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Dorsal Drought Ends

The Dorsal Spin
“Granny (J2) with her family in East Passage. Photo © Mark Sears.”
“Granny (J2) with her family in East Passage. Photo © Mark Sears.”

The advent of December brought with it a refreshing end to our dorsal drought. Two killer whale ecotypes, Resident and Transient, visited Vashon-Maury waters at the start of the month. In accordance with an ostensible treaty between the Kéet Nations, Southern Residents traversed the territory on December 1, Transients blew through at a fast clip on December 2, and Residents returned on December 3.

The Southern Residents arrived in a small, curious assemblage -- call it “something’s up” -- of partial pods. Based on our observations and photos sent to Chez VHP thus far, it appears that only 16 to 18 whales were present: Onyx (L87) with J Pod Group A, led by 102-year-old Granny (J2) ; the K13 matriline, Skagit’s family, who traveled with super matriarch Lummi (K7) when she was alive; and possibly another K Pod family.

Historically, these fragmented configurations in Puget Sound have been associated with births or ailing pod members who disappear during the winter. We pray that someone is preggers – at least two gals in this group are due for additional calves. Food availability likely influences these smaller formations, as well.

J Pod was once the most cohesive of our three Resident pods. For a decade or more, the Group A and Group B phenomenon has been observed regularly in summer, but I did not see it in local waters until the winter of 2011, after Ruffles (J1) died.

At our marine mammal talks, people often ask us if seals can differentiate between Resident and Transient killer whales. Our neighborhood Harbor seals demonstrated their knowledge on December 2, huddling for security several feet from shore when Transients smoked down sound. The group of six or so female and juvenile orcas appeared to be on a mission to penetrate the Narrows. They did not dally anywhere between Bunker Trail and Point Defiance.
I surmise that, since Transients were still in the deep South Sound, the Residents did not venture westward through Dalco Pass when they reached Browns Point on December 3. Granny (J2) knows best for her family. In 1993, researcher Graeme Ellis witnessed an agitated encounter between J Pod and the T21 Transient group near Nanaimo, BC. The Transients seemed intimidated by the unusually aggressive Residents, perhaps because J Pod had a new calf at the time. Typically, the two ecotypes avoid interaction.

Dear readers, we are grateful for your sighting reports and for photos from Richard, Greg, Kelly, Rayna, and Meg. We appreciate Captain Joe’s astute mariner’s eye – what a lucky break that he was doing lighthouse tours on December 1 for the Point Robinson Holiday Open House!

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 463-9041, as well as seal pups and sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts by Mark Sears and other researchers, and sustain an accurate record of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated three decades ago. Send photos to Orca Annie at Vashonorcas@aol.com.