Tourists whale watching off the Cape on Monday were treated to what experts are calling a rare sight — an orca.
But according to the New England Aquarium’s whale research team, this isn’t this orca’s first time being spotted in New England waters.
The aquarium said its encountered the orca, named Old Thom, in the Bay of Fundy between Maine and New Brunswick.
“Our whale researchers are up in those waters to look at right whales, and over the last few seasons, a couple times they have seen an unmistakeable, giant dorsal fin of an adult make orca,” aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said.
Old Thom, an adult orca who’s over 25-feet long, was identified by the in-cut and coloring of his dorsal fin.
LaCasse said Thom is a “bit of a wanderer” and a loner, historically only sighted by himself much farther south from where orcas are normally found in east coast waters, which is usually centered around Labrador and Newfoundland.
“Usually orcas travel in small pods of four, but it appears that he is always solitary,” he said. “… It’s possible he has traveling companions undetected several miles away, but it’s still unlikely. We have a lot of boaters out there so we think we probably would have detected someone else.”
Folks on board a Capeshores Charters boat spotted the killer whale about 12 miles into the Atlantic at 8:45 a.m. Monday.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and that’s the second time I’ve seen them in my lifetime. I’m 60 years old,” said Capeshores Captain Bruce Peters, a Cape Cod native and lifelong fisherman.
Peters said he last saw an orca in 1980 in California. He said the killer whale he saw on Monday was much smaller than the whales he usually sees. The whale was about 80 yards from the boat.
“He rolled over on his belly and right side, and the dorsal fin came up and I said, ‘Wow, that is a killer whale,'” Peters said.
Many, including Peters, hope Old Thom was drawn to the Cape waters to feast on the high grey seal population, maybe making the waters less appealing to the area’s white sharks.
LaCasse said he thinks Old Thom is definitely following his food, but that the orca’s eating history says a dinner of grey seals is unlikely.
“In Labrador, our researchers never observed him eating a seal, and there is a greater abundance of them there,” he said.
Old Thom is probably preying on minke whales, dolphins, and schooling fish like herring or mackerel, he said.
If more orcas are sighted, Michael Moore, the director of the Marine Mammal Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said the best thing observers can do is “give them plenty of distance” and flag an agency so more information can be collected about the whales.
Peters said he doesn’t believe he’ll be “blessed” to cross paths with a killer whale again.
“But I will keep my eyes peeled,” he added.