Cetacean Battle in the Southern Ocean
Humpback survives Killer Whale attack for the first time ever recorded in the Bremer Canyon. The story of today unfolded shortly after departing the Bremer Bay Boat Harbour as local legend Graeme and his team had successfully purse seined a large school of pilchards and we spent a few moments observing the coordination of everyone onboard. Little did we know that later today we would be observing this same teamwork and type of fishing by the Bremer Bay Orca but with a completely different prey in the Orca’s version of purse seine fishing. Arriving in The Patch we firstly came across a resting Fur Seal who was curiously looking up towards us when Marine Biologist Kerryn made the call, Orca were out to our starboard side and surging with immense intensity.
Arriving on scene we watched on as a commotion of white water erupted and we knew that the Orca had successfully surrounded what they had been targeting, but our hearts skipped a beat as we watched the unmistakable fluke of a Humpback Whale lift above the waters surface. Humpbacks usually begin their migration from late April onwards so to observe a young male Humpback this early in the year is certainly unusual but not impossible as the sub-adult males are known to migrate earlier than the others. Somehow and perhaps through inexperience this young male Humpback was right in the heart of Killer Whale territory and had been found, the hunt was now unfolding in front of us as Queen (aka Split Tip) and Cookie’s family pods began to target the Humpback. Latching onto the dorsal fin, the movements of all the Orca were to try and roll him upside down to drown him as quickly as possible. A true fighter, the Humpback resiliently rolled back over and over again, thrashing with his fluke as he tried desperately to defend himself.
Stormy started to breach in excitement as further members of her family pod arrived and the breathing of the Humpback become more laboursome and increased. Desperately trying to evade the Orca we could see the young Humpback swimming directly towards us at speed as the Orca followed. We have observed mother Humpback Whales protecting their calves on previous tours by using our vessel, but never before being pursued by Orca as he sought the protection of our vessel. The Orca chased after him and we watched on in complete awe as they pushed to within five meters of our bow, the Humpback diving underneath us just as the Orca once again latched onto his dorsal fin. Circling the boat repeatedly, the Orca followed for a while as this strong Humpback began to get his breathing rate back to normal. Sharks began to circle around the boat 3-4 meters below the surface as the Orca moved out and to our amazement Pilot Whales surged into the area. Attracted by all the commotion, the Pilot Whales had arrived on scene and curiously moved past us only 50 meters away as the Humpback continued to circle our vessel.
Regaining his strength, we looked into the eye of this beautiful Humpback Whale and knew that he was a fighter but still had the fight of his life ahead of him yet. During this time the Orca had moved out a few hundred meters away and began to create a purse seine style net, surrounding the area so the escape path was limited. Seeming to create bigger circles and gain confidence again, the Humpback was now ready to move out of the area and quickly made a break for it on his own. The Orca were watching and waiting, stealthily on the periphery and stalking the movements as Cookie and her family now followed behind him. The second attack erupted and this time is was just Cookie and her pod which left them in a dangerous situation as the lack of other Orca pods meant the risk of injury from a powerful fluke or pectoral fin swipe was increased. El Notcho also joined this time and the family continued to bite, body ram and disorientate as best they could.
The Humpback once again raced towards us but this time the protection of our vessel was limited as El Notcho and Spock followed him and came up from below. Moving out to our starboard side, we watched as El Notcho propelled himself with incredible speed towards the Humpback and rammed into his rostrum. The angle caused El Notcho to bounce off the Humpback who seemed relatively undeterred, immediately swiping his fluke aggressively. It was after this body blow from EL Notcho that the family seemed to realise that there was not enough Orca family pods around to successfully complete the hunt of such a strong young male Humpback. The intelligence of the Orca is truly incredible and as Cookie tail slapped to get everybody back together again, our Humpback continued moving away from them. Wise matriarch Cookie decided to let this Humpback go and conserve energy and the safety of her family pod and once regrouped they began to move back towards The Patch. The incredible resilience, intelligence and heart of this brave Humpback will linger with us always. He never gave up once and thanks to his strength and size he was able to hold his ground. The privilege of watching such a significant event unfold throughout today was an opportunity to learn a completely different side of the Bremer Bay Orca.
Feeding well over the last six weeks we know the Orca families are starting to gain strength in preparation for the long winter ahead of them when opportunities like today become more prevalent. Although earlier than usual it appears that the Orca are ready for the baleen whale migration ahead but were unprepared with fewer family pods in the area today to call upon for backup when targeting such powerful prey. It was with joy and relief to watch this brave Humpback swim away, with no signs of significant or life threatening injuries. The lessons he learnt from today will stay with him forever and we hope that he chooses a much safer path next time when migrating through this stretch of coastline. He did lose his dorsal fin today, but that will heal fine and the other wounds he sustained were relatively superficial. Maybe one day in future migrations we may cross paths with this special Humpback in better circumstances, we will never forget him and he will always remind us of our family motto, Dum Spiro Spero while I breathe, I hope.