Rare clash between orcas, humpback whales witnessed in Salish Sea

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Captains with the Pacific Whale Watch Association said they witnessed a rare event on Thursday.

A large group of Bigg’s (transient) orcas and pair of humpback whales harassed each other during an hours-long encounter about 25 miles west of Port Angeles.

PWWA captains said they first saw a group of about 15 killer whales being unusually active at the surface near the U.S./Canada border in the Strait of Juan De Fuca shortly after 11 a.m.

Shortly after, the likely reason for their activity was spotted — two humpback whales were among the group.

Observers throughout the day said the “encounter included an astonishing three hours of breaching, tail-slapping, and loud vocalizations before all of the whales disappeared into the fog,” a news release from PWWA said.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it because it was absolutely unbelievable”, says Mollie Naccarato, captain and naturalist for Sooke Coastal Explorations. “At first, the orcas seemed to be chasing the humpbacks, but then there was space between them, the humpbacks would go back toward the orcas.”

PWWA naturalists identified some of the orcas as a group that is more frequently encountered on the outer coast. The humpback whales involved were identified as “Reaper,” who is at least 4 years old and “Hydra,” an adult female.

Reaper has been matched to winter breeding grounds off Jalisco, Mexico and Hydra has been matched to breeding grounds off Maui, Hawaii, where she gave birth to at least three calves, PWWA said.

Bigg’s orcas feed on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and porpoises. They do occasionally hunt larger prey such as humpback whales.

The endangered Southern Resident orcas only eat salmon, primarily Chinook. They were not involved in the encounter.

PWWA said it has not documented any fatal orca attacks on humpback whales in the Salish Sea. But with numbers of Bigg’s orcas and humpback whales in the area rising, it believes interactions may become more common.