August 14, 2017

Transient Orcas Toss a Harbor Seal (T18's/T19's)

Transient Orca

[Naturalist Erick D., M/V Kestrel, 8/9/17, 10:00AM]


On Wednesday, Captain Gabe and I started on the search for families (matrilines) of Transient (Bigg’s) Orcas. While in the Salish Sea this summer we have not seen the Southern Resident orcas much this summer, we have seen many of the Transient (Bigg’s) Orca matrilines. The main difference between these two distinct, non-interbreeding populations that swim through the Salish Sea is their diet. The Southern Residents eat only fish, predominantly Chinook Salmon, while the Transients eat marine mammals in particular Harbor Seals. The Residents probably have not been inside the Salish Sea that much this summer, which is unusual, because the amount of salmon returning to the rivers here this summer is historically low.

But we have seen the Transient Orcas a lot this summer, which is less common, but it is understandable because the Harbor Seal population here currently is very high. On this Wednesday, Captain Gabe and I took a group of folks out early in the morning to search for these orcas and a bunch of other amazing wildlife. We started by heading south to take a stop at Whale Rocks. Before we arrived there though we passed some splashing and we stopped to investigate. It was a Harbor Seal and it had just caught a fairly large salmon! Like most marine mammals most of the Harbor Seals Hunting and feeding occurs underwater and not available for us to view, but this salmon was more than one mouth full for this guy, so he was happily going to town on it in the middle of San Juan Channel. Good job, buddy! Next stop, Whale Rocks.

Here we saw a lot of those Harbor Seals and another favorite prey species of the Transient Orcas, the Steller Sea Lions. The Harbor Seals live here year round, but these massive Steller Sea Lions usually are gone all summer. This group of them seems to have decided to come back a few weeks earlier than they usually do for reasons unknown. We watched these goofy pinnipeds growl at each other as each one jostled the others trying to get to their favorite respective nap spots on the rock for a while then headed west.

We soon saw the orca family that we were looking for just south of Trial Island near the city of Victoria, Canada. It was the T18/T19’s! This family has two adult females, one fully adult male, and one sprouting male. Sprouting is the term given to male orca adolescence when they grow an incredible amount especially in their fins. These four orcas were hunting around this area because their prey is often found here. Not only do Harbor Seals use these rocks a lo to haul out, but so do Steller Sea Lions and even Northern Elephant Seals as well! These four were at that time hunting for a Harbor Seal and we even saw them toss it into the air once! Usually most of the hunting and eating happen above water, but today we got lucky as they tossed that seal as easily as a soccer ball into the air.

We left after the hunt was over and the T19’s were moving on so that they wouldn’t feel crowded in the small passes that they were about to go through, and headed back towards San Juan Island. On our way back to Friday Harbor we made a few more stops to look at a Cormorant rookery, a bunch of adorable Pigeon Guillemots, and two Bald Eagles perched majestically alongside their nest. What another san juanderful day watching whales,


Whale folks until next time,


Naturalist Erick

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