The new year had started off with Bigg's killer whales in San Juan Channel and it continued with Bigg's killer whales in San Juan Channel. Of course nearly two months had gone by in the interim. Much had happened since then but the absence of whales had left a tightly-wound knot in my chest. We joke that it's our addiction, but I think we only do so because part of us knows it's the truth. Every moment we get the privilege of spending with these creatures is something that leaves a permanent mark on our souls. When we don't get to see them for a while, well, we feel it.
But, I digress. The call came in from a shore-based friend who had spotted a group of whales coming up through Cattle Pass at the south end of San Juan Channel. The whales had passed close by the Steller sea lions hauled out at Whale Rocks and sent them into a tizzy but then continued up the channel doing long dives in between breath cycles. We were in the office in Friday Harbor, readying ourselves for the upcoming season, but when we heard whales were close we couldn't help ourselves so away we went to see who was out there. We had heard of whales near Anacortes earlier in the day but knew they were still east of the islands so this was another group altogether.
We found them off the Lopez Island shoreline, meandering north and loosely split into two groups. There were five whales total and one youngster, not as little as the whales from our encounters on January 1st but still much smaller than the rest of its companions. Fortunately the youngster's eye patch is very unique along with its mother's left side saddle patch. It wasn't hard to figure out we were with T124A (b. 1984) and her kids---well, most of them. The other group of whales reported earlier in the day was made up of her second oldest daughter, T124A2 (b. 2001), her two offspring, T124A2A (b. 2013) and T124A2B (b. 2017), T124A's younger brother, T124C (b. 1992), and an unrelated male, T87 (b. ~1962).
T124A6 (b. 2017) and his/her unique eyepatch.
T124A was traveling with her oldest and youngest children when we first arrived. T124A1 (b. 1996) usually swims apart from her mother but was with her today and sandwiched between them was her newest sibling, T124A6, who is just about a year old. Ahead of the three were T124As two middle children, T124A3 (b. 2006) and T124A4 (b. 2010). The family didn't seem to be in any hurry or have any particular agenda (at least that was obvious to us). They continued that way up the channel until they reached the bottom of Upright Channel, which splits Shaw and Lopez islands. It appeared they had committed to their course when T124A, T124A1, and T124A6 turned and high-tailed it back the way they had come. The swift arrival of the other two and a swarm of Mew gulls signaled that they had found something to eat. The smell of the kill was our third clue. We presume it's the oil in the blubber of the prey item that leaves a distinct smell in the air. In this case it smelled like watermelon. Yep, you read that right. Watermelon.
T124A, T124A6, and T124A4.
T124A6 sandwiched between T124A and T124A3.
This kill was followed in quick succession by another back in Upright Channel, and T124A showed off her hunting prowess with a powerful tail throw.
T124A throws her tail during a hunt in Upright Channel.
T124A6 surfacing in Upright Channel. Do you see the seal? Look below the dorsal fin.
The sun began to set and the wind began to pick up as they started on their third hunt and once the research boat we were waiting for showed up we made our way towards home port again.
One of the T124As in the golden afternoon light.
A stunning sunset.
It was a lovely visit with one of our favorite matrilines of Bigg's killer whales and hopefully just the first of many encounters with them in 2018!