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Titans of the Tide

The Dorsal Spin
Transient male T137A with Harbor porpoise. Photo by Maya Sears, taken under NOAA research permit, 5/21/16.

We are savoring a spring bloom of cetaceans and pinnipeds in Vashon–Maury waters. In addition to our ubiquitous Harbor seals, we have Harbor porpoises, Dall’s porpoises, a Humpback whale, California and Steller’s sea lions, and flamboyant Transient orcas roaming around the Island. Can you guess which species is here to eat the others?!

As a wee refresher, Resident fish-eating orcas travel to this area in fall and winter. In some years, a rare visit occurs in March or April. Transient mammal-eating killer whales can appear at any time. In the past decade, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in Transient visits, particularly in spring.

On May 16, 33-year-old Transient matriarch T137 and her three offspring managed to evade online detection as they crept south along the east side of East Passage, putting the Fear of Fins into the local marine mammals. Mid-passage between Three Tree Point and Maury Island, the T137s harassed a Dall’s porpoise. They stopped short of killing and eating the porpoise, but the injuries inflicted on the poor critter were likely fatal.

That day, the behavior of other blubber bearers telegraphed that Transients were approaching Dalco Pass. Harbor porpoises seemed disoriented, seals and sea lions looked panicked. We watched with trepidation as a lone, tiny porpoise surfaced off Tahlequah, in the path of the porpoise-punting T137s. One seal floated immobile, with head and hind flippers extended above water, doing her best to imitate driftwood.  

From their research boat, Mark and Maya Sears took photos and collected samples. The T137s headed toward the Tacoma Yacht Club breakwater. A dozen little, yearling-sized porpoises flocked to Mark’s boat, presumably for refuge from the scary orcas. By 4:30 PM, Mark and Maya had to leave for the day. Not ten minutes after they departed, the Transients made a kill.

One whale erupted from a long dive, and an extended bout of frothy surface activity ensued – lunges, cartwheels, tail lobs, spyhops, pec slaps, breaches. The suppressing and drowning of an unfortunate prey item was underway, for more than two hours. To our frustration, Odin and I could not discern clearly what the T137s were dismembering because they were so far across the passage. Periodically, through binoculars I could see a small, defenseless dot amid the melée.

Numerous Harbor seals and a California sea lion congregated in shallow water, within easy access of the beach. They knew what was happening, even if the victim was not a seal. A photo by Wayne McFarland posted May 17 on @wsferries shows T137 near Southworth with a Harbor porpoise in her jaws. Moreover, this week’s Dorsal Spin photo by Maya Sears offers a clue as to the meal on the 16th.

Mark and Maya Sears had another exceptional research encounter with these killer whales on May 21. The T137s, accompanied by adult males and presumed brothers T125A and T128, were on the prowl near Bainbridge Island when they made a kill. Maya’s photo -- taken under permit, of course -- shows sprouter male T137A, born 2002, munching a Harbor porpoise. Mark and Maya collected a porpoise lung, as well as a pristine herring that the porpoise had eaten, on the 21st. Evidently, Transients are taking advantage of the seasonal abundance of porpoises.

On May 22, a less conspicuous Transient matriline, the T77s, rapidly transited Dalco Pass on their way to the Tacoma Narrows, ostensibly to join the other Transients who ventured into the South Sound after dark on May 21. I have not previously seen the T77s, so with geeky joy I get to check them on my Transient life list. They were spotted in Hood Canal a few weeks ago.

Be sure to visit the VHP’s whale-filled table at the Low Tide Celebration on Sunday, June 5, 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, at fabulous Point Robinson Park. You know you want a Low Tide t-shirt designed by Tlingit artist Odin Lonning, or perhaps a piece of his exquisite artwork. Odin also does a TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) talk for Low Tide. Marine mammal stranding response will be a focal point this year, since many Islanders were unaware of whom to call when the two ailing Gray whales were here. Hint: Orca Annie at 463-9041 or NOAA’s stranding hotline at 1-866-767-6114.

We are grateful to the Islanders who reported whale sightings directly to us this month. Ed and Bob, veteran VHP spotters, really helped with the Transients. One final loose end: my article title in the April 28 Loop was a tribute to music prodigy Prince, 1958-2016. “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a sentiment we feel for whales, as well as a favorite Prince song at Chez VHP. I ran out of room to explain last time.

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS and STRANDINGS ASAP to 206-463-9041, 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 and sustain an accurate record of sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated three decades ago by Mark Sears. Send photos to Orca Annie at and check for updates at