Biologists studying orca attacks on gray whales

Posted: Tuesday, October 07, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Biologists don't know whether attacks by killer whales on gray whales are becoming more frequent because of changes in the Bering Sea ecosystem.

Recently, a gray whale with bite marks on its flippers and flukes and chunks of flesh ripped away washed up on a Barrow beach.

The evidence is consistent with attacks witnessed for decades from the Arctic to Baja California when a pod of killer whales takes on a single gray.

"They rip 'em up pretty good," Craig George, a biologist with the North Slope Borough, told The Anchorage Daily News.

Residents of False Pass report watching killer whales grabbing gray whales by the snout and tail while others leap onto their backs, perhaps to drown or tire their prey. Off St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, whalers say, orcas repeatedly ram gray whales, then start tearing flesh.

The Barrow whale was thought to be a bowhead as it drifted toward town. When it washed up on a beach Sept. 27, it was identified by its short snout and white baleen as a gray whale, George said.

A juvenile female showed the classic signs of an orca attack, said George. The tail flukes and dorsal ridge had bite marks, and the tongue, lips and half its jaw were torn free, he said. The rest of the body was essentially untouched.

"I think it's fairly typical," George said. "From what I can surmise, they seem to be like other predators - when things are good, they high-grade," taking the choicest meat and leaving the rest.

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