T46s surface off our bow, and there in the middle of them was a set of lungs floating all pink and inflated, right at the surface! It was incredible.

The orcas continued putzing about for a bit before they began traveling north in a celebration of tail slaps and breaches! We had to leave them at that point and head back for San Juan Island, but what an amazing time floating around with 13 apex predators! Wow!