The Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) says it witnessed a rare event unfold Thursday when a large group of passing killer whales collided with a pair of humpback whales, sparking a dramatic, hour-long fight.
The incident began shortly after 11 a.m. near the U.S.-Canada border in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, about 40 kilometers west of Victoria, according to the association.
In a press release, PWWA says Capt. Joe Zelwietro of Eagle Wing Tours was the first to locate a group of approximately 15 transient killer whales, or Bigg’s, that were “unusually active” at the surface.
“Not long after, another whale watcher, Captain Jimmy Zakreski of BC Whale Tours, discovered the likely cause of the orcas’ excitement – two humpback whales in their midst,” PWWA said.
Observers say the encounter included three hours of breaching, tail flapping and loud vocalizations before all the whales disappeared into the mist, keeping the final outcome a mystery.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it because it was just unbelievable,” said Mollie Naccarato, captain and naturalist for Sooke Coastal Explorations on southern Vancouver Island.
“At first it looked like the killer whales were chasing the humpback whales, but then when there was space between them, the humpback whales would go back towards the killer whales.”
PWWA naturalists identified some of the killer whales as T109As and T252s, which are more frequently encountered on the outer coast. The humpbacks, meanwhile, were identified as BCX1948 “Reaper” and BCY1000 “Hydra.”
Gary Neumann of Victoria-based Prince of Whales Adventures captured the encounter on video:
Transient killer whales usually feed on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and porpoises, but occasionally hunt larger prey such as humpback whales, according to the PWWA.
In early September, for example, passengers aboard a tour boat off Metchosin witnessed a sea lion leap from the water onto a nearby motorboat, nearly capsizing it to escape a group of killer whales.
“Whale watchers hope to relocate the two humpback whales involved in Thursday’s encounter before the whales swim south for their annual winter migration. Killer whales do not migrate and can be seen at any time of the year,” PWWA added.
While it has not documented any fatal killer whale attacks on humpback whales in the Salish Sea, PWWA says the number of transient killer whales and humpback whales in the region is increasing, meaning interactions between the two could escalate.
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