Naturalist, whale-watching guides astounded by humpback whale chasing after orcas in Salish Sea

·2 min read
A five-year-old humpback whale named Valiant, left, encounters a transient orca, also known as a Bigg's killer whale, on April 12 in the Salish Sea off Vancouver Island.  (Ellie Sawyer/Maya’s Legacy Tours - image credit)
A five-year-old humpback whale named Valiant, left, encounters a transient orca, also known as a Bigg's killer whale, on April 12 in the Salish Sea off Vancouver Island. (Ellie Sawyer/Maya’s Legacy Tours - image credit)

A scientist who set out with a group of tourists for a whale-watching tour on the Salish Sea was thrilled by a rare sight last Tuesday — a humpback whale following and then confronting a pod of transient orcas.

U.S. naturalist Olivia Esqueda witnessed the conflict in the Georgia Strait, and said she hasn't ever seen anything like it.

"The humpback whale was kind of trailing up behind them," she said. "We all of a sudden saw the next surface with the humpback right in the middle of all the killer whales."

For her, the experience during a whale-watching trip from Washington's Friday Harbour is something she won't forget.

"There's something happening in front of us that hasn't been seen before," she told CHEK News. "It's hard not to just kind of be like a kid at Disneyworld."

It all took place aboard a San Juan Safaris Whale Watching boat off the coast of Vancouver Island.

WATCH | Humpback whale encounter with Salish Seas orcas thrills onlookers

The incident isn't the only recent conflict off B.C.'s coast between orcas and humpbacks. On March 9, a whale-watching tour operator in Tofino filmed the reverse, and more common scenario, in which a pod of transient orcas — also known as Bigg's killer whales — attacked a young humpback whale.

To capture such encounters in the wild is uncommon, seasoned whale-watchers agreed.

"No exaggeration, I've never seen this before," said the San Juan boat's skipper, Brian Goodtremont, in a video filmed by Esqueda during the encounter. "I've been doing this 22 years."

Victoria whale-watching guide Mark Malleson, a skipper with Prince of Whales Whale Watching, agreed.

Ellie Sawyer/Maya’s Legacy Tours
Ellie Sawyer/Maya’s Legacy Tours

He said the particular humpback whale involved is known to whale watchers, and he believes scars on the whale's fin are likely from an earlier conflict with orcas at a young age.

"When it was in its first year it had had a close call," he told CHEK News. "It would have happened when it was with its mom."

Marine tension between the two species has been widely reported, according to a 2016 study by National Marine Fisheries Service researcher Robert Pitman.

He reviewed more than 100 such conflicts reported by scientists, nearly six-in-ten of which were started by one or more humpbacks, often what he called "mobbing behaviour," to rescue other marine mammals the orcas were trying to hunt.

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