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Historical day in the Bremer Canyon as we were witness to an incredible hunt which involved Orca, a Strap-toothed Beaked Whale and Pilot Whales. It was a busy start to the morning as within moments of arriving in The Patch it was clear to see there was a huge influx of prey availability as the Orca had multiple slicks and we could id with the food they were carrying that squid was being targeted. Multiple species love squid out in these waters including the Orca, Beaked Whale and Pilot Whales who will all gather to feast on the plentiful schools of squid. The momentum was fast paced from the very start as the Orca appeared to have made a big squid kill and were carrying pieces of what appeared to be Giant Squid and happily sharing amongst pod members. A few breaches followed as they all surged to the west for a while with five family pods identified numbering close on 70 Orca moving as one before reverting back towards The Patch.
Biggs surfaced alongside us powerfully as we moved with him and noticed energy increasing as we soon observed that the next hunt was underway, but this one was not for squid. Queen had once again located a Strap-toothed Beaked Whale as the entire family pod along with others joined together and surrounded the individual with all going as planned before mayhem erupted… Pilot Whales had arrived! Generally the Pilot Whales will roll up a short time after the hunt but with all of the squid concentrated today it appeared they were much closer when they heard the Orca call go out and surged their way towards the commotion. Orca do not get on well with the Pilot Whales in Bremer Bay and as a wall of over 100 Pilots came charging towards the family pod of Orca and Beaked Whale we new this was going to be a hunt for the history books today. The momentum of the Pilot Whales did not slow as they now surrounded the severely injured Strap-toothed Beaked Whale and to our amazement the Orca reluctantly retreated, they seemed to have been caught completely off guard.
A few of the adult Pilot Whales surrounded and looked at the injured Beaked Whale before moving away briefly and bringing in reinforcements. During this time a few of the younger members from Queen’s pod followed the Beaked Whale quietly to the south as Queen did what she does best and created a distraction by surging to the west in front off the Pilot Whales and led them in the opposite direction, away from her family and the Beaked Whale. It seemed to work for a short time before the Pilot Whales figured out what Queen was up to and spun as they diverted back up to the Beaked Whale and began to surge towards the unfolding hunt. It was interesting to watch as the Beaked Whale could hear the Pilot Whales coming up behind and spun to swim towards them, appearing to seek out the protection and distraction the Pilot Whales had provided previously. It was turning into the most disorganised hunt we have ever observed by the Orca as the aggressive Pilot Whales were throwing all of their plans out the window and causing mayhem.
The persistence of the Orca continued as they gathered further pod members and moved back in towards the Pilot Whales and Beaked Whale with this confident manoeuvre they managed to redirect the Beaked Whale to the east putting most of the Pilot Whales behind them and the Orca back in control. Desperate to finish the hunt quickly while they still had control they lifted the Beaked Whale upwards and it was very difficult to watch as the struggle caused us to clearly see her wounds and huge blood loss during this time. The Pilot Whales were attempting to disrupt the Orca and although it was providing time and opportunities for the Beaked Whale to escape the injuries were so severe an escape was sadly not possible and we hoped the Orca could complete the hunt quickly as the Pilot Whales were unintentionally prolonging the process.
Crashing back down it was suddenly quiet as the Beaked Whale weakly made her way towards our vessel, we held our breath as we knew this was going to be the last moments of the hunt. Surfacing right next to us we could see the last faint exhales as the Pilot Whales surfaced next to her before the Orca closed in and nudged from her right shoulder downwards as the nearest Orca family members all followed in the same way and we didn’t see her again after this time. Following in directly behind them a pod of Pilot Whales could be heard calling loudly if you listen and watch the incredible GoPro footage captured by Julia. It is very rare to see this interaction between Orca, Pilot Whales and Beaked Whale let alone in this setting and it was an extremely important day for our research with rare footage captured and documented assisting with further research studies.
The next thirty minutes observed the Orca attempting to eat discreetly as every time they seemed to get settled the Pilot Whales would surge back in towards them aggressively. No celebrations were observed amongst the Orca as they did their best to try and rid the Pilot Whales from the area by maintaining a low profile and certainly the most unique feeding we have ever observed after a successful Beaked Whale hunt. It was an incredible and historic day in the Bremer Canyon for everyone onboard and to have the opportunity to document these rare events is something we are very grateful for as our wonderful team worked hard to not miss a moment. Life in the wild is raw and every creature has its purpose and place. The Strap-toothed Beaked Whale provided sustenance to hundreds today and watching the Pilot Whales side with the Beaked Whale today was incredible to watch as they did their best to disrupt and deter the Orca from having success.
It is so rarely witnessed that we do not have a pattern of behaviour as yet in these circumstances and although the Pilot Whales may or may not have been trying to protect the Beaked Whale directly they were certainly doing their best to disrupt and deter the Orca. During the chaos one significant moment was when the Beaked Whale spun and swam directly towards the Pilot Whales behind her who then proceeded to surround her and continue to chase after the Orca. The Beaked Whale was desperate for protection and moved towards the Pilot Whales indicating she did not see them as a further threat but as protection and it is at these moments we truely wonder what is going through the minds of all cetaceans involved.
A difficult day which had many of us very emotional, we are grateful to have witnessed such a significant day out in the Bremer Canyon. Our family and team make the most of every opportunity we can to learn about this incredible part of the world and the magnificent creatures that call these waters home. A sad day for the beautiful female Strap-toothed Beaked Whale but we know that she has provided life to so many others today and fulfilled her purpose even though we do wish that all cetaceans could live forever.