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Orca Dance

The Dorsal Spin
Transient male T75A near Tofino, BC. Eugene Stewart photo
Transient male T75A near Tofino, BC. Eugene Stewart photo

Transient killer whales have been roaming around lower Puget Sound as if they own the joint, and their presence seemingly affects our Southern Residents. This December, Transients are circumnavigating Vashon-Maury, slinking freely through Colvos and Dalco Passages. Thus far, Residents have avoided these areas. In all Resident encounters to date, the orcas changed direction in East Passage.

Between weekend Resident visits, Transients materialized twice at Chez VHP’s killer whale crossing place. Without fail on both occasions, local Harbor seals offered the first clue that mammal munchers were in the ‘hood. On December 11, half an hour after a cluster of nervous seals scampered toward the Tahlequah dock, I spotted two Transient females apparently stalking prey off Gig Harbor. In due course, a dozen or more killer whales filtered out of foggy Colvos Pass.

An impressively large male in the group caught my eye. After looking at a Transient ID guide and photos of killer whales who had flamboyantly paraded by The Whale Museum and downtown Friday Harbor the day before, I determined that we had 22-year-old male T75A and his family in the house.

The overall group composition was consistent with the Friday Harbor assemblage: members of T35, T38 and T75 matrilines. These Transients made the commute from San Juan Island to Vashon in less than 24 hours, illustrating the point that wild orcas can travel up to 100 miles a day.

Despite the fog, four boats generated vessel impacts on the killer whales as they milled and hunted between Point Defiance and Gig Harbor. One boat was well within 200 yards. By the way, NOAA has a new hotline number for reporting harassment: 1-866-767-6114.

Many of the Transient groups visiting the Island have wee calves, less than a year old. While the Transients are fecund, 2013 has been a barren year for Southern Residents. The only documented Southern Resident calf was a dead newborn male found last January on Dungeness Spit. Genetic analysis showed that Polaris (J28) was the calf’s mother.  

On December 14, about 45 Residents -- members of J and K Pods with Onyx (L87) -- slowed to a crawl in East Pass. They were resting and logging from roughly 10:30 AM to nearly 5:00 PM. Odin was late to Studio Tour because we went to Point Robinson, anticipating a promising opportunity to take ID photos. Alas, the orcas skunked us – they turned north off Heyer Point.

While the Residents were down here taking an epic orca nap, Transients were hunting up sound near Kingston. Transients vocalize after a kill. The two Kéet Nations were no doubt aware of each other. Hence, fish eaters and mammal eaters continue their delicate dance through the Salish Sea.

Hey, ferry riders: the VHP wants your sighting reports. While y’all admire the pretty whales, someone needs to call Orca Annie. We are Vashon’s first responders. Our thanks to Jack, who told us he saw orcas from the ferry on December 14.

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.