Sunday, July 30, 2017

Killer Whales (or orcas if you prefer)

One thing about life in the last frontier and the hidden gem of it in particular, is that you really never know what memorable experience you may have from day to day.  I suppose and accept that this is a statement that is applicable to life anywhere, but I specifically mean that we have potential for memorable experiences that reconnect one to the natural world from which we increasingly attempt to disconnect ourselves.  Feeding pigeons in a city park may connect a person with the natural world to some beneficial degree, a deer in the backyard can be a profound and intimate encounter so it may be a personal failing of my own that I require more than that to feel that intimacy and connection.   This is not some romantic notion or attempt to portray myself as some rugged mountain man, if anything, I think this has caused me more difficulties throughout my life than any comfort and ease.  I imagine that there are many Alaskans out there who are Alaskans for similar reasons.

While the summer of 2017 will not go down in the memory banks as a particularly pleasant one weather wise, I have been graced with some very memorable experiences so far.  One of the most memorable happened just a few days ago.

While sitting at idle in the boat at the beginning of a trip up the Stikine River on the edge of the delta, I spotted a very faint, quickly dissipating cloud of mist very near to the shore of a nearby island.  Somehow, the mind can learn to discern one type of mist from another when you have lived long enough in a land of mists.  (The mind can also come to appreciate the many shades of grey as well!) 
That mist came from one of 5 or 6 killer whales patrolling near the island.

There were two adult males, two adult females, and two small young ones, one of which was a female, I'm not sure about the other.  This group was obviously circling and doing something with a purpose.

The orca on the right in the above photo has a very distinct white mark on the left side of the front of its dorsal fin.  The mark looks a lot like the state of West Virginia so will make future meetings with her easy.  While we were watching these "whales", killer whales are actually the largest of the dolphins and are not whales at all, a single seal popped up while the orcas were all under the water.  This seal's appearance began to give us some insight into the story that was playing itself out before us - these orcas were transients who were hunting and very likely teaching their young ones how to hunt seals!  Just seconds after the seal submerged, there was a very large swirling disturbance in the water.  There was no obvious sign of seal death but not long after this swirling disturbance, the behavior of the orcas became somewhat less coordinated and the young ones became playful and silly.  One of them breached and began slapping its tail and pectoral fins on the water in a display that I can only describe as happy.

Of course, I can't say for sure if they were responding to me or not, but I started to slap my hand on the water and make splashes of my own which might have encouraged the youngsters to put on a show for us as the tail and pectoral slapping and breaching increased and all of the orcas stayed fairly close to the boat.

This was the last breach as they all began to swim away from us which I was lucky enough to get on the camera.  This is the little female which I named Drea.

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