A rare attack by a group of transient orcas on a decades-old minke whale was an incredible but difficult sight for tour boat guests and their captain southeast of Vancouver Island last week.
Jeff Friedman, a captain for Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching based in Friday Harbour, Wash., says he set out for a tour Friday near Partridge Bank in the Juan de Fuca Strait after hearing reports that a group of transient, or Bigg’s killer whales were present.
“Within minutes of us getting on scene with them, everything kind of broke open,” Friedman recounted to CHEK News on Tuesday. “We started seeing the killer whales were porpoising, and we weren’t sure what was going on. I mean, we knew they were on some kind of a hunt.”
But it wasn’t porpoises or marine mammals the orcas, made up of members from the T65A and T99 pods, were after.
“Within a couple of minutes, then we saw the minke whale breaching out of the water, and we realized that they were chasing a minke,” said Friedman.
He said it’s “very unusual” to see such a chase in the wild because an adult minke can rival a full-grown Bigg’s orca, size-wise, measuring up to nine metres in length and 10 tons in weight.
But the minke was outnumbered and was no match for the orchestrated orca attack, succumbing to them within about half an hour.
“Everyone on board, all the guests and us as well…everybody had mixed feelings about what we were seeing. I mean, there’s, there’s certainly the amazement of watching wild killer whales hunting, is certainly an amazing thing to see,” he said. “But you’re also you’re kind of rooting for the minke whale. And it’s a little bit difficult to watch.”
Researchers are also realizing just how familiar this particular minke whale was to the area.
While the whale’s identity is still being confirmed, it is believed it was a member of a season Salish Sea population that was first spotted in the region in the early 80s, making it at least 50 years old.
“It’s thought that minkes only live to be about 50 years old, so despite a dramatic end, this whale lived a full life,” said the Pacific Whale Watching Association in a Facebook post.
While Bigg’s killer whales are known to go after larger and more difficult prey than their cousins, the endangered southern resident killer whale, they’re usually seen hunting marine mammals like seals and sea lions.
But this marks the second time in just a few weeks that a group of transients have gone after a large whale, with another rare event unfolding Sept. 29 near the U.S-Canada border 40 kilometres west of Victoria.
Multiple tour boats documented a group of 15 transient orcas going after a humpback whale — a sight one captain described as “absolutely unbelievable.”
While some may be upset by footage of the minke whale being dealt body blows, teeth rakes and eventually being drowned by the orcas, Friedman says in the grand scheme of things, attacks such as these may be an indicator that some species of whales are flourishing in the Salish Sea.
“I think there are a lot of whales, some are predators, some are prey, and especially with the Bigg’s killer whales, there is such a growing healthy population, and the humpbacks, we’re seeing more every year,” he said.
“I think a good takeaway from it is there are lots of whales out there. And there’s parts of this ecosystem that are thriving.”