“Dude, that otter is in trouble, man.”
That’s what John Dornellas said as a sea otter raced toward his boat in Kachemak Bay one morning in July, apparently fleeing a killer whale nearby.
The interaction, caught on video by Dornellas, was the start of an extraordinary day off the Kenai Peninsula last month that produced not one, but two viral videos of killer whales. The first video has been seen more than 7 million times on YouTube.
Early that morning, Dornellas and Chantrelle Major, who are both captains at Coldwater AK water taxi service, were heading to a pickup on the south side of Kachemak Bay.
Dornellas radioed to Major — who was in a second boat — that he thought he saw a spout a ways off.
It’s not an uncommon sight. Dornellas said he’d seen orcas once or twice a week lately. But the encounters that followed were not ordinary.
The two boats stopped to watch the killer whales, two adults and a calf on the east side of Halibut Cove.
Then, a little head popped up in the water. Dornellas recognized it as a sea otter. That’s when he began filming.
“He made a beeline right at my boat at full speed,” Dornellas said in an interview. “I had never seen an otter go that fast.”
One killer whale followed the otter, heading straight for Dornellas’ boat.
In the video, the otter jumps out of the water and onto the back of the boat. The orca swims past.
Throughout the video, the otter went in and out of the water, at one point even somersaulting farther into the boat.
The two captains saw killer whales multiple times that day, including once later on when Major filmed a second viral video of an orca placing what may have been an otter carcass in front of her boat.
At one point in the first video, the otter nearly leaps off the boat. Dornellas invites it to stay.
“You can chill up here as long as you need,” he says as it pulls back and stares up at Dornellas.
“Is this happening right now?” he says in the video.
By getting into Dornellas’ boat, the otter had a “need to survive, instinctual response,” said Ben Weitzman, an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Kasitsna Bay Laboratory based out of the area.
“The otter clearly had some fear response to get out of the water, particularly electing to jump on a boat with humans,” Weitzman said.
Dornellas was running late at that point, so he slowly drove away with the otter still onboard.
The orca either lost interest or didn’t follow, Major said, and the otter may have been able to escape to land by the time it later jumped off.
What many might not see in his first video, Dornellas said, is that as the killer whale swam past, it looked like there was something in its mouth, something that Dornellas thinks might be another otter.
If there was an otter in the mouth of the killer whale, the one in Dornellas’ boat could have been hopping in and out to check on it. But that’s only really likely if the otter in the boat was its mom, said Dr. Debbie Boege Tobin, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alaska Anchorage at the Kenai Peninsula College, Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer.
The otter might also have been frightened by seeing people on the boat, she said.
It’s really hard to say for certain.
“We never know what’s going through their minds,” Tobin said.
Transient killer whales, like the ones in Dornellas’ and Major’s videos, mainly eat harbor seals, Dall porpoises and harbor porpoises, said Dan Olsen, research director of the nonprofit North Gulf Oceanic Society, where he studies killer whales in Alaska. Otters don’t provide a lot of calories, which killer whales need. That’s why they tend to target animals like seals — for their blubber, he said.
Killer whale attacks on otters aren’t commonly observed, Olsen said, but when they do occur, there are a few of possibilities for what might be going on, even if the whales don’t end up eating it, he said.
The whales might be teaching their young how to hunt, which researchers have also seen orcas do with puffins. They could also be hunting for sport. Or, it might also be instinct, he said.
“These are predators, with predatory instincts, much like a lion or a bear that might chase after something that is not its normal prey,” Olsen said.
While Dornellas’ video ends after that incident, the story of the captains’ intriguing encounters with the orcas that day does not.
Later on, Major took passengers on a wildlife tour and brought them to the same spot, knowing orcas were there earlier.
From a distance, a killer whale began swimming toward her boat, which she said was rare. Usually, she’ll see them diving and surfacing nearby. Major started filming.
As the orca swam closer, she noticed something red, and initially thought it was hurt. But soon she realized the killer whale was balancing what Major said she thinks was a skinned otter carcass.
“It looked just like a big piece of prime rib,” she said.
Making a deep, throaty rumbling noise, the orca left the meat in front of her boat, looked up at Major and then swam away, she said.
For a second, she said she thought the killer whale might jump out of the water and grab her. She looked over to the passengers on her boat, jaw dropped. Her fear morphed into confusion before she grew excited.
“I was laughing with the rest of them,” Major said. “We were just like, ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened?’ "
The carcass in the video doesn’t have a lot of blubber, but it’s hard to say exactly what it is, Weitzman said.
“I have trepidation about confirming it as an otter carcass, but it certainly has that look to it,” Weitzman said.
Minutes later, the orca came back for the meat, Major said.
She wishes she could ask why the orca brought it to her, she said.
It’s tough to know why a killer whale would push the carcass up to a boat, said Olsen at the North Gulf Oceanic Society.
“It is just plain weird,” he said.
Tobin, at UAA, said she’s excited to use the video during a class she’s teaching.
She wants to ask students: “What are the different ideas, notions you can come up with for what is going through this whale’s head? Like, why in the world would it be bringing this carcass over to the boat? Who knows?”
The video from Dornellas has ballooned with millions of views, but if someone wants to experience a powerful moment in a natural setting, it doesn’t take the “chaotic, crazy experience like what I had with the otter,” he said.
He has moving experiences in nature that will never go viral daily and even hourly. It just takes getting outside and opening your eyes, Dornellas said.
“Even if no one else ever sees what you see, it’s no less profound.”