In rare photo, killer whale uses tail to toss seal high into the air

A whale watching captain caught a rare sight on camera when a Bigg’s killer whale tossed a seal high in the air.

Andrew Lees, who owns Five Star Whale Watching, brought his guests to the south side of Sidney Island, where they watched a killer whale mom and her son play in kelp beds.

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Lees said the mature son was more active than his mom, known as T10. The group watched the son slap his tail and move back and forth in the kelp.

“We noticed he turned upside down and all of a sudden I saw the tail fly up and I saw the seal mid-air,” Lees said.

Lees said the guests could tell by his expression that it was a special sight. He didn’t know he had cap­tured the “breathtaking moment” until he got home and checked his camera. He was trying to steer the boat at the time and just happened to be pointing the camera in the whales’ direction when the orca put on a show.

Lees has been leading whale watching trips since 2005 and said this was a rare sight. He’s seen a whale toss a porpoise or a seal with its tail just a handful of times in 15 years on the water. More often, he sees orcas throw prey up using their mouths.

“It was the height that the seal caught that particular day and the way the male had gone on his back to do it,” Lees said. “It’s not often we see them doing it with the tail like that. It happens but, you know, that’s definitely one of those rarer activities we see out there.”

The mom and son appeared to finish the seal off underwater, which Lees said is pretty common after starting an attack at the surface.

Sometimes he can tell the whales have got their prey even when they dip below the surface, because there’s an oily sheen on the water and a whiff of what smells like sweet cucumber from the oils of the seal.

While a rare sight to witness, the behaviour is not uncommon for Bigg’s killer whales, said Jackie Hildering, an education director at the Marine Education and Research Society in Port McNeill.

The orcas will often put on dramatic displays with prey when socializing, learning or playing, she said, and may not even eat the animal.

Tossing a seal might be a particular whale’s hunting style to disable the animal,

but it’s not essential to kill a seal, which is easy prey for Bigg’s killer whales, Hildering said.

“It’s usually younger members of the population will do things like hit birds with their tails at the surface, little diving birds, and then suck them in as well as spit them back out” or carry around a piece of seal for a while, she said.

Bigg’s killer whales are “extraordinarily social” animals, and the behaviours are linked to learning and play. Younger whales can hone their hunting skills by learning to hit prey with accuracy and manipulate small pieces of prey, Hildering said.

In the case of Lees’ photo, Hildering said the whales were likely playing with the seal or trying to disable it by tossing it in the air.

She said the Bigg’s killer whales are sometimes vilified for behaviour that some people see as cruel, like playing with prey, and said it’s important to remember that the behaviour has purposes.

“There is no good or bad in nature. There’s just wild, and so this should have no judgment to it, because that ends up pushing the idea that these are somehow bad whales, which has made us make horrible mistakes in the past,” Hildering said.

As top level predators, Bigg’s killer whales shape the populations of species below them in the food chain. Their habitat extends from Alaska to southern California, and they’re found along the B.C. coast year-round.

Bigg’s killer whales, also known as transient killer whales, are named in honour of the late researcher Dr. Michael Bigg whose research led to the understanding that there are multiple populations of killer whales in B.C.

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