‘Unique to the Pacific’: Deer swims next to whale in ‘rare’ Salish Sea encounter

Photo: Sam Murphy
Near Battleship Island, east of Greater Victoria, a deer is seen swimming next to a Bigg's killer whale. Sunday, June 4, 2023.

It was a seldom-seen sight in the Salish Sea that a lucky photographer captured on camera, and one a marine-life expert is calling unique to British Columbia.

On Sunday, naturalist Sam Murphy snapped photos of a Bigg’s killer whale in waters near Battleship Island, a U.S. island east of Sidney Island — and when she went back to look at her gallery, she noticed a black-tailed deer swimming next to it.

“To get them in the same frame like that is certainly a new one for me, at least,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

“It is very common for us to see orcas around here, especially those big mammal-eating orcas. We occasionally see a deer swimming from island to island, so that’s rare but not unheard of,” Gless told CHEK News.

She was so stunned after seeing the photos posted to Island Adventures’ social media pages that she had to reach out to Murphy and get the inside scoop.

“That’s the funny part of the story,” said Gless.

“When I was talking to Sam about this encounter, she actually didn’t even know the deer was in the frame until afterwards when she was looking through her picture. The orca didn’t pay attention to the deer at all, and certainly they are aware of their surroundings.

“The deer probably didn’t seem appetizing. It was a funny surprise when she zoomed in on her pictures and saw the little deer head there.”

According to Gless, Bigg’s love to feast on seals and sea lions, and she says this one, in particular, was T124C, or “Cooper” — a lone male born in 1992.

“So he is a well-known whale that’s part of the big population in this region. There are quite a lot of orcas in the area,” said Gless, noting her team hears of sightings “pretty much daily.”

That’s prompting her to remind boaters to stay at least 400 metres away from whales and to “look for their tall fins and spouts,” among other regulations and tips found on the Government of Canada’s website.

“There are rules for humans to stay away from whales, but there are no rules for whales to stay away from humans,” said Gless.

“Sometimes, they will approach vessels. If that happens, turn off the engine and wait for them to pass. We don’t want you to turn on your engine and speed away. Stay calm and wait for them to leave.”

A unique history

But it turns out whales have a special connection with deer that dates back centuries, and it’s “something you wouldn’t expect,” according to Gless.

“Millions of years ago, these two were cousins. They split off. It’s a funny little thing, you don’t think of whales being relatives to deer. If you look at the genes, it’s one of their closest relatives on land,” she explained.

The website DolphinSpirit.org dives further into the history.

“Evolutionary, deer and whales are closely related compared to other animals,” said Gless. “The whales actually came from land-based animals that moved back into the ocean, so they evolved to come out of the water and then went back in.”

Now, she’s just amazed Murphy captured the pair on camera.

“That’s very unusual. Something I’d say is unique to the Pacific Northwest, I’d imagine,” added Gless.

Ethan Morneau

Recent Stories

Send us your news tips and videos!