2018 dawned cold and clear and I never guessed I'd be seeing my first killer whales by day's end. But as the new year has already shown--it's full of surprises.
With a late afternoon report of killer whales in San Juan Channel (and better yet, right outside Friday Harbor) we hopped on Maya's Legacy Whale Watching's newest member of the fleet, J1. It was nice to be able to get out a couple of passengers who hadn't seen whales on their original trip too!
The four of us kept our eyes peeled as we slowly left the harbor, scanning for the group of whales, as we went. Other boats had been out with them but had lost sight of them when the group had gone on a long dive. We ended up almost passing them by! I spotted them off the back of the boat behind us, milling in shore, near the southern entrance to the harbor. They seemed to have found a yummy snack and as we watched from a distance one of the adult females spyhopped---it turned out to be one of our well-known mom's, T49A.
T49A and her youngest, T49A5, right outside Friday Harbor.
As the group reconvened from their post-hunt celebration they traveled past us and we just watched as they went. Sometimes you just have to sit still and take it in. It also allows for IDs to be made and the presence of not one, not two, but three very young calves quickly ID'ed this meshing of families. First there was T49A with her kids, including her youngest who was first seen in early November and now dubbed T49A5. Then came to adult sisters and their children in tow---T75B (b. 1994) with her second oldest, T75B2 (b. 2015) and her youngest, T75B3, who is only a few months old, along with T75C (b. 1998) and her first known calf, T75C1. This was definitely the youngest calf in the group. It hadn't begun to fill out yet, still having the awkward, "lumpy" look of a newborn killer whale. At most, I'd guess it was a matter of weeks old.
T49A5 surfacing in mom's slipstream and closely followed by an older sibling.
T75B and her third known calf, T75B3.
T75C and her first known calf, T75C1. You can see how the calf hasn't filled in yet--a sign of a very young whale.
T49A has new nicks in her fin, a development from the second half of 2017, likely from a meal that wasn't going to go down without a fight. They will definitely make her more easily-identifiable now. Her oldest son, T49A1 (b. 2001) is also traveling separately from her. This began sometime in late summer of 2017 and he has been seen primarily with his aunt, T49B (b. 1992) since then. It will be interesting to see if he returns to his natal group or if he will disperse permanently. However, T49A's second oldest child, T49A2 (b. 2007) who normally does not swim with his/her family was seen with mom on this day and in the days prior. T49A2 has been seen with other matrilines, including the T65As and T101s, and also with lone bulls, like T51. It was nice to see them with mom and their newest sibling. As to where they'll be next, I guess that will be one of the next surprises of 2018!
The group continued down the channel close to shore on Turn Island. We operate under strict guidelines about how close we approach, and when the whales went on a long dive we pushed off a bit, in case they decided to veer off from the shore as they will do whenever they feel like it. We had pushed off another fifty yards or so when--of course--they surfaced right beside us on our opposite side. So they had decided to dive and swim under our boat only to pop up right off our port bow. I could only shake my head as we slipped into neutral as they cruised past. I guess it just goes to show that however hard we abide by the rules the whales are above them and that's why it's on us to be sensitive and careful when viewing them. They'll do what they please and as they should. They are wild after all.
T49A and T49A2 as they came past us.
Once we had plenty of room to operate without impacting the whales we found our way back to view them as they ducked into Griffin Bay. This was actually the first place I ever saw Bigg's killer whales and it always brings up the fond memory of that first encounter. Seeing more and more of the Bigg's leaves me with a growing fondness for the ecotype. They have stories to share and lessons to teach us if we will be patient, take care, and listen.
The sun had begun to set on this cold winter day but our spirits were warmed by this special encounter. We stayed with them until the sun disappeared behind the Olympic Mountains and then turned course for home.
Post-hunt tail wave.
T49A (front) and T75B (back) in that delicious, afternoon light.
The whales cruising into Griffin Bay.
Group photo beneath the snow-capped Olympics just after the sun disappeared.