The Hunt

The RIB sped out of Victoria Harbour, skimming over the silky smooth water of the San Juan Straight. Mist, through which the sun was valiantly trying to break through, obscured the Olympic Mountains of the USA and gave a silvery quality to the ocean between. On board a small group of passengers are safely ensconced in large red survival suits. abruptly the boat does a u-turn, and speeds back towards the harbour. Ahead one or two larger boats filled with people are almost stationary, a sure sign of something being about. The RIB slows, approaching carefully. Out of the silvery grey water a tall, black fin rises, a grey saddle just behind this dorsal fin and the hint of white around the eye, as the unmistakable sleek, black body of a killer whale slices effortlessly through the water.

A Bigg’s transient killer whale cruises the Victoria coastline

The boat slows almost to a stop, watching at a distance as the killer whales move steadily along the shoreline. There are five, including a large male and a small calf. But these are different to those seen from the kayak. They may be subtle differences but these whales may as well be a completely different species. They are Bigg’s transient killer whales, and rather than feeding on fish as the resident whales do, they feed on mammals. Seals, dolphins, porpoises, are all on their menu. Named after Michael Bigg, who first pioneered the photo-identification of killer whales here and led the way in establishing the different types of killer whales that live off the coast of British Columbia and Washington. Bigg’s killer whales do not vocalise or echolocate as much as resident’s and that is because marine mammals can hear very well underwater. Using stealth they follow the coastline in search of prey and that is exactly what this group was doing. At times they are in water so shallow the tip of the males dorsal fin is still clear above the water.

The group’s progress up the coast slows, they seem to be stalling and then the reason why becomes apparent. A harbour seal, sat on top of a bed of kelp, dinner. The group slowly circle, spy hopping, raising their whole head above the water and taking a good look around and at the seal. Tighter and tighter the five killer whales, including the young calf, circle closer. There is thought to this process. They don’t just go barging in, they work it, thinking, almost assessing the situation, working the best way to get the seal from the kelp. The approach needs to be right, move too soon and the seal could get away.

Searching, establishing where the seal is

Suddenly there is a splash, the seal’s hind flippers flick up into the air and it is pulled down beneath the kelp. The killer whales surface once more altogether, almost turning in on one small point between them and then it is quiet.

Having pulled the seal under, the group surfaces tight together

Five minutes later the group surfaces again, once more in searching mode as they move off along the coast again…

The passengers sit, stunned. While it is sad to know that seal has been munched, it is the most fascinating piece of behaviour I have ever witnessed. I feel privileged to have observed this part of this killer whale family’s lives. This is nature, this is survival, this is the wild beautiful natural world we live in, and what we must protect.

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