Whales gone wild: Transient orcas in Puget Sound seen attacking gray whales
Shocked whale watchers observed attacks on a popular gray whale by a pod of transient orcas. Though not uncommon when whales are at the southern end of the migratory route with vulnerable young, attacks this far north are unusual.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - 02:18
TRANSIENT ORCAS: Known for taking small mammals, attacks on gray whales are rare. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Last week, my cousin Kaylynn was in town from Nevada. We drove up to Whidbey Island to visit our Aunt Janet and Uncle Tom. Our uncle retired from the Navy on Whidbey Island and now runs a commercial real estate business. Several days before we arrived, my aunt and uncle had been out watching gray whales that had come into the shallow waters off Whidbey to rub the barnacles off themselves in the sand. Kaylynn and I were really looking forward to seeing them, so Janet and Tom took us to see if the whales were in. Unfortunately, the day we were there, we didn't see a single whale.
I've seen migrating whales before off the Oregon coast when we've been there on vacation and along the Washington coast, too. Once when I was back in Maine, my family and I went whale watching and saw a couple of whales. It would have been special to see one last week because my cousin has never seen a whale before. Sadly, that didn't happen.
Some other whale watchers in Puget Sound were a little luckier than we were, however. Last weekend, whale watchers aboard the Mystic Sea based in La Conner were looking for whales between Whidbey and Camano islands. They got to see a transient pod of orcas actually attack a gray whale! They took pictures and video. King 5 News had the story on its broadcast last night; you could actually see the orcas come up alongside the gray whale in the video. Then the gray whale actually flipped over with its belly facing up (some scientists speculate that it was trying to protect itself from the orca). After that you could see the whale jerk up and down like it was being bumped from underneath. After a while, it flipped back over and was later seen moving toward shallow water. There was concern that it had been injured and could become "beached." However, it moved off into deeper waters and was later seen swimming with other gray whales.
Attacks on gray whales in Puget Sound have not been documented before. According to Howard Garrett of the Orca Network, the gray whale that was attacked is "Patch," a male that has been frequenting Puget Sound for the last 19 years and is probably about 25 years old.
This time of year, about 20,000 migratory gray whales travel along the Washington coast. A smaller group actually frequents the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. They become familiar to resident whale watchers and scientists because they can be identified by their markings. Transient orcas are usually found along the British Columbia coast, but make their way into Puget Sound when they're chasing prey. Resident orcas that live in Puget Sound's southern resident population live entirely on fish and not on whales or other large mammals.
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