Humans aren’t the only ones who join forces with friends to educate and enrich their kids…meet the T65A and T137 Bigg’s Orca families.
With life cycles so similar to our own, observing orca families over time feels very much like watching nieces and nephews growing up – especially on a celebratory, social day filled with sunshine, good times, and not a care in the world.
Encounter Date: September 1, 2020
I’ve written about my love of orca – and the T137 family – in this post, along with resources for sightings and IDs, so check it out if you haven’t already.
I was thrilled to have a recent hours-long encounter with them this September. As always, beyond the thrill of their presence, these charismatic megafauna had things to teach me, and it was an enlightening and exciting exploration.
Bigg’s (Transient) Orca form small pods that are matrilineal, where the mother travels with her sub-adult offspring, often accompanied by her adult male offspring. While that is the standard “unit,” these pods will also travel with other pods, presumably to socialize and search for their prey – marine mammals.
I had been seeing reports of the T137s traveling for much of the summer with the T65A family, and this was my lucky day to see these happy families wiling away a beautiful afternoon in the Puget Sound. As you’ll see, the orca were in high, social spirits. After hours of pouring through photos of rambunctious, splashy youngsters and trying to ID individuals, I experienced a lightning bolt of insight: these families had young that were VERY close in age to one another.
Were these clever mamas palling around all summer because their kiddos are so compatible in age and development? This idea was very compelling as I reviewed the activity of the day compared to their ages:
|34||Matriarch T65A (1986)||37||Matriarch T137 (1983)|
|16||T65A2 (male) (2004)||18||T137A (male) (2002)|
|13||T65A3 (2007)||14||T137B (now thought to be a male) (2006)|
|9||T65A4 (2011)||T137C passed away shortly after being born (2010)|
|6||T65A5 (2014)||8||T137D (2012)|
While it’s certainly conjecture on my part, it doesn’t seem too crazy to propose that mamas with newly mature first sons, tweens, mid-childhood kiddos, and a toddler might combine forces to meet all those various needs – grabbing dinner, learning life skills, playing with friends, gaining social skills, and perhaps gaining parents precious moments of respite.
Fierce Upside-Down Competition
More often than not, I see whales in transit. Watching them surface and travel is cool, but the holy grail of whale sightings are the encounters where they are hunting or socializing. This was a day filled to the brim with spyhops, tail lobs, headstands, breaches, and other social behavior that looked like one heck of a party. Pouring through more than 4,000 photos snapped between myself and my partner, I counted no less than three dozen headstand shots – and I know we didn’t get even a fraction of them. (600mm lens from shore, lots of cropping, if you were wondering)
In early September 2019, I was deeply saddened by reports and photos of a peduncle injury for T137A. Observers had seen him lagging behind his family and behaving oddly. Finally, some researchers got a good look at the problem – possible the result of a propeller injury.
At the time, researchers were optimistic that he would recover fully. You can read the social media post with details of the injury here.
So it was with great joy that I watched T137A traveling with his family. I can’t say if I specifically saw him joining in the splashy antics, but he was a steady, strong presence alongside his family and friends.
But T137A is a spunky one…
While I was researching the family, I ran across this article from 2016 – when T137A was only 14 years old. Apparently, he thought it would be good fun to harass two adult gray whales migrating through Saratoga Passage.
No one came to any harm, but mom T137 took her younger kiddos away from the situation and then doubled back to drag her son home by the ear.
Click on the article to read the whole account.
Growing Up Orca
Most orca are listed as “unknown” gender until they are old enough to have the male dorsal growth spurt, known as “sprouting,” or if a researcher is lucky enough to capture just the right angle of underside shot while also having a clear ID of the whale. Previously, I hadn’t seen reference to gender for T137B, but in the most recent sightings, researchers mentioned a tell-tale change. I had wondered why I was having a hard time IDing from my usual sources, but this guy’s dorsal is shooting up!
Speaking of giant dorsals, it’s a little unfathomable to imagine the scale of male dorsals once they are fully mature. T65A2 is just reaching maturity and his dorsal is right around 6 feet tall. Male dorsals are one of the reasons I tell those new to whale watching that they will KNOW when they see an orca vs any other cetacean.
And on the other end of the spectrum, the youngest member of the T65As is two year-old T65A6. This little one – like most orca under 3 – sticks pretty close to mom. The teeny dorsals on the wee ones gets me every time I see them!
A Perfect Day
It had been two years since I had seen the T137 family – after seeing them annually since 2015 – so their celebratory mood fit my own elated state as I observed them, spent hours pouring over photos, shared to my community on social media, and then lingered over creating this post to commemorate the visit.
May I be this fortunate each and every year, continuing to visit with this beautiful family and their many friends.