Transient orcas visit Dyes Inlet, thrilling many shoreside observers

UPDATE: Friday, June 28

To put the finishing touches on this story, the orcas headed out of Dyes Inlet late yesterday afternoon and entered Rich Passage by about 4:30 p.m., according to multiple Facebook accounts. The whales apparently turned south, then headed across Puget Sound, where there were spotted by passengers on the Bainbridge Island ferry about 6:15 p.m. They spent a short time in Seattle’s Elliott Bay before heading north in the main channel of Puget Sound, reaching somewhere between Kingston and Edmonds as darkness fell.

UPDATE: Thursday, June 27

Mark Sears reported this morning that he had identified the two groups of transient killer whales, which are reportedly still in Dyes Inlet today. One group is known as the T36 group, led by a 49-year-old female (T36), who is accompanied by her 21-year-old daughter (T36B) along with other family members. The other family group is known as the T99s, including a 35-year-old female and her family. In all, Mark said, there were 10 or 11 orcas sighted yesterday.

A group of about eight transient killer whales came to visit the Bremerton-Silverdale area today (Wednesday), exciting lots of people who watched from shore.

An orca calf was among the transient killer whales visiting Dyes Inlet today (Wednesday).
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Mark Sears and his grown daughter Maya, both federally permitted orca researchers, caught up with the whales in Sinclair Inlet and began taking photos to identify the individual animals.

Mark, who lives in West Seattle, got word of the whales coming south while they were still off Bainbridge Island.

“They must have been flying through Rich Passage,” he said, noting that the whales passed in front of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, then abruptly turned back and headed into Port Washington Narrows. They swam under the Manette Bridge at 2:01 p.m., then under the Warren Avenue Bridge nine minutes later, he said.

The whales then passed on through Port Washington Narrows, entered Dyes Inlet and continued toward Silverdale, thrilling people who watched them along the way. Mark was reviewing his photos this evening, but he had not identified what could be two matriarchal groups. He will send his photos to the Center for Whale Research for final ID confirmation.

Mark said he noticed one calf among the group of mostly older adult females and juveniles, including a young male that might be a “sprouter,” so called because his dorsal fin grows rapidly as he transitions to an adult.

As of 10 p.m., there was still at least one report on the Kitsap Sun’s Facebook page of the whales swimming near Silverdale. Perhaps they will stay until morning.

The Kitsap Sun’s photographer, Meegan M. Reid, posted a gallery of photos from today’s events, and Kitsap Sun reporter Josh Farley went to the scene and posted a live video (playback above) on the Sun’s Facebook page.

Transient killer whales — a type of West Coast orca that eats seals, sea lions and other marine mammals — have visited Dyes Inlet before without being formally identified. I’ve heard stories of transient orcas frightening harbor seals right out of the water, as the seals take refuge on docks and along the shore of Dyes Inlet. So far today, however, I’ve not heard or read any reports of frightened seals.

Mark said he was somewhat disturbed by today’s actions by kayakers, who he believed were getting close to the whales without much regard for their movements. Leap-frogging ahead of the whales is a clear no-no.

“Kayakers don’t think they are a problem, but they are,” Mark said, noting that transients may respond by diving longer to get away from them.

What were previously called “Be Whale Wise guidelines” spells out what are now legally mandated distances, which boaters must observe when around killer whales.

One thing that is nice about Dyes Inlet is that you can watch the whales from shore, especially with a good pair of binoculars.

Transient orcas, of course, are not the same as the southern resident orcas, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Residents eat fish, and one of their major problems is a shortage of chinook salmon, their preferred species.

The difference between residents and transients are explained on this webpage from the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

In October 1997, a group of 19 resident orcas visited Dyes Inlet for an entire month, a long stay like nothing seen before or since. The drama increased as the whales seemed to be stuck in the inlet, perhaps afraid to pass under the Warren Avenue Bridge. I documented the story at the time and in a special report on the 10th anniversary. See Dyes Inlet Orcas — Ten Years Later.

NOAA Fisheries has posted information about the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

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