Transient orcas seen feeding on gray whale near Seattle

Courtesy of Bart Rulon.com/Puget Sound Express (via KIRO7.com)

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Courtesy of Bart Rulon.com/Puget Sound Express (via KIRO7.com)

Passengers and crew aboard two Puget Sound Express whale-watching boats witnessed transient orcas feeding on a gray whale Saturday south of Whidbey Island near Seattle.

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According to a release from Puget Sound Express, the groups came across the T101 family of Bigg’s orcas about 3 p.m. just west of Cultus Bay.

When the vessels came near the whales, witnesses saw that the pod, comprised of the mother, T101, and her sons, T101A, T101B and T102, was circling around some sort of prey.

The release said the groups had just seen the pod 1 1/2 hours earlier to the southeast at Possession Point and that the whales were spread out in a typical hunting pattern.

The killer whales circled for quite some time and eventually, the groups witnessed a flurry of activity from the whales at the surface before the gray whale’s body came up, according to the release.

"This, in my opinion, is one of the most unusual events I can recall with a killer whale in 34 years of whale watching in the Salish Sea," said Puget Sound Express owner Pete Hanke.

According to the release, witnesses saw the pod circle the gray whale’s body as it floated, and saw fresh blood come from its carcass and then sink as the pod continued to eat at it.

A representative for Puget Sound Express said it is unlikely that the gray whale was from a regular “Sounder” group that visits in the springtime. It is believed because the gray whale was smaller in size and it took less than 1 1/2 hours to kill it that it didn’t pass away beforehand.

Photographer and naturalist Bart Rulon said: "This is an unusual occurrence in our area to see a killer whale family feeding on a gray whale. We have witnessed half-hearted attacks of transient killer whales on some of our regular 'Sounders' in the past, but never have we seen an attack succeed."

According to the release, killer whales usually only eat the tongue on a gray whale.

Officials with Puget Sound Express said they have seen an unusual number of new, unidentified gray whales showing up in the Salish Sea and Puget Sound. They also said gray whale mortality has been higher than usual this year.

That gray whale is believed to have been seen in the water near Edmonds and the south end of Whidbey Island over the past couple of weeks, appearing sluggish and skinny.