Crews from the Pacific Whale Watch Association witnessed a rarely-seen attack by a pod of orcas on gray whales in Puget Sound near Everett this past Saturday.
The battle between transient orcas, also known as Bigg’s killer whales, and gray whales was particularly impressive for the seasoned crews accustomed to seeing such spectacles.
“It was a clash of the titans out there,” said senior deckhand and naturalist Tyson Reed of Island Adventures Whale Watching in Anacortes, in a news release.
According to the news release, the crew had watched the orcas hunt off the west side of Gedney Island prior to the run-in with the gray whales. They saw the group of four killer whales continue north into Saratoga Passage between Gedney and Whidbey islands, directly into the company of two adult gray whales.
The 40-ton mammals were part of about a dozen migratory eastern north Pacific grays that come into this part of Puget Sound each spring to feed on ghost shrimp.
The orca found himself in the middle of the two agitated leviathans. The killer whale soon got some backup from his mother, T137, who led her two younger offspring safely about 500 yards to the north, changed direction and headed over to the tussle.
“Pec fins began to fly left and right as the grays rolled onto their backs and blasted T137A with their blows,” Reed said. “They were definitely not happy to have the orca intruding on them and were fighting back.”
“It was a major altercation,” said Capt. Michael Colahan of Island Adventures. “Both grays rolled over maybe a dozen times. Pretty wild!”
The two grays survived the attack, known by researchers as #56 and #531, and had no visible injuries. Such attacks on adult gray whales by orcas was rare, said a biologist for the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective.
“I think this is the third account of this type of interaction between the north Puget Sound gray whales and transients, and in the three decades I’ve been studying them, I haven’t witnessed it myself,” said Cascadia’s senior biologist John Calambokidis, in the news release. “But we’re learning so much about these grays who come into the Sound each spring, especially now with our deployment of suction cup video tags that document all their underwater activities and open up their true world to us. While predation by transients on gray whale calves in migration is quite common and often successful, I would imagine these older, experienced adults in north Puget Sound would put up too much of a good fight.”
An estimated 22,000 Eastern North Pacific gray whales are migrating. As spring approaches, the gray whales, which can reach 50 feet and 40 tons, begin an epic journey of between 5,000 and 6,800 miles from the warm-water calving lagoons in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and Gulf of California to the Bering and Chukchi Seas. It’s the longest migration of any mammal on Earth. Midway through the journey, from late February to the end of May, a small group makes a pit stop in Puget Sound for the ghost shrimp buffet.
Cascadia Research Collective has documented 42 individual whales using the area since 1990. The Eastern North Pacific grays are the first whale population to be taken off the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
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