Mon dieu, what to write? A month-long dorsal drought afflicts Vashon. Most of the whale news is grim. A dead Southern Resident orca newborn stranded at Dungeness Spit in early January. California agribusiness and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nefarious Koch brothers joint, aim to strip Southern Residents of their urgently needed endangered status. Scoter (K25) will bear a scar from an invasive satellite tag piercing his dorsal fin.
These disquieting thoughts swirled as Chez VHP’s barista brewed Orca Blend, our lucky talisman, on a Tuesday morning. Serendipitously, through the window and out of the gray, emerged Kéet. "Grab the camera, hon’, we have killer whales in the yard!" Drought ended.
Eight Transients glided by -- this time with no boats on their tails. I recognized old friends in the mix: matriarch T90 with her brood and her constant traveling companion, elder male T87. He was the only male in the group. If researchers have estimated T87’s age correctly, he is at least 50. These Transients are return visitors to Vashon-Maury waters – must be the cuisine.
I nicknamed T87 "Slot Fin" for the rectangular slot near the top of his dorsal that looks like it was cut for a door hinge. Since Mark Sears and I last saw him a few years ago, the tip of T87’s dorsal fin has curled over sharply – evocative of a hook knife, Odin noted. See Mark’s accompanying photo. Dorsal fins on older male orcas often show signs of their advanced age. Think of the ultra-wavy dorsal on Ruffles (J1), his Elder Flag. Show some respect, whippersnappers!
Mark deployed in his research boat on January 29 to obtain ID photos and prey samples. Three Harbor porpoises approached him as the Transients meandered toward Blake Island. The two cetacean species were no doubt aware of each other, but in a smooth evasive maneuver, the porpoises sped away from the killer whales.
Minutes later, Mark witnessed a spectacular predation event off northwest Blake Island, where many seals congregate. Slot Fin (T87) did not participate; he left the gory work to the females and juveniles. These Transients have gone National Geographic on prior seal kills in the same area. Like wolves stalking an elk herd, the orcas culled a single adult Harbor seal and tormented him for about 15 minutes. They tossed the seal 20 feet into the air, and then they dragged their prey underwater on a long sounding.
Mark collected some blubber chunks that floated to the surface. The adult orcas shared seal bits with the youngsters. The youngest, a Springer-sized tot, played with the food. Dozens of gulls descended on a greasy, shiny seal slick.
In Mark’s words, this encounter was "sad to watch." The seal looked terrified and uttered distress calls. Seal reactions are not always noticeable because many kills occur quietly and efficiently underwater, without such drama. Since we are seal protectors as well as whale guardians, seal kills tug at our heartstrings. We have compassion for any critter fatefully targeted by the ocean’s apex predators – killer whales. Cousin Seal made the ultimate sacrifice to feed T90 and her relatives.
Minutes after Transients appear, an amazing sight unfolds a few feet off our beach. Seals band together in clusters of 6 to 12; with their heads poking up and anxious expressions on their sweet faces, they cling to shore while swimming in the opposite direction of the killer whales. Our Harbor seal neighbors can distinguish fish-eating Residents from Transients.
Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 463-9041, as well as sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Ferry commuters, your calls matter in our research effort! Reporting directly to the VHP sustains an ongoing, accurate dataset of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury and nearby Central Puget Sound waters, initiated more than 30 years ago by researcher Mark Sears. Check for updates at Vashonorcas.org and send photos to Orca Annie at Vashonorcas@aol.com.