Last Thursday, after wrapping up a week’s worth of work to produce last weekend’s series on the politics of starving orcas, I got up from my desk in dire need of a long walk. So I drove down to American Camp on the southern end of San Juan Island and went for a hike down to a seaside trail along a spot called Granny’s Cove.
Just as I was about done and ready to turn up the trail back to my car, I saw a large splash out of the corner of my eye. I stopped, looked, and sure enough, there was a big male orca fin cutting through the waves. I ran hurriedly down to the rocky point on the southern side of the cove and got out my camera.
What unfolded before my eyes was what’s known as a “greeting ceremony,” and it is infrequently observed when two or more pods who have been foraging separately come together. Killer whales are extraordinarily social creatures, so it is probably not surprising to see them devising formal ceremonial behavior like this. Orca cultures vary widely, but this one is peculiar to the Southern Residents.
The scientists and observers who know more about this behavior tell me they more often see it when the large “superpods”—gatherings of all 73 animals in the population—occur, and they usually are constituted of two whole lines diving into one another, instead of what we saw Thursday, which was one or two individuals approaching the whole line and then diving in and frolicking together. They repeated it about four times while I was watching.
Incidentally, what I was watching was a reunion of a J Pod subgroup known as the J16s coming back together with the rest of J Pod after they had been foraging apart all day. And I was just incredibly fortunate to be the one person who got to witness it.