Ocean Fighters: Whale watchers get a rare view of orca and humpback whale battles in the Salish Sea


Members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) got a rare view of aggressive activity between two giants of the sea on Thursday, when a large pod of Bigg’s transient orcas clashed with a pair of whales at bump in a few hours.

Captain Joe Zelwietro of Eagle Wing Tours spotted a pod of about 15 “unusually active” killer whales in Juan de Fuca Strait, a part of the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and Washington state, shortly after 11 a.m. Pacific time, the PWWA said. .

A few minutes later, Captain Jimmy Zakreski of BC Whale Tours noticed that there were two humpback whales in the middle of the group of orcas, the association said.

“Around these parts it’s very common for us to encounter orcas. It’s also very common for us to encounter humpback whales,” PWWA executive director Erin Gless said in an interview.

“It’s not very common for us to meet them in the middle of a fight.”

Bigg’s killer whales (foreground) interact with a humpback whale blowing water in Juan de Fuca Strait on Thursday. (Mollie Naccarato/PWWA)

During the three-hour encounter, which took place about 40 kilometers west of Victoria, observers said the mammals pierced, slapped the water with their tails and emitted loud vocalizations before finally disappear in the fog.

“I’m still trying to figure it out because it was absolutely amazing,” said Mollie Naccarato, captain and naturalist with Sooke Coastal Explorations in southern Vancouver Island.

“At first, the orcas seemed to chase the humpback whales, but then when there was space between them, the humpback whales would go back to the orcas.”

Gless says the orcas were seen circling the two humpback whales and occasionally nipping at their fins and tails.

Territorial or predatory?

Bigg’s killer whales feed on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and porpoises, but sometimes hunt larger prey, she said. This is in contrast to the northern and southern groups of resident orcas, which feed primarily on fish.

“Orcas are the only natural predator that humpback whales have in this area,” Gless said. “Even though humpback whales can grow to the size of a school bus, a group of very experienced hunters can attack [them].”

Gless says there has been debate among whale watchers who witnessed Thursday’s interaction as to whether the behavior was territorial or predatory.

Some think the killer whales were acting strangely because they were irritated by the presence of humpback whales in their territory, while others thought the pod of orcas were showing some of the typical marks of a hunting approach in band.

“We’ve seen some of that splash… come on the backs of humpback whales as they try to breathe,” she said.

The humpback whales involved have been identified as BCX1948, known as Reaper, and BCY1000, known as Hydra.

Reaper is at least four years old and has been paired with winter breeding grounds off Jalisco, Mexico; Hydra, an adult female, was paired with breeding grounds in Maui, Hawaii, where she gave birth to at least three cubs.

Mollie Naccarato of Sooke Coastal Explorations got this close-up of the two humpback whales, named Reaper and Hydra, which were involved in a confrontation with a pod of killer whales in the Salish Sea on Thursday. (Mollie Naccarato/PWWA)

Gless says no one saw how the conflict was resolved as it was particularly foggy when the two sides swam. A few groups will be back on the water Friday, trying to spot the two humpback whales to see if they made it out alive.

Gless says the orcas’ behavior wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary, but it’s an encounter whale watchers have rarely witnessed, especially not up close.

“We really got to see something spectacular,” she said.

But it could become more common as populations of both species continue to grow, she added.

A Bigg’s killer whale is spotted prowling the Salish Sea during a clash between a pod of about 15 killer whales and 2 humpback whales Thursday. (Mollie Naccarato/PWWA)

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