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'Very dramatic photographs': Orca punts harbour porpoise into the air

A mother orca started punting her prey into the air and a B.C. photographer captured the "unique" action.

Simon Pidcock has been photographing killer whales for 21 years.

He spends seven days a week, 10 hours a day on the water. 

“I get pickier and pickier,” he says. “I get a couple of images a year that I’m really happy with.”

In August 2023, he captured a handful of powerful images showing a Bigg’s killer whale hunting harbour porpoises off Sangster Island.

“This one is pretty special because it’s one of the families that I really like and it was really neat to experience it,” he says. 

At the time, Pidcock was taking a group on a private charter with Ocean Ecoventures when he spotted splashing. A mother orca was helping her son hunt.

Pidcock tells Glacier Media it's common for the females to do a fair amount of work while the males come for scraps. 

“Her boy was chasing the other harbour porpoise but it was getting away,” he says. “He’s really big and pretty chunky and a little slow.”

Pidcock started snapping photographs of the mother punting the porpoise into the air. 

“It was basically two hits from underneath like that and launched the harbour porpoise probably about two metres in [the air]. And then it was all over pretty quickly.”

It wasn’t until after the encounter that Pidcock realized the images he took. 

“They looked pretty sharp. I was pretty happy,” he says. “It’s always really fun to share these images.” 

Pidcock posted the photographs on social media where they were widely shared and viewed.

“We’re so lucky to live in the place that we do and have all of this on our doorsteps,” he says. 

It’s also nice for him to see everyone getting excited about the animals.

B.C. marine scientist Anna Hall notes that transient killer whales are highly efficient predators. 

“They are top predators and of course, harbour porpoises are one of the more commonly taken prey species,” she says.

When harbour porpoises are being pursued, the animal goes through what's known as "capture myopathy." 

“It means that even if the threat goes away, their body has gone into a metabolic state that is non-recoverable and they will die anyway,” she says. 

Reviewing the photographs, Hall hoped that the porpoises were no longer conscious of what was happening to them.

"With harbour porpoise, there was [a] 100 per cent attack-to-kill ratio. So every time the transients were observed pursuing the harbour porpoise, they managed to kill it," says Hall.

Harbour porpoises are considered to be sentinel species and an indicator of how healthy the ecosystem is. 

If the porpoise was a female, Hall says it could weigh up to 140 pounds.

"Those photographs are remarkable,” she says, referencing the height above the water at which the orca is able "to batter one of those animals."

She says it’s not a rare occurrence, but capturing the moment is unique. 

“They are very dramatic photographs, really quite incredible how the event was captured so clearly,” she says.

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