Gray whales survive rare encounter with orcasMarch 30th, 2010 by cdunagan
Three gray whales traveling together south of Camano Island in Puget Sound must have sensed mortal danger when a group of transient killer whales approached them this afternoon.
Transient orcas are the kind that eat marine mammals. Groups of transients are known to kill gray whales in other places, including Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
But encounters between transients and gray whales in Puget Sound are basically unknown, even though both orcas and grays are frequently spotted in these parts.
Erick Peirson, skipper aboard the 41-foot Olympus out of Port Townsend, was giving a whale-watching tour for about 30 passengers today. He had gone out to see if he could locate two adult gray whales traveling with a younger gray. Instead, the crew spotted the transients — one male, two females and a juvenile. Passengers were watching them when an observer shouted in excitement.
The male orca had completed a long dive underwater, coming up right alongside the grays, Peirson said.
“I saw a lot of splashing and churning of the water,” he said. “The male killer whale’s fin was slicing into a turn. In the middle was a gray whale fluke.”
It was clear, he said, that the two adult gray whales had quickly positioned themselves in a defensive posture, one on each side of the younger gray whale.
“The male killer whale rubbed up alongside the biggest gray whale,” Peirson said. “The gray whales were logging at the surface, just sitting right there. We thought the killer whales would go in for the kill at that point.”
Instead, the orcas broke away. “We next saw the killer whales in the distance heading to the north.”
Perhaps the gray whales heaved a sigh of relief, blowing a huge mist that only gray whales can blow. They stayed another five minutes, logging on the surface in that defense posture, Peirson said.
While he has seen transients attack seals, he has never seen an encounter like this in Puget Sound.
“It was a bit of a rush, not something you see every day,” he said. “Usually with transients, when an attack happens, it is over very quickly. We saw no blood at the surface. Given that it was a single path and circling around, I assume the killer whales were testing the waters, a show of strength.”
For a slideshow put together by Patrick Downs, go to Flickr. I guess the encounter happened so fast that he did not get the killer whale and gray whale in the same frame, but you may notice the defensive posture described by Erick Peirson.
As I mentioned, groups of transient killer whales have been observed attacking and eating gray whales in the Aleutian Islands. (See the research report by Craig Matkin, et al., PDF 1.1 mb) But neither Peirson nor Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who records thousands of observations every year, has ever heard of this kind of encounter in Puget Sound.
As unusual as this is, I would like to hear from anyone who has experienced any encounters, however brief, between killer whales and gray whales.