It was quite the sight for passengers aboard a tour boat off Metchosin on Monday after a sea lion leaped from the water onto a nearby motorboat, almost capsizing it, to escape a group of killer whales.
Mark Malleson is a whale-watching guide with Victoria-based Prince of Whales Adventures and says the encounter was something he’s never quite experienced before.
“We were watching a group of three Bigg’s transients, or killer whales. Three of them,” Malleson told CHEK News.
“They were hunting a seal and were continuing on past Pedder Bay before a little tin boat showed up and the couple [on board] could see that they were killer whales, so they just stopped.”
Suddenly, a California sea lion made a “big thump” on the side of the small boat in an attempt to get on, according to Malleson.
“He was a big lad. Could have been 800 pounds,” he said.
“I assumed the killer whales were going to hunt it and so it just freaked out. The killer whales weren’t interested in it at that point. It was obviously real rilled up and nervous, so it made a couple of attempts to jump in the boat.”
But it was on the second attempt when the sea lion “just about capsized the boat,” explained Malleson. “The boat was half full of water and they got soaked.”
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Tourgoers watch in awe
Malleson, who also works as a research assistant with the U.S.-based Center for Whale Research, managed to capture photos of the ordeal as 12 or so tourgoers snapped photos and videos of their own.
“It was a wow factor. I was explaining what was going on, it was pretty crazy,” said Malleson.
“I’ve seen them try to get into boats before, usually when killer whales are hunting, but nothing that dramatic. It was really determined to get into that boat. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Malleson says the sea lion landed on the boat’s gunnel, prompting it to flip onto its side before “miraculously” re-righting itself. Even then, the boaters couldn’t catch a break.
“They motored away as fast as they could full of water and the sea lion was actually chasing after them for a bit,” he said. “And then I sort of kept track of them to make sure they were safe and alright, and they headed back to shore.”
Killer whale sightings on the rise
For Malleson, stories like these make each outing on the water worth it — especially with the recent uptick in killer whale sightings.
“Lately, it’s just been amazing,” he said.
“Usually in mid-August or September, we get an influx of killer whales in the area just because of the abundance of seals. We have a huge number of them right now. We see them year-round, but lots right now.”
Jared Towers is a cetacean research technician with DFO Canada and seconds Malleson, citing an increase in killer whales in waters around Vancouver Island.
“For the last few years, they’ve been pretty steady,” Towers said in an interview with CHEK News.
“We’ve seen that these whales are here year-round, there are quite a number of them. They’re here to feed on marine mammals. Mostly seals, both California and Stellar sea lions, as well as dolphins. They’re just mammal eaters. All these species make up the bulk of their diet.”
Towers watched a video of the encounter, and while it left him impressed, he wasn’t entirely surprised.
According to Towers, as killer whales hunt sea lions, the latter tend to revert to land or anything that can help them flee from the water.
“So a boat is something they’ll take advantage of if they’re getting hunted from time to time,” he explained.
Towers says a “take-home message” is to prevent these events by following marine mammal regulations and knowing how to anticipate marine wildlife behaviour — though sometimes, it’s inevitable.
“I don’t know if this boat, in particular, was breaking the rules. It doesn’t sound like they were, they just happened to be in the area at the time,” said Towers. “They had cut their motors because they saw killer whales, and when the sea lion popped up, they started them up and tried to get out of the way.”
Tower calls it a “stroke of luck” that the boat didn’t flip over and that the pair managed to escape “relatively unscathed.”
“Knowing that we can coexist with these great big animals and that there’s enough prey here for them is really good news,” he added. “But sharing these waters with them doesn’t come without risks, both to the whales and people.”