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Orca spotted hunting seal in Victoria's Inner Harbour

Transient or Bigg’s orcas have been venturing into Victoria Harbour with more frequency over the past three years, say whale observers.

Cathy Potter was looking out the window of her Songhees condominium on Monday when she noticed a large splash in the Victoria Harbour.

It was too big for the seals and otters she often sees along the Songhees walkway.

Then the big black dorsal fin appeared and it was clear an orca was hunting a seal right off Victoria International Marina.

“I kept looking at the area outside our window view and had my husband run to get my camera and — voila — there was a lone whale,” said Potter. “It remained for about 15 minutes before heading out of the harbour.”

The transient orca was identified as T049A1, a big 21-year-old male that’s known to slip into local waters and hunt seals.

Brett Soberg, co-owner of Eagle Wing Tours, said transient or Bigg’s orcas have been venturing into Victoria Harbour with more frequency over the past three years.

“In my 25 years, it’s becoming a more common trend to see them come right into the harbour” going after seals, said Soberg.

Soberg said T049A1 seems to be extra-ambitious when it comes to flushing out seals. He’s been spotted on two occasions recently in Esquimalt Harbour “hammering seals” along the shorelines around the naval dockyards and as far inland as Cole Island, near Six Mile Pub in View Royal.

In September, a pod of five Bigg’s orcas — a family that includes three females, a male and a baby — cruised into the Inner Harbour close to the Empress Hotel. The pod spent half an hour diving and surfacing, with experts saying they were likely exploring and hunting.

In July 2020, seven Bigg’s orcas ventured into the Inner Harbour for an afternoon look around. Identified as from the T46B, T68 and T68B matrilines, the orcas swam as far as the Bay Street Bridge before slipping back out to open water past the Ogden Point breakwater.

Soberg said orca sightings on the outer areas of the harbour, from Shoal Point to the Ogden Point Breakwater, have also been increasing, with about a dozen sightings since the start of the year.

Soberg believes as shoreline and marine-bed cleanups continue, including the recent remediation of Laurel Point, Lime Bay, West Bay and Esquimalt Harbour, orcas and other marine animals will continue to come into populated areas.

“All of these cleanups have created better habitats for everything,” said Soberg. “They’re coming into our neighbourhoods, or as I like to call them, naturehoods.”

For Potter and her husband, Thomas, spotting an orca from their living room window has been a bucket-list item since the couple moved to Victoria from Edmonton in 2020.

“We’ve been waiting for a whale to pop up, so we’re very thrilled,” said Potter.

A Facebook post by Victoria International Marina showed the whale hunting a seal just metres from its docks. But when a float plane came in for a landing, the orca turned on its side and dove.

It was last seen near Shoal Point heading back to open water.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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