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Seal Pup Primer

The Dorsal Spin
Princess Angeline (J17) with new baby J53, 10/24/15. Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research photo.
Princess Angeline (J17) with new baby J53, 10/24/15. Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research photo.

Our cherished orcas, both Residents and Transients, are certainly newsworthy of late. With six babies and an extraordinary journey up to Springer’s homeland, or Northern Resident traditional territory, the Southern Residents have generated a plethora of news. I will start locally, however, with a remarkable Transient encounter.

 One Transient group that has made frequent forays this year into lower Puget Sound kept eluding us until the other day. The T101s have a penchant for showing up near Chez VHP when we are off Island or just running errands in town. When I finally laid eyes on them -- zig-zagging from shore to shore, taking long dives, and traveling minutes apart -- I fully grasped how they can slink around in here like ghosts.

Pinniped panic alerted us to the imminent approach of seal-munching orcas. Two nervous Steller’s sea lions, swimming in tandem, and more than a dozen terrified Harbor seals, porpoising high out of the water, fled far away from the formidable fins. The number of seals in our neighborhood constantly astounds us.

Three looming male dorsals, graduated in size according to age, dwarfed the unassuming dorsal fin of the matriarch, T101, about 42 years old. Her sons T101A and T101B were born in 1993 and 1997, respectively. The impressively large male in this group is T102, born 1984. I suspect he is T101’s brother or possibly a son, since T101 might have been born before 1973. Age eleven is typically a bit young for an orca mom in our waters, but J Pod new mother Eclipse (J41), born 2005, had a baby, Nova (J51), in 2015.

Once again, we must give props to our friend and VHP associate, researcher Mark Sears. Mark is recovering from hand surgery he had a few weeks ago. Despite that impediment, he went out in his boat on October 25, in a rain squall, to gather data on the Transients. Other NOAA researchers were not available on that day to do vessel-based work.

By the time Mark found the wily killer whales late in the afternoon, they had whipped around Vashon and Blake Islands, through Rich Passage into Sinclair Inlet near Bremerton. Before returning home, he watched in amazement as they breached and socialized upon entering Dyes Inlet. Evidently, this shallow inlet is a preferred seal café for some of our Transient families.

If not for Mark’s dedication and ID photos, pertinent data on this Transient encounter would be lacking. At Loop deadline, I await a photo disk from Mark that will show me who accompanied the T101s into Dyes Inlet -- at least five other Transients. Sighting reports from several Islanders -- Carl, Bob, Kelly and Pat -- were particularly helpful. We are grateful.

Consider this an elaboration on my standard closing reminder: Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. We monitor this line 24/7 -- call at 3:00 AM if you hear blows! Mark launches his boat from West Seattle, so timely reports from all Vashon ferry routes are extremely useful. Surely, one or two Islanders could call us when whales grace the commute. Leave a call back number in case we need more details. Accuracy online is a problem, so we do not rely on social media. Do not assume we will find stuff posted there by chance.

When reporting a sighting, be specific: date, time, location, travel direction, species description, number of animals, and behavior observed. We can guide you if you need help with reporting. Phone reports tend to be more accurate, but if email is the only way we can coax you to report to the VHP, send sightings and photos to Vashonorcas@aol.com. Your photos of marine mammals are valuable for ID purposes.

Since I do not have Mark’s Transient pictures yet, this week’s blissful photo is of the latest Southern Resident mother, Princess Angeline (J17), born 1977, with Baby J53. Princess Angeline is one of our favorite, older J Pod gals. Drone footage from summer killer whale research by NOAA Fisheries and the Vancouver Aquarium showed J17’s belly bump. When first spotted on October 24, days-old cutie J53 still had fetal folds. More perspective on the orca babies next time.