Standup paddleboarding is typically about as chill and meditative as watersports come, but sometimes local marine life shows up to get the pulse going. 

Such was the case this past Wednesday in Washington's Salish Sea, when a paddler found herself with unexpected front-row seats to some particularly big and flashy marine life: a group of transient (or Bigg's) orcas on the prowl.


Jenny Willkie Bull managed to film some of her on-the-water encounter, which took place around Deception Pass, a surging tidal channel between Fidalgo and Whidbey islands northwest of Seattle. Posting her video to Facebook, she reported the whales appeared to be hunting a pinniped, perhaps a harbour seal.

"We probably should have been [scared]," she wrote, "but it just didn’t process or really even hit us what happened until we got back to shore. It was really cool."

While the Salish Sea – a network of sheltered ocean straits, channels, and bays shared between northwestern Washington and southwestern British Columbia – is best known for its pods of resident orcas, its waters are also regular hunting grounds for more mysterious Bigg's whales.

These orcas are morphologically, socially and ecologically distinct: they travel in smaller, quieter groups than residents, and unlike those fish-eating cousins of theirs, they appear to be exclusively mammal-hunters, their warm-blooded menu including seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and even baleen whales. 

(The "transient" label was applied when scientists assumed these orcas were nomadic cast-outs from resident pods. We now know that's not the case, and many favour the label Bigg's killer whale, honouring Dr Michael Bigg, a pioneering researcher who conducted an influential survey of British Columbia orca populations for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.)

The Orca Network reported to us that a naturalist onboard a whale-watching vessel, Renee Bietzel, observed two recognised transient matrilines – the stable, maternally linked affiliations at the core of orca society – cruising Deception Pass the day of Bull's run-in: the T77s and the T75Bs.

Bigg's orcas don't just frequently hunt the Salish Sea: they also regularly show up along the Oregon and California coasts during the spring migration of the Northeast Pacific gray whale, when the vulnerable calves of those baleen giants become prime targets. Transient hunts can be dramatic affairs. In California's Monterey Bay – where Bigg's orcas seasonally gather to ambush whale calves making the perilous crossing of the Monterey Submarine Canyon – they've been seen setting "superpods" of dolphins to high-leaping flight and even pestering blue whales (only the very biggest creatures on earth).

(The drama sometimes stems from interlopers: humpback whales have earned something of a reputation for interjecting themselves in the middle of orca hunts, and they've been seen more than once confronting transient orcas along the West Coast.)

The Deception Pass drama, meanwhile, isn't the first time a paddleboarder has had an orca run-in. In 2015, a stingray-hunting orca buzzed a nervy paddler in New Zealand and even sampled his board. That same year, a paddleboarder off Laguna Beach, California filmed a group of whales circling and passing underneath him.

There's never been a confirmed instance of wild killer whales attacking a human being, but that doesn't mean it's not unnerving to have the ocean's apex predators eyeball you up there on the flimsy perch of a paddleboard. Paddlers should never approach orcas, but that's a moot point should the whales simply pop up around you, as in Bull's experience. "No particular advice for paddleboarders except to stay in place," said Howard Garrett of the Orca Network.

Stay in place, that is, and bear witness (with a fast-beating heart) to an utterly spellbinding creature in action.



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