Gray whales survive rare encounter with orcas

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.

8 thoughts on “Gray whales survive rare encounter with orcas

  1. Very interesting. At least two minke whales in Admiralty Inlet have been preyed upon by transients in recent weeks, but I haven’t heard of any grays having an encounter like today’s. We saw one gray whale later this afternoon, about 3:25, acting normal and headed into Holmes Harbor, where they’ve been seen a lot lately. Looks like they made it through their scary adventure OK.

  2. “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.”

    So where are the photos?

  3. I was finally able to get copies of photos taken by passenger Patrick Downs aboard the Olympus out of Port Townsend. I thought I could see both a killer whale and a gray whale in a couple of frames, but that was wrong. To view the slideshow Downs put together, mostly of the killer whales, go to Flickr.

  4. To who ever will listen and President Obama,
    It’s no wonder our whales are starving and fighting for survivial! Please tell President Obama to issue an executive order outlawing all aquatic pesticides being applied to our estuaries. This is done not accidentally, but on purpose. The recent listing of the Pacific Smelt as threatened along with WSDA’s Kim Patten’s revelation concerning (90%) major declines of ghost and/or mud shrimp at the Dept. of Agriculture’s Burrowing Shrimp Conference should at the very least, inspire you, Mr. President, and everyone else to help stop this poisoning / polluting of our waters. (This 90% decline is not a typo please research) These chemicals, carbaryl, glyphosate, imazapyr and other inert chemicals used and endorsed by certain greedy oyster growers in Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay and the Puget Sound are decimating our fisheries. (you know who you are!) Oyster FARMING is not a fishery! They are not even NATIVE! Please issue this order immediately and SAVE OUR SALMON, WHALES and other NATIVE FISH by saving the food chain. (incidentally the human race is also part of this chain!)

  5. I was excited when I first saw what looked like the dorsal fin of a killer whale right next to a gray. But I was told specifically that this was actually the gray whale’s fluke.

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