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'A National Geographic experience': Orcas, humpbacks congregate in Salish Sea

The whales spent the next three hours breaching, tail slapping and making loud vocalizations before finally disappearing into the fog.

Through the thick late September fog, whale-watching crews spotted something unusual taking place in the Salish Sea: a splashing group of humpback whales and Bigg’s orcas.

Around 11 a.m. Friday, Eagle Wing Tours crew members spotted about 15 orcas “unusually active near the surface” about 40 kilometres west of Victoria. Shortly after, a member of B.C. Whale Tours noted two humpbacks in the orcas’ midst.

A news release from the Pacific Whale Watching Association said the whales spent the next three hours breaching, tail slapping and making loud vocalizations before finally disappearing into the fog.

Paul Pudwell, owner and operator of Sooke Whale Watching, was one of many who observed the raucous marine congregation. He said he’s only seen behaviour like this a handful of times.

“To me it’s a National Geographic experience,” he said. “It’s something you would see on TV, but you’re seeing it with your own eyes, live.”

Bigg's orcas have been known to occasionally prey on humpbacks — typically juveniles or small, solitary whales, Pudwell said. But in his opinion, that’s not what was happening on Friday.

“I’m of the belief that they were playing with them,” he said. “Two full-sized humpbacks? They can’t take them down, they can’t harm them.

“No one really knows what goes on under the water,” he said. “But I think they were harassing each other.”

Mollie Naccarato, captain and naturalist for Sooke Whale Watching, said in a statement that at first, the orcas seemed to be chasing the humpbacks, but then there was space between them and the humpbacks would swim back to the orcas.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it because it was absolutely unbelievable,” Naccarato said.

Naturalists from Pacific Whale Watching linked some of the orcas as members of T109A, T233 and T252. The humpbacks were identified as BCX1948 “Reaper” and BCY1000 “Hydra.”

Four-year-old Reaper has been matched to winter breeding grounds off Jalisco, Mexico, while Hydra, an adult female, has been seen in breeding grounds off of Maui, Hawaii. She’s had at least three calves in her lifetime.

The Pacific Whale Watching Association said it hasn’t documented any fatal orca attacks on humpbacks in the Salish Sea, but notes that with both whale populations increasing in the region, interactions could become more common.

ngrossman@timescolonist.com

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