Dramatic footage shows two humpback whales fighting with a pod of 15 killer whales in the Juan de Fuca Strait, about 25 miles west of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around it because it was absolutely unbelievable," says Mollie Naccarato, a captain and naturalist with Sooke Coastal Explorations on Canada's Vancouver Island. "At first the orcas seemed to be chasing the humpbacks, but then when it seemed there was space between them, the humpbacks would go back toward the orcas." Here's what video footage showed—and what eyewitnesses saw.
Crew members on an Eagle Wing Tours whale-watching boat first spotted the animals brawling after noticing 15 Bigg's (transient) orcas "being unusually active at the surface," according to a press release from the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA). "Not long afterward, another whale watcher, Captain Jimmy Zakreski of BC Whale Tours discovered likely cause of the orcas' excitement – two humpback whales in their midst. According to observers who came and went throughout the day, the encounter included an astonishing three hours of breaching, tail-slapping, and loud vocalizations before all of the whales disappeared into the fog, keeping the final outcome of the melee a mystery." Keep reading to learn more and see the video.
The PWWA identified the two humpback whales engaged in battle with the killer whale pod. "The humpback whales involved were identified as BCX1948 'Reaper' and BCY1000 'Hydra.' Reaper is at least 4 years old and has been matched to winter breeding grounds off Jalisco, Mexico. Hydra, an adult female, has been matched to breeding grounds off Maui, Hawaii where she's given birth to at least three calves in her lifetime."
Do Killer Whales Hunt Humpbacks?
"Bigg's orcas feed on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and porpoises, although they occasionally hunt larger prey like humpback whales," says the PWWA. "While the PWWA has not documented any fatal orca attacks on humpback whales in the Salish Sea, with the number of both Bigg's orcas and humpback whales in the region increasing, they believe interactions between the adversaries may become more common."
What Happened to the Humpbacks?
Whale watchers are on the lookout for the two humpbacks, hoping to catch a glimpse of them before they swim south for their annual winter migration. "Around these parts, it's very common for us to encounter orcas. It's also very common for us to encounter humpbacks," says PWWA executive director Erin Gless. "It is not very common for us to encounter them in the middle of a brawl."
Territorial Or Predatory?
It's unclear whether the killer whales were defending their territory or actually trying to hunt the humpbacks. "Orcas are the only natural predator that humpback whales have in this region," says Gless. "Even though humpback whales can get to be the size of a school bus, a group of very experienced hunters can attack [them]… We saw some of that splashing around … getting on top of the back of the humpbacks as they were trying to breathe."