Transient orca pod makes a splash with visit to Bellingham Bay

by John Thompson
Office of University Communications
  • The pod's large bull cruises off Post Point.
    The pod's large bull cruises off Post Point.
  • Tl'uk and his family frolic off of Marine Park
    Tl'uk and his family frolic off of Marine Park
  • The pod surfaces offshore of Western
    The pod surfaces offshore of Western

Bellingham residents were given a rare treat on Tuesday when Transient orca pod T46B spent most of the day in Bellingham Bay, much to the delight of hundreds of onlookers from shore and a few lucky kayakers.

But not only were onlookers treated to a view of the pod, they also got an even more rare encounter - the albino orca known as "Tl'uk," which roughly translated in Coast Salish means "moon," and it's easy to see why he got such a fitting name. No one is sure why Tl'uk received his unique pale color, but the most common theory of his incredibly rare skin color is leucism, where an animal partially loses its pigmentation in skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticles, but not the eyes.

WWU Biology research associate Jennifer Tennessen, who researches the feeding behavior of these incredible animals and saw the pod from shore with her daughters, said transients (also known as Bigg’s orcas, after the Canadian marine scientist who spent his career researching them) and residents are the two ecotypes of killer whales that reside in the Salish Sea.

"Transients eat marine mammals exclusively, such as harbor porpoises, seals, sea lions, and gray or humpback whale calves, whereas residents eat fish exclusively, primarily chinook, coho and chum salmon," she said. "Transients can be identified by their dorsal fin, which comes to a sharper point at the top of the fin compared to the more rounded dorsal fin of residents. Additionally, transients tend to travel in smaller groups than residents, typically a matriline composed of a mother and her sons and juvenile daughters (T46B's matriarch is a 34-year-old female), whereas residents typically travel in larger groups composed of several matrilines." 

"While both ecotypes communicate acoustically when socializing and traveling, transients hunt silently, with minimal echolocation, in order to avoid acoustic detection by their mammal prey that can hear within the frequency range transients use to communicate," Tennessen said.

Timing is everything

Office of University Communications Visual Journalist Rhys Logan was on the bay in his kayak to shoot this incredible set of images of the pod; he was joined by other kayakers as well, one of whom turned out to be Professor of Environmental Sciences John Rybczyk.

"I saw the pod from shore, quite a distance away, earlier in that morning, but I didn't expect them to still be around when I went for a lunchtime paddle. We very seldom see them in the bay proper.  After paddling for about twenty minutes, I thought I saw what might be the pod splashing around about a mile further out, so I paddled out to explore, and there they were," Rybczyk said. "I've seen orcas from various motorized boats over the years, but never in my kayak, but seeing an orca from a kayak has always been on my bucket list. It turns out that, when you're sitting there, right at their level, orcas are quite large, and noisy too."

Rybczyk said the family group was made up of at least seven individuals, and was quite active.

"It was spectacular.  The smaller ones were very playful, and I think I watched them for about an hour, slowly paddling behind them as they made their way to Hale Passage and out of the bay," he said. "Then I realized that I had a three or four mile paddle back to shore."

Want to learn more? Read this Crosscut story about Tennessen's research and how its findings could be crucial in saving the Salish Sea's resident pods.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 1:15pm

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