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Chainsaw Medicine

The Dorsal Spin
Caption: Handsome Transient male Chainsaw (T63). Gary Sutton photo.

The weeks around Mother’s Day, the first one after my mother’s death, bordered on unbearable this year. Distraught and preoccupied were the operative modes. On May 18, I was on a major bummer -- profoundly sad and missing my mother intensely. Odin, Nashoba and I did what we typically do for relief: seek refuge in Mother Nature. We went outside to take in the early evening vista -- the thunderclouds over Tahoma, the acrobatics of our Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbird families, the smell of salal, and . . . wait a minute, who the heck is that emerging from behind the Chetzemoka, strutting down the Sound full of orca-tude?!

Looming from the east, with the incongruous cranes of Commencement Bay behind them, came a vision from the time of our First Nations ancestors – the type of killer whales who inspire aboriginal artists and shamans. I recognized the male in the lead immediately, though I have not seen him before in this part of Puget Sound. When he approaches, the corkscrew kink in his singular dorsal fin is visible from a distance. The lateral view of his fin reveals two aesthetic notches that give him his nickname: Chainsaw (T63), born 1978.

Traveling beside Chainsaw were his frequent companions: matriarch T65, born circa 1971, her daughter T65B, born 1993, and “grandcalf” T65B1. T65 might be Chainsaw’s sister. Other Transient matrilines followed them through Dalco Pass. I estimated the entire group size to be about 20 -- a Transient superpod. A visually striking and spiritually uplifting contingent of orcas of all ages proceeded toward Point Defiance.

Lucky photographer Gary Sutton snapped this week’s photo of handsome Chainsaw in the northern Salish Sea, a few days before he graced our shores. T63 and associates were in rapid travel mode when we saw them, on a mission to penetrate the South Sound.

In early May, T65’s other daughter, T65A, born 1986, brought her winsome brood of four deep into Puget Sound for ten days. In my twisted imagination, I see her returning north, á la “Far Side” cartoons, to tell her extended family about the fabulous seal café in Eld Inlet! Five days later, T65A’s relatives stormed the Tacoma Narrows, on their way to nosh near Olympia.

Trailing Chainsaw’s kin on the 18th were the familiar fins of old friend T87, an elder male born circa 1963, with his presumed female relative, 35-year-old matriarch T90 and her two offspring. T87 has visited here often with the T90s and another matriline, the T124s, who were also present. Matriarch T124’s estimated age is 48.

In our meager photos, I spotted a female with a wide dorsal fin who is less familiar to me: T37, born 1979.  Some of her offspring were likely in the mix; however, Transient orca matrilines are more fluid than Resident matrilines. Not all Transient family members travel together at all times.

Transient killer whales ply these waters as if they own the place and, as the apex predators, they do. Their abundant food source, Harbor seals, serves them well. T65A and T124D both had babies in 2014.   I wish these fecund Transient gals could share their fertility potion with our Southern Resident females.

Now, some housekeeping. I need a button that reads, “My Brain is Fried since My Mom Died.” I was a bit distracted when I wrote the “For Orca Babies” column in the 4/16 Loop. I discovered a wee mistake: I added an extra whale to the Southern Resident population. Chalk it up to wishful thinking. After the horrific death of Rhapsody (J32) in December 2014, the population of J, K and L Pods dropped to 77. If all four babies survive, the population will be 81 – not 82.
Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041, as well as seal pups and sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts and sustain an accurate record of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated three decades ago by Mark Sears. Send photos to Orca Annie at and check for updates at