A group of birdwatchers encountered more wildlife than they expected last weekend when a pod of orcas joined their annual holiday event.
Participants in the 115th annual Tahoma Audubon Christmas Bird Count saw about 12 orcas, including a calf, in waters between Titlow Beach and Point Fosdick.
Tarin Todd, bay patrol director for the nonprofit Citizens for a Healthy Bay, said the group thought one of the animals was a kayaker when they spotted it from afar.
Once four dorsal fins popped out of the water, they knew what they were witnessing.
“We raced as far up as we could,” Todd said, adding that the orcas at one point came within 100 yards of the group’s boat.
He said the orcas kept surfacing for about 45 minutes, at times jumping into the water backward — something Todd said he’s never seen before.
One of the females jumped completely out of the water at one point, he said.
Michael Charest, a passenger aboard the boat, snapped several photographs of the encounter. Todd sent the photos to Melisa Pinnow, who runs San Juan Orcas, an informational website on the species. She identified the orcas as transient.
Transient orcas eat marine mammals, unlike the salmon-eating resident pods native to the Pacific Northwest.
Josh McInnes, marine biologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said the orcas spotted Saturday off Tacoma’s shores included two separate groups. Both of them prey on harbor seal pups, and McInnes said it is a safe bet that the recent sightings are related to a higher number of young seals in the area.
Transients are more stealthy than other orca species, McInnes said, and historically it was unusual to spot them. That pattern is beginning to change, he said. It’s a mystery that researchers are hoping to learn more about.
“We’re really excited about this situation,” McInnes said.
As sightings of transient orcas increase, McInnes said resident populations are spotted less frequently.
Local populations of orcas, also known as killer whales, have dwindled. Southern resident killer whales — those native to Washington, Oregon and British Columbia — are classified as endangered by the state and the federal government.
Saturday’s encounter came just days after another man spotted a large pod of orcas in Pierce County. Todd believes they’re the same animals.
William Chapman posted a video to YouTube last Wednesday that shows them swimming under his small vessel near Anderson Island.
“Found a pod of Orca whales while at work; things got intense,” Chapman wrote in the description of the video, which had more than 380,000 views as of Tuesday.