Visiting the orcas, Wednesday a.m.
Visiting the Orcas
One of the transient orca groups – Photo by Chris Zylstra.
Thursday morning: One of the teams that went out this morning had the good luck to come across a pod of transient orcas.
As well as the “resident” pods — the J, K, and L pods — who spend most of their time around the islands here, there are some “transient” pods, whose lifestyle is quite different from residents. They speak a different language from the resident pods, eat different food, travel further afield, and have different family behaviors.
Transient killer whale pods generally consist of an adult female and two or three of her kids. And while resident orcas of both sexes stay within shouting distance of their mothers their entire lives, only first-born male transients maintain such intense fidelity to their mothers. Optimum pod size for transients is three, so whenever a third calf is born, one of the siblings often leaves. The rule seems to be that the eldest son can stay, but all but one of the others, who are generally 5 to 12 years old, may have to go.
Residents and transients have figured out the best way to coexist, so they don’t fight when they meet each other. For example, while the residents only eat fish, the transients eat other marine mammals.
The team that was out in the morning happened upon a transient group that had just captured a porpoise. One of them was carrying the porpoise around on his nose and tossing him around — a bit like your cat at home will play with a mouse. Why they play with their food is not entirely known, but these the top predators of the ocean clearly love to play — they’re exuberant and fun-loving, and they love to hunt.
And if, understandably, you feel a bit sorry for the porpoise, bear in mind that the orcas will naturally go for the small and weaker animals, and the overall effect is to keep the porpoise population strong and healthy. The same goes for the resident orcas and the fish they catch. Residents prefer salmon, and on their long journey back from the ocean to the mountain streams where they were born and where they return to give birth to a new generation, the salmon have to endure a series of great challenges — from the orcas in the ocean to the bears along the rivers to the rapids they have to leap over. Only the strongest and smartest will make it back, and their offspring will be strong and healthy, too. (That’s one reason why the modern factory fish farms, where the fish have no real life, are such an ecological disaster.)
Later in the afternoon, Mike Parfit and Suzanne Chisolm arrive at Snug Harbor in their boat from a nearby island, where they live. It’s largely unpopulated by people there, so Mike and Suzanne’s boat is the equivalent of your SUV: They go shopping and do everything else by boat. Tonight, Mike and Suzanne will be presenting a preview of their new movie The Whale, which will be premiered in New York and other cities on September 16. But we have a couple of hours to spare, and they invite me and Lori Marino for a quick spin to see if we can catch up with the transients. We go out for about an hour, and Mike radios some of the other boats that are out to see who’s seeing what, but the orcas have moved on and are too far out of range.
That’s the way it goes. This is not one of the marine circuses where you pay your money and are guaranteed to see a captive orca performing for you. Here you’re out in their territory, and there’s no guarantee they’re going to show up.
On the way back, incidentally, we pause just below the Center for Whale Research, which many of the orcas pass by every day.
Back at Snug Harbor, Ken Balcomb picks us up to give us a lift to Candace’s home, where a couple of dozen people will be gathering to watch The Whale and for a talk by John Durbin about the orcas in the Antarctic.