August 7, 2017

Humpback Whale Survives Attack from Killer Whales

[Sarah C. 8/7/17 10am and 2pm Kestrel]

Humpback whales are probably most well-known for their impressive flukes, featuring complex patterns varying from all black to all white, and everything in between. Displayed on every deep dive, humpback whale flukes are used as their main identifier in the field. Each individual has a unique pattern displayed on the underside of their tail, making for a remarkably convenient built-in tracker. Thanks, nature!

Sometimes, though, these flukes provide more than just an ID out on the water. Humpback whale flukes can also hint at their past struggles. Since scars will often heal in the opposite color, scratches and other injuries stand out on a humpback whale tail, giving observers a little peek into each whale's life. Today we saw a whale with a pretty impressive story etched on her tail - a killer whale attack!

We traveled all the way to the west side of Victoria for both of our trips aboard Kestrel today in search of humpback whales reported in that area. Along the way we got looks at other wildlife, like Steller sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, porpoises, and even a minke whale. But the stars of the show today were our humpback whales, a new species in these waters that has quickly become a regular on our whale watches.

We observed two different mystery whales on our two Kestrel departures today. Both of these individuals were not identified using our guide of known Salish Sea humpbacks. This means that they're new whales to our area - how exciting! New whales like these two are helping to grow our small but steady population of humpbacks in this area, building the Salish Sea into a true summer feeding ground for these massive whales. 

The second of these two humpback whale sightings was soon recognized as the tough cookie that she was - across both ends of her fluke were massive rake marks (a fancy term for the marks left by scraping teeth) from the only predator these whales commonly encounter - the killer whale. Look closely at the photos below from today's trip; notice how the rake marks cover both the front and back of the fluke, and are present on both the left and the right fluke. Whatever battle she got into with orcas, she came out the other side strong as ever and is now nicely healed up and back to her normal feeding behavior.

We returned to Friday Harbor with a newfound respect for humpback whales and everything they go through while we're not watching them. Scars like those on this tough cookie are evidence of a dangerous life in the presence of orcas, the Pacific Ocean's ultimate apex predator. Hopefully her battle marks deter any orcas from messing with her in the future!