Transient Orca Attack On Gray Whale Near Whidbey Island

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First, a huge disclaimer: I did not witness this attack, and usually avoid writing about these events because the focus of this blog is on the fish-eating Southern Resident orcas, not the mammal-eating Transient orcas which attacked the whale. I have a huge fondness for all the marine mammals that the Transients dine upon, so it is a topic I would just as soon not put my attention on.

However, when I got up the gumption to watch the video of yesterday’s attack, my interpretation of what I could see was a bit enhanced by my personal experience with gray whales, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to give some insight to the gray whale’s behavior.

Here is the video, from KingTV:

What I would like to add is the fact that if the gray whale which was attacked is healthy, the Transient orcas probably just tested him and took off; gray whales are not helpless – far, far, from it. They were called “devil fish” by 19th century whalers because when harpooned the whales would whack the boats with their tails with enough force to break the skiffs or send the whalers flying.

I happened to be a student on a research study once which took place in the gray whale calving lagoons in Baja, where we learned the capability and strength of gray whales first hand. The objective was to figure out where the whales went when they left the lagoon, so a baby whale was netted, taken to shore and fitted with a tracking device before being returned to his mother. His very angry mother. She swam back and forth slapping the water with her tail and spyhopping (sticking her head out of the water) during the time the baby was on the beach.

Every precaution had been taken to ensure that the whales would not be hurt and that the baby would be onshore just long enough to take measurements, strap the transmitter jacket on it, and check to make sure it worked. I was on the capture boat, tracking the mother with binoculars while a helicopter overhead was poised to follow her if she took off. It was the most amazingly well planned and kindly executed event, and all was going well until suddenly the mother disappeared from view, and the next we knew of her whereabouts was when the capture boat suddenly thudded, as though we’d run aground. And then a second time, before the mother surfaced and returned to her vigil off the beach. She had bent the prop on the boat.

After two days of following the baby’s transmitter signal it stopped working. We found the transmitter jacket – it had been designed with a magnesium bolt that would corrode quickly in the saltwater and then fall off, which it did. But the Styrofoam flotation was smashed, and I always wondered if that mother whale hadn’t given it a whack for good measure.

So most likely that gray whale which was attacked yesterday was giving the orcas a good fight, and when you watch the video closely you will see the whale’s defensive strategy – he put his vulnerable stomach up, and my guess is that he was striking at the orcas with his powerful tail. Given a choice, predators go for the easiest prey, usually the weak and the young, and the Transient orcas would have quickly decided to find their meal elsewhere.

I’m also guessing that the gray whale stayed on guard for a while, then swam into shallow water where he could rest without fear of attack.

Friendly gray whale (Creative Commons Photo)

Gray whales have shown themselves to be friendly towards humans – nowhere more evident than in the calving lagoons where the whales often swim over to check out the boats and to be rubbed, and don’t tip the boats or otherwise bother us. It is another example of the nature of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and we humans can learn much about co-existence from these gentle creatures.

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