Whale watchers witness battle between orcas and humpbacks off B.C. coast

Spotting a humpback and an orca in one whale-watching trip is lucky—spotting a group of humpbacks and orcas going to battle is once-in-a-lifetime.

The tussle took place off the coast of Vancouver Island, near the Jordan River, earlier this week. Paul Pudwell, co-owner of Sooke Whale Watching, told reporters that his group first came across some transient orca whales, who were feeding on a harbour porpoise. He and the rest of the whale-watchers were shocked when the orcas started to surround two adult humpbacks and a calf. 

But Pudwell’s boat was just one of several stationed along the western edge of the Salish Sea on Sunday. Valerie Shore, a naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours, also witnessed the event with a group of whale-watchers.

“We saw what we thought at the time was a large blood burst and seconds later a humpback, possibly the calf, rose and remained stationary at the surface,” Shore said in a media release.

Assuming it was a wound, everyone on Shore’s  boat gasped when they saw it. But as it turns out, that “blood burst” was likely feces, which Shore says could have been a defence mechanism (or even a very frightened response) from the whale calf.

Although much of the battle happened below the water’s surface, the calf was later seen with what looked like a torn tail. Unfortunately, it was too far out of sight for anyone to confirm. What we do know is that everyone made it out of the battle alive. Witnesses say the adult humpbacks eventually forced the orcas to leave.

John Ford, a researcher with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has been studying whales off British Columbia’s coast for more than 40 years. In that time, he says he’s only seen one similar encounter. Because although orca whales are extremely experienced hunters, humpbacks are not easy prey—and not just because of their size.

“Their appendages are encrusted with barnacles. Essentially they’re like brass knuckles, and it’s just a dangerous thing for killer whales,” Ford told CTV News.

According to a release by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, encounters between humpbacks and transient orcas like this do happen, but they rarely result in a kill. To them, it appears orcas just like harassing humpbacks, which can sometimes be double their size.

But some have suggested this was more of a turf war. There has been a huge increase in humpback activity off B.C.’s coast, which scientists have attributed to ecological changes that have resulted in an increase in food sources like seals. Knowing this, Pacific Whale Watch Association’s Michael Harris isn’t as surprised by the showdown.

“It’s the humpback comeback, more than any of us have seen in our lifetime, along with more transient killer whales than any of us have ever seen in our lifetime,” he told Chek News. “We’re having a battle for the kingdom.”