Killer whales confirm their title as ocean's apex predator

When a group of men in B.C. got a closeup look at a pod of killer whales this week, they may not have realized they were in the presence of the ocean’s most frightful predator. While killer whales, also called orcas, have always been known for their incredible power and presence, it wasn’t until recently that they were confirmed to be apex predators in the ocean’s ecosystem.

The close encounter that was captured on video took place in Indian Arm, near North Vancouver, where Josh Goodman and his friends were wakeboarding. Footage shows the creatures swimming and breaching near the boat, one with a seal carcass in its mouth.

"It felt like they were very happy [in the wild]," Goodman told CBC News. "It was just kind of a normal, average day that turned into something miraculous."

That peaceful encounter is much different than the recent reports out of Spain and Portugal of pods of orcas ramming into boats, and in one case, taking out a piece of a fibreglass rudder.

Halifax-based Alan Springer, a research professor emeritus from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says these instances of assaults on boats are extremely out of character for the creatures.

“Killer whales are known to come near boats, but they’re perceived to be curious and interested but not aggressive,” he tells Yahoo Canada. “These are highly intelligent animals and not typically aggressive towards people.”

While the incidents in Spain and Portugal are baffling to many, some scientists hypothesize that the animals are stressed or even angry at the increase in boat traffic after quieter times as a result of recent COVID-19 restrictions. Orcas in the region are endangered, with only 50 remaining, and so any aggression towards boats could be an attempt to keep their calves safe.

The killer whale’s power ranking was further cemented this week after a 2019 study gained media attention. The research confirms the orca’s status as top predator in the ocean, even over great white sharks. While there is much more fear around sharks, thanks to movies like Jaws and The Reef, they fall below orcas on the pyramid scale, as orcas are not preyed upon by any other animal.

The study looked at feeding sites on Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI) in San Francisco that were shared by both predators. It found that in several instances, brief visits from killer whales displaced white sharks from the area, disrupting their feeding behaviour for extended periods from these particular sites. While direct mingling between killer whales and white sharks are extremely rare, they have been recorded instances off the coasts of California, South Africa, and Southern Australia. In 1997, an incident was reported at SEFI where a white shark was killed, with its liver consumed by transient killer whales. After this event, observations of white sharks during regular surveys in the area dropped steeply.

“Killer whales are truly apex predators,” says Springer.

A large male orca (killer whale) breaches in Vancouver Harbor
A large male orca (killer whale) breaches in Vancouver Harbor. (Getty)

Killer whales are found in oceans. There are three ecotypes that are distinguished by differences in vocalizations, markings and genetics. They also have different diets: one group called residents are fish eaters, another group called transient prey upon mammals, like seals and whales, and the final group are called offshore killer whales. Not much is known upon the latter group, as they aren’t often seen, but research has found that they feed on sharks.

Andrew Trites is a professor at the University of British Columbia and director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit. He says people have generally perceived killer whales to be playful and curious, which is why they’re not feared as much as sharks.

“Killer whales might not be the ultimate predator in terms of striking fear (in humans),” he says. “But they are at the tip of the food pyramid.”