Transients in Bloom

The Dorsal Spin


When daffodils blossom on Vashon, mammal-eating Transient killer whales flourish in our waters. I arrived on Vashon in 1994, and for many years I saw only Resident orcas (SRKW) in central Puget Sound. The spring Transient phenomenon originated in the early 2000s, and has grown steadily more predictable in the last fifteen years. Transients (Ts) can appear here any month of the year, but now I expect sizable Transient incursions in early spring.
On March 26, three waves of 42 Transients from nine families journeyed through Dalco Pass and Colvos Pass. Three families have 2019 babies. 42 is a record for Vashon waters — Mark Sears and I have not previously documented that many Transients here on one day. Nerd note: researchers do not use the word “pod” to refer to Transients. “Pod” is reserved for Residents.

The T86As and T124As – likely 12 orcas — were in Dalco Pass in the early morning on the 26th before they traveled north into Colvos Pass. T124A3 has a 2019 baby. At 1:00 PM, Odin and I spotted seven or so Ts — the T90s and T124Ds — off Point Defiance as they exited the Narrows. They milled briefly and then entered Colvos Pass, where researcher Mark Sears caught up with them. At 5:45 PM, we watched a spectacular congregation of 23 Transients from five families stream by Point Defiance as they departed the Narrows. Their elegant backlit blows faded into Colvos Pass. The five families were: T36As — with a 2019 baby; matriarch T36 + T36Bs — also with a 2019 baby; T46s + T122, a female who travels with the T46s; T101s; and T137s.

On April 5, another 30-32 Transients visited.  At 2:15 PM, I spied dorsal fins in Dalco Pass, traveling west. Consistent with Mark’s earlier report of 20-minimum highly social orcas, the Ts were loosely grouped, all females and juveniles except for one sprouter (subadult male), T100C. With so many little ones, they resembled a floating nursery school. They frolicked between Point Defiance and Gig Harbor for about 35 minutes before going into the Narrows. They were surface active: adults spyhopping; “kids” breaching and tail slapping, etc. Evidently, they made a kill — the commotion attracted numerous gulls and sent a scared Harbor seal toward the beach.

Photos later confirmed Ts from six families, some who were here on March 26 and some different groups. Intriguingly, all three families with 2019 babies were present: T36As, T36+T36Bs, T124As. Mark commented that one baby looked really tiny and peachy — the new arrival in the T36As.

Others in the April 5 assemblage were the T99s, T100s, and T124Ds. These fluid aggregations fascinate me. Certainly, abundant prey draws large Transient gatherings to lower Puget Sound. However, I believe something besides good eats attracts them, perhaps something culturally or socially relevant to Transient killer whales. Are the mothers familiarizing their newborns with the territory?

On April 9, 19 Transients from three families challenged us to follow their elusive maneuvers. We observed the T65As off Point Dalco as they circumnavigated the Island. They pulled a Narrows fake-out move before reemerging in Colvos Pass, where Mark and Maya Sears found them for ID photos. The other two groups – later revealed to be the T101s and T124As — transited the Faunt/Va/SW ferry lanes, but then turned north at Three Tree Point. Helicopter video from KING and KOMO aided in identifying these orcas.

Now, an Earth Month musing. In our First Nations household, killer whales are our relatives, and we do not call ANY whale “it.” Even some Western thinkers advocate for extending personhood to sentient beings such as cetaceans and primates. Demeaning a whale as an “it” allows merciless humans to mistreat and kill whales for captivity or food.

The gender of SRKW Baby L124, nicknamed Lucky, is still unknown. Aspirationally, I call Baby L124 “her” or “she” because the SRKW desperately need females for future breeding. In the April 11 edition, the Beachcomber misquoted me as referring to Baby L124 as “it.” “It” might be AP journalistic style for a whale, but not mine.

This week’s photo is from a stunning online set by Chris Hamilton of T46s off Browns Point on March 23, where they attacked an Elephant seal. Elephant seals are not common here. Transients breach during their kills to subdue and drown prey. Young T46F participated, helping Mom T46, big brothers T46D and T46E, and female T122 to vanquish the seal — the family that “preys” together!

On March 23, the T46s and T137s visited us in Dalco Pass at 6:00 PM. They brushed by the Tahlequah dock and cruised along the Dalco Wall, yards off Vashon’s southern shore. They were so close that I could easily ID every family member! Though he was within striking range, a flipper-tagged California sea lion snoozed through the astonishing encounter. Maybe the T46s were full of Elephant seal.

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS & STRANDINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. Several phone calls from Islanders on 3/26 were extremely helpful to our research effort.  Prompt reports expedite vital data collection and sustain an accurate record of sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated four decades ago by Mark Sears. When reporting a sighting or stranding, be specific: date, time, location, travel direction, species description, number of whales/seals/etc., and behavior observed. We prefer phone reports, but if email is the only way to coax you to report to us, send sightings and photos to Your photos of marine mammals are valuable for ID purposes. Do not assume we will randomly find stuff posted online. We are grateful to everyone who reports directly to us.