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Environment

Rare clash between two distinct kinds of orcas in the Salish Sea — and the endangered fish-eaters won

Bigg's killer whale T65A4 surfaces with members of the southern resident killer whale population in the distance.
Bethany Shimasaki
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Bigg's killer whale (or transient) T65A4 surfaces with members of the southern resident killer whale population in the distance. Close proximity and interactions between the two ecotypes of killer whales is rare.

Whale watching in the Salish Sea is almost always a thrill. But a recent clash between two species of orcas presented a rare spectacle.

Two distinct species of orcas feed and socialize in the waters of Puget Sound: fish-eating endangered southern resident killer whales and transient, or Bigg’s, killer whales, which feed on marine mammals and are more common. They seldom mix.

"Usually, when transients are within a mile or two of residents, they just turn around discreetly leave the scene, going somewhere else,” says Howard Garrett, co-founder of Whidbey-Island based Orca Network, which has tracked the movements of these whales for 20 years.

He says when transients hunt and eat their prey, it’s a spectacle. Flesh and blood sometimes fly over the waves as the whales tear into seals and sea lions.

But southern residents take their meals — mostly Chinook salmon — beneath the surface. 

We don't see them tearing fish apart, but they do. But we see the transients tearing seals apart and sea lions," Garrett says. “So that looks much more, you know, harsh.”

That’s why it feels a bit surprising that in a recent encounter between these distinct ecotypes, it was the southern residents that appeared to break up a group of transients and drive them away.

Garrett says a whole bunch of southern residents suddenly surfaced in the middle of a group of transients at the south end of Haro Strait, west of the San Juan Islands.

 Southern resident killer whales K16 and L72 surface together after interrupting the Bigg's killer whale hunt.
Bethany Shimasaki
Southern resident killer whales K16 and L72 surface together after interrupting the Bigg's killer whale hunt.

After some thrashing around, apparently — I mean, there was some active whitewater — and then the teams left at full sprint for a mile and a half at 30 miles an hour or better and got away,” he said.  

That was in mid-September. The encounter was documented by Western Prince Whale Watching and naturalist Bethany Shimasaki aboard the Western Explorer II, which runs tours from Friday Harbor. It was reported in the Puget Sound Whale Sightings group page on Facebook.

The only other well-documented altercation like that was almost 30 years ago, in 1993, in an encounter well-documented by renowned photo-I.D. whale researcher Graeme M. Ellis.

Bigg's killer whales leave the area after their interaction with the southern resident killer whales. The behavior they are exhibiting is called porpoising and is mainly done when trying to move at high speeds.
Bethany Shimasaki
Bigg's killer whales leave the area after their interaction with the southern resident killer whales. The behavior they are exhibiting is called porpoising and is mainly done when trying to move at high speeds.

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