Once again, because the things I’ve seen happen too fast to catch on film, I’m left describing them, and once again, they’ve left me speechless.
Of all our varied wildlife, whales are the most magnificent to watch. Of those, the most heart stopping may be the killer whales, also called orcas.
Naturalists tell us that killer whales fall into two main clans: “residents” and “transients.” Many differences can be observed between these two factions, but perhaps most noticeably, residents eat fish, and transients eat mammals.
Pods of both types range freely through Southeast Alaska and beyond. Experts may differentiate between the two on sight, but to the casual witness, telling which type of killer whale you see is hard. Mostly, it falls to telling, if we can, what they’re eating, if they’re eating at the moment.
The residents, which tend to travel in larger pods, often whack the water with their tails, stunning fish. If we have the hydrophone in the water, we hear them vocalize much more frequently than transients. We see them feeding close by humpback whales, even with humpback calves present, when the herring runs in the spring.
The transients often travel in small pods, move quietly, possibly even secretively, but unless they’re hunting at the moment, it’s hard to say for sure.
On a recent afternoon, I could have no doubt that transients passed by.
I looked up to see the calm surface of Lynn Canal spotted with concentric rings all across the view. Every now and then I saw a splash as something surfaced quickly. I thought I might be witnessing a late run of salmon. This totally disoriented me, since it seemed so unlikely. Unfortunately, the idea, though improbable, stuck. I took a pair of binoculars out to the beach and tried to see what splashed. I watched near splashes for a second one, but as I focused on that small area, I could hear noise of activity all around. I constantly looked in the wrong places, missing what was happening.
Eventually, I figured out that I was watching a pod of Dall’s porpoise, the larger of two common local types, the other being harbor porpoise. Dall’s porpoises often zip around swiftly in the water after feed, while harbor porpoises usually seem quieter and more sedate.
Something seemed different this time, though. They swam fast, but didn’t seem to break the surface as often as other hunting forays I’d witnessed.
Suddenly, I saw a killer whale fin, tall and erect, indicating a male, knife up at the back of the porpoise pod. I may have seen a second one, with a slightly different shaped dorsal fin. I had difficulty telling for sure, because pursuers and pursued passed swiftly by where I stood. Before long, they’d all passed by.
Then, I saw a huge splash down by the southern point. I trained my binoculars on the spot, and the next instant, an adult female killer whale launched completely out of the water in a perfect, arching dive!
I saw it for the briefest instant, but it made an impression. I can recall every detail as if it hung in midair for long minutes while I inspected it.
I realized I couldn’t go down to the southern point to watch them. Even if I didn’t break a leg clambering over the rocks, the chase would have outpaced me easily. I hadn’t even grabbed a camera, and never would have gotten any meaningful images if I had. All I could do was watch for a few, fleeting moments, and remember it—probably for as long as I live.