Feb. 27, 2020

A frequent question we get asked on our whale watching tours from Victoria is about the relationship between fish-eating resident killer whales and mammal-eating transient, or Bigg’s, killer whales.

Although the two ecotypes of killer whale differ in many aspects of their behaviour, they travel in the same waters, sometimes within 150 metres of each other, yet never seem to interact.

Or do they?

J-pod (in 2015) / photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

In a bizarre incident off Nanaimo, BC, on Feb. 13, 1993, the answer was a definitive “yes.” A resident pod not only interacted with some transients, it gave them a drubbing.

The incident began when Graeme Ellis, then a whale researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, heard from friends about a group of killer whales in nearby  Georgia Strait. Once on the water, Ellis found the whales porpoising south at about 10-12 knots and identified them as part of the southern resident pod known as J-pod.

There was more splashing ahead, and it turned out to be the rest of J-pod.

“They were really agitated, charging around the bay, obviously worked up about something,” said Ellis. Once the first group caught up, all of the whales bunched together and charged toward a small bay, again at high speed.

Then all of a sudden three new killer whales popped up about 100 yards in front of J-pod.

Transient male Kwatsi (T20) in 2008 / photo by Valerie Shore

Ellis recognized the threesome as a well-known transient group known as the T20s—a mother Pandora (T21) and her adult offspring, son Kwatsi (T20) and daughter Eucott (T22). Ellis watched in disbelief as the transients fled toward the rocky shoreline, with J-pod in hot pursuit.

“The transients were within five to six metres of a cliff face, just going like hell,” said Ellis. “Meanwhile, J-pod was angling in on them, almost as if they were trying to push them up against the rocks.”

When the residents caught up, the spray really began to fly. The water churned with 20 agitated whales and Ellis could hear their excited whistles and squeals resonating through his boat—even though the outboard was still running.

“They were all mixed really tightly together. There were times when the animals came up and you could see one’s head right against the other one’s flank, but I couldn’t tell whether or not they were grabbing. I suspect they were nipping at them, because it was all really aggressive.”

Several minutes later the rumble ended when the Gabriola Island ferry backed out of its dock, and the transients raced off along the shoreline and dove. The J-pod whales then “huffed and chuffed and puffed” around the bay, catching their breaths as Ellis motored after the transients to have a closer look at them.

“A couple of them had fresh tooth rake marks on them, but because I didn’t get a good look at them beforehand, we’ll never know for sure whether they came from this incident,” he said.

Polaris (J28) with her own calf, Star (J46), in 2010 / photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

Once J-pod emerged from the small bay, with no visible scratches, it became apparent that three pod members were missing—a new calf, its mother and its grandmother. For those of you who follow the southern residents, the calf was Polaris (J28), the mother was Princess Angeline (J17) and the grandmother was Saratoga (J5).

The three whales rejoined the rest of J-pod shortly after the transients had disappeared.

The incident marks the first and, so far, only time a significant interaction has been witnessed between resident and transient killer whales in this region. “In my mind there was no question it was an aggressive encounter,” says Ellis.

We sometimes see transients and residents travelling not far from each other, with no apparent reaction. In some cases, transients appear to be avoiding resident pods by changing course or ducking into coves. Transients usually travel silently (to remain undetected by their marine mammal prey), so the more “talkative” residents may not even be aware they’re nearby.

Transient male Pender (T14) in 2008 / photo by Valerie Shore

But what it was that provoked J-pod in this case remains a mystery. Perhaps the transients killed a seal or sea lion and started “talking” about it while J-pod was within hearing range. Or maybe J-pod viewed the transients as a threat to their new calf. Whatever the reason, says Ellis, the T20s “definitely got their butts kicked, in my view.”

There is a postscript to this story. The next day J-pod had long gone, but the T20s returned, accompanied by four other transients—Flores (T13), Pender (T14), Florencia (T2) and Tasu (T2C). “They brought reinforcements, just in case,” joked Ellis.

Blog written by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing marine naturalist. The blog was adapted from an article by the same author and published in The Blackfish Sounder, the old newsletter of the Ocean Wise Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program.