May 20, 2023 ~ T125A and T128

Presumed brothers T128 Flotsam and T125A Jetsam have been a familiar duo in the Salish Sea, but not so long ago that was not the case! They, along with their mom T125 and presumed third brother T127 Hacksaw, visited the Salish Sea in June 2015 – but before that, they hadn’t been seen in our region 1992! (You can read about my encounter with them from June 2015 on my old blog here.) Despite having originally come in as a foursome, we most frequently see “Flotsam and Jetsam” as a pair, visiting a couple dozen days each year in recent years.

T125A and T128 visited the Salish Sea from mid-April until early May, but then we hadn’t heard of there whereabouts since May 9th. Until, that is, the morning of May 20th, when they were picked up near Smith Island, about 6 miles south of Lopez Island. What follows is an interesting tale, so to keep things clear, I’ll report the facts first, followed by my speculation.

The Facts

10:50 AM – T125A and T128 are picked up on the NE side of Smith Island heading north towards Rosario Strait

T128 was sporting some fresh rake/bite marks on his dorsal.

T128 – left side (photo by Rachel Haight)
T128 – right side (photo by Rachel Haight)

10:50 – 14:30 – The two whales head north up Haro Strait, mostly separated by >1 mile.

14:45 – Between Bird Rocks and James Island, the two whales come together for about 10 minutes. After a 9 minute dive, T125A came up with a seal in his mouth, carrying it for a while before consuming it. The whales part ways again.

T125A and T128 briefly converge near James Island before separating again. Photo by Amanda Colbert.

15:30 – By this time, the whales had split again, with T128 going west through Thatcher Pass and T125A continuing north in Rosario.

15:30 – 16:45 – T128 mills on the west side of Blakely Island while T125A continues north to nearly Peapod Rocks. They would not have been within acoustic range of each other at this time.

T128 milling on his own between Blakely and Lopez Islands. Photo by Monika Wieland Shields.

17:00 – T125A does four tail slaps, turns south before starting to go back and forth mid-channel, not making any progress in any direction and not doing any long dives, vocalizing regularly and loudly, and displacing a lot of water on some surfacings. This behavior continues for over an hour.

Sample vocalizations from T125A, recorded by Sara Hysong-Shimazu from an above-water hydrophone speaker. The calls were not ones I immediately recognized as known discrete calls, so I shared them with killer whale acoustics expert John Ford. He described them as part of a variable family of call types that Bigg’s sometimes make that have not yet been differentiated into their discrete sub-types.

17:15-17:30 – T128 travels at 10-12 kts back east through Thatcher Pass, then as soon as he gets into Rosario Strait flips back west and returns to the west side of Blakely Island.

18:15 – T128 is last seem east of Humphrey Head, heading NW towards the Lopez ferry terminal.

18:35 – T125A is last seen still east of Obstruction Pass, now facing south but not making progress against the flood tide.

Map of the travels of T125A (yellow) and T128 (purple) on May 20, 2023, with points of interest marked in black pins. Map created by Monika Wieland Shields.

The Speculation, Part 1

The following thoughts are educated guesses:

  • We aren’t experts on this sort of thing, but given that T128’s wounds weren’t bloody and were exuding some flesh that in previous similar situations has been described as part of the healing process, we believe these wounds were probably a few days old. We expect these wounds will fully heal, and if past examples hold true, may not even leave any noticeable scar.
  • The rake marks are consistent with teeth marks from another killer whale; given their spacing, likely a large/adult whale. It seems likely another orca is responsible fro T128’s injury.
  • T125A exhibited “pacing” behavior that we have sometimes seen from Bigg’s when they appear to be waiting for other whales to show up to an area. His loud vocalizing and displacement of water at the surface (which would also cause underwater sound) are consistent with trying to communicate with another whale (or whales).
  • T128 appeared to turn back into Thatcher Pass right when he would have been within acoustic range of his brother in Rosario Strait.

The Speculation, Part 2

Everything below is pure speculation, but this is the kind of stuff we and others love to hypothesize about whenever we see an unusual behavioral event like this one. We have no way of knowing if any of this is correct, but it seems like at least one plausible explanation. Everyone who contributed observations is an experienced killer whale observer, and some of their speculated thoughts are in quotes below.

  • Was T125A responsible for T128’s injury? The wounds on T128 look consistent with being caused by another adult male whale, and T125A is T128’s most stalwart traveling companion. If so, was it rough-housing that went too far, or could it have been intentional? Were they traveling over a mile apart because they needed some space from each other?
  • When the whales briefly converged and T125A caught a seal, “was he pushing around that seal trying to make a peace offering?”
  • T125A “seemed kind of panicked” when he was vocalizing and pacing. It felt like “he was trying to be as loud and obvious as possible”. They were “the loudest vocalizations I have ever picked up over a hydrophone” and they “had a definite intensity to them”.
  • Often we see a group of Bigg’s split and meet up on the other side of an island. Did T125A and T128 “plan” to meet on the other side of Blakely, back in Rosario, and when T128 didn’t show, was T125A looking for him or wondering where he was?
  • When T128 backtracked through Thatcher Pass and poked his head back into Rosario, was he checking on the status of his brother? When he heard how panicked he was, did he go back to “hide” behind Blakely? “Why did he turn back as soon as he would have been hearing those calls?”

We will never know the true story of what unfolded, but our glimpses into the inner-workings of killer whale society are so rare that this seemed like a day of observations worth relating. These highly-social animals are capable of complex emotions and undoubtedly have to navigate a lot of them among their many life-long relationships with other whales. Perhaps this was one example of those emotions being dealt with: anger or frustration or an accident resulting in an injury, followed by a retaliation or prank in response, and an either temporary (or maybe even permanent? only time will tell) altering of an existing relationship.

The only other piece of the puzzle we are likely to get is when these two are next seen: will they be separate or together? Unfortunately, at the time of this writing it has been four days since this incident, neither whale has been reported again, so as of right now, we don’t know what their status is!

These types of observations and insights are only possible through the type of collaborative community science we at OBI value so highly. No one person or group would have been able to be with these whales all day, or be in two places at once when they split. Thank you to the Pacific Whale Watch Association for sharing the locations of these whales over the course of the day; to John Ford for sharing his expertise regarding the vocalizations; and to Amanda Colbert, Rachel Haight, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, and Daven Hafey for sharing their detailed observations and thoughts to supplement our own from this day.