Spring in Washington State usually means lots of rain. This weekend we had a sunny break in the rainy forecast showing us that summer is just around the corner. Today, so are the killer whales! The Sea Lion went south out of the harbor with myself, Naturalist Kev, and Captain Mike to head for some reports of Transient Killer Whales hunting in the area. Transient Killer Whales are a little different than our more famous Southern Residents. They hunt in smaller family groups, and also have a completely different diet. These ferocious predators like to hunt a little higher on the food chain than their fish eating relatives, so they are seen in the islands the whole year hunting marine mammals, and boy do they have a lot to choose from here. Harbor Porpoises, Dall’s Porpoises, Minke Whales, Steller’s Sea Lion, California Sea Lions, and Harbor Seals galore. This day we found them so near to Friday Harbor. It’s pretty amazing to have them so close to where we live but not too much of a surprise because they were circling the rocks that a lot of Harbor Seals love to rest on! The T137s were definitely here to hunt. They constantly switched directions and were splitting and rejoining their 4-orca group to herd and entrap their next prey.
This particular transient orca family, the T137’s, currently consists of four killer whales: T137, T137A, T137B, and T137D. T137 is the matriarch and the mother to all of these other whales. Killer Whales are matrilineal, and the oldest female is the leader of the group! Her sons will stay with her as long as she is alive, and her daughters will stay until they start their own family groups.
It was amazing to see this family group work so close together to hunt and capture prey through the varied and complex underwater world of the Salish Sea. The mother, T137, and the enormous oldest male, T137A did most of the work, but also let the younger two join in as a part of the learning process that all killer wahle calves go through to learn what and how to hunt. We followed this family for more than an hour as they captured and ate several Harbor Seals and porpoises, one after the other during an hour and a half long feast. They soon seemed to have had their fill – for the moment – so they started to play and relax a little off our port. It was amazing to see and hear their breathing in front of the misty backdrop of the beautiful San Juan Islands. They started rolling and spinning in front of us in celebration and it was super cute seeing the youngest, a three year old calf playing with his huge brother and mother! As if it couldn’t get any better, after their celebratory rolls, spins and bubble-blowing, T137A popped up his head above the water to take a good look back at us! I thought he was huge before, but seeing him spyhop and show off half of his body really made his size sink in. Killer Whales are very intelligent and curious and occasionally they want to take a look back at us and see what’s going on with us on the other end of the whale watch.