Image: Killer whales attack gray whale
Noela Graham via AP
A pod of killer whales, or orcas, attack a gray whale in Puget Sound near Seattle, Wash., on Sunday. Killer whales typically eat smaller marine mammals but their name comes the fact that they have been seen attacking whales as prey.
updated 4/12/2010 5:30:14 PM ET 2010-04-12T21:30:14

Whale watchers in Puget Sound caught a rare and dramatic sight from their tourist boat: a pod of orcas speeding by in attack mode and then ramming a gray whale under water.

After the gray whale dove beneath the water Sunday, the pod of attacking transient killer whales followed suit.

"Everything was quiet for a minute," said Monte Hughes, captain of the Anacortes-based Mystic Sea Charters. "Then the water went into a frenzy. ... You could see the movements of the gray whale being hit underneath the water."

A short time later the gray whale surfaced, belly up, and jerked upward two or three times as it was being hit from below, he said. The killer whales then took off, and the gray whale floundered for a time, but eventually swam toward shallow waters.

Howard Garrett, director of the Orca Network, said there have been three other reports of transient orcas attacking gray whales in Puget Sound. The first siting was March 22.

Transient orcas are different from the three pods of Puget Sound orcas that feed on salmon. These whales typically eat marine mammals such as sea lions, porpoises, dolphins and gray whales.

Robin Baird, a marine biologist with the Olympia, Wash.-based Cascadia Research Collective, said it's not unusual for transients to attack gray whales but most of the attacks have occurred in California or Alaska, in areas where the grays are particularly vulnerable.

"I have not heard of them attacking grays in Puget Sound before," Baird said in an e-mail from Hawaii, where he was doing field work.

Whale observers said they're not sure why the attacks happened.

"It doesn't fit the usual textbook wildlife behavior," Garrett said.

Hughes said he hasn't seen anything like the attack during his 20 years operating whale-watching tours.

Noela Graham, a Whidbey Island resident, watched the attack with about 30 other passengers aboard the Mystic Sea and recalled it being "extraordinary to witness something that you see on a National Geographic Channel."

After the first group of seven orcas attacked the gray whale and left, another pair of orcas approached the gray whale.

Hughes said he positioned the boat near the gray whale to deter another attack.

"I think we were able to deter that hopefully," he said, noting that the whale got its breath, got up right, and very slowly started heading for the beach.

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