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
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.
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