The waters off Jordon River west of Victoria may not be quite as tranquil as they appear, at least not this past Sunday
In what is being described as an epic tussle never seen before by most whale watchers in this region, a group of marine mammal-eating Bigg’s whales took on two adult humpbacks and a calf – or at least decided to size them up.
The encounter was documented by several Pacific Whale Watch Association boats, all with engines shut down and adrift, taking in an extraordinary snapshot from the top of the ocean food chain.
“It was a great interaction,” explains Capt, Mark Malleson of Prince of Whales Whale Watching, who also is a researcher for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.
“I’m not sure if the killer whales ever thought they were going to be able to take one of these humpbacks out, but it appears they certainly enjoyed getting them worked up.”
Malleson, who also assists Cascadia Research Collective in compiling its catalog of humpback whales in the Salish Sea, says encounters between Bigg’s and adult humpbacks happen in nature, but seldom result in a kill.
“I’ve seen a lot of this over the years, but I don’t think the killer whales have much success predating on them. Perhaps the occasional calf, but even that would be rare. It seems they just like bugging them.”
Naturalist Valerie Shore of Eagle Wing Tours of Victoria was also on the scene of the tussle.
“The whales were underwater doing whatever much of the time,” recalls Shore. “But what we saw was a lot of huffing and puffing from the humpbacks, orcas occasionally surfacing near or next to them, and occasional tail swipes”
“Much of it was in slow motion so I got the sense that there was a lot of maneuvering going on below, perhaps the adult humpbacks trying to block access to the calf.”
The commotion apparently got the attention of other humpback whales in the area – and as has been widely reported, the waters of BC and Washington State have seen historic numbers of humpbacks returning to the region.
“After much jockeying for position by both parties, mostly out of our sight, the adult humpbacks advanced on the transients in force, exhaling loudly, and the transients retreated, wisely deciding that they were outgunned.”
Shore and her crew said it appeared that the humpback calf might have had a very close call.
“As the fracas was splitting up we thought we could see the calf on the far side with a torn tail. The right side seemed to be hanging oddly, but we were too far away to confirm that.”
Photos: Pacific Whale Watching Association/Eagle Wing Tours/Prince of Whales Whale Watching