Another rare attack on gray whales, this one on video

Transient killer whales apparently attacked a gray whale near Whidbey Island yesterday, an encounter caught briefly on video. But the orcas seemed to back off before killing the larger marine mammal.

The footage was captured by Wendy Hensel of Chilliwack, British Columbia, who was aboard the whale-watching boat Mystic Sea out of La Conner. KING 5 TV posted the video on its Web site.

The boat’s skipper, Monte Hughes, told King 5 reporter OWEN LEI that whale watchers were observing a gray whale between Whidbey and Camano islands when a group of orcas raced up from behind in a direct line headed for the gray whale.

All the animals disappeared beneath the waves. When the gray whale surfaced, it was belly up. Moments later, the large whale jerked as if being struck from below.

“The whale got jerked back and forth you know, two or three times,” Hughes told Lei. “You could definitely tell the Orcas were attacking her, and evidently they had hit her as she was on her way up… She just laid there a little, then rolled around to about 10 degrees, trying to right herself… but she was just floundering there in the water.”

The orcas apparently broke off the attack. The gray whale eventually righted itself and swam away.

Hughes told reporter Phuong Le of the Associated Press that another group of killer whales approached, and he may have fended off another attack by placing his boat in their path.

The gray whale has been tentatively identified as “Patch,” an animal that has returned again and again to waters around Whidbey Island. The name comes from its distinct markings. Patch was reportedly sighted today swimming with other grays and had no obvious injuries, according to officials with Orca Network.

Various groups of transient killer whales have been present in Puget Sound for weeks, dining mainly on seals and sea lions. Transients have been known to kill gray whales in Alaska and California, but such violent encounters were practically unknown in Puget Sound until recently. See my post in Water Ways from March 30.

Our local Southern Resident killer whales — in J, K and L pods — eat fish, not marine mammals. In a sense, the transients are helping resident killer whales by reducing the fish-eating seals and sea lions. In contrast, grays are baleen whales, eating mainly invertebrates that live in bottom sediments.

A relatively large number of gray whales are swimming in Puget Sound at the moment, apparently stopping on the way from their calving grounds in Mexico to feeding areas in Alaska. In years when a large number of unknown animals stop off here, it is generally not a good sign. History shows that years with a larger number of gray whales are years when there are more deaths. Experts presume that most of the fit and healthy animals don’t bother to enter Puget Sound.

Three grays have been found dead in the past week — one near Shelton, one in Deception Pass at the north end of Whidbey Island and one in Samish Bay south of Bellingham. So far, there is no apparent connections to the encounters with killer whales.

One thought on “Another rare attack on gray whales, this one on video

  1. “Hughes told reporter Phuong Le of the Associated Press that another group of killer whales approached, and he may have fended off another attack by placing his boat in their path”.

    I hope this was inadvertent, as this would be an illegal action under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Interfering with orcas as they are feeding? Where does this eco-tainment stop?

    Also was this whale watching boat staying the proper distance away? Was it the presence of his boat that caused the orcas to break off their attack? That tiny little red camera sure took some awfully close video footage…the boat must have been quite close to the action.

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