For the longest time I have always considered Killer Whales, or Orcas, to be the apex predator of our seas and oceans. No other aquatic mammals possess a higher level of sophistication in social and hunting behavior as these fierce, cunning, team-working killers. They are the ocean’s top predator because there are no other seafaring animals that prey on them. No other creature in the sea has the group intelligence, the complex vocal communication, or eusociality to compete with the mighty Orcas and their pods. All aquatic animals fear Killer Whales, even the Great White Sharks run from the first hints of approaching Killer Whales. They are indeed the Dexter’s or Jack the Rippers of the water-world.
I’m sure many of you have watched Nature documentaries on these animals and how they are able to hunt seals right off the beach swimming up onto the sand, out of the water to chomp on surprised, unsuspecting pups then dragged back into the sea with their floundering meal in their teeth.
As a remarkably fast pod they search out dolphins, chase them long distances and exhaust the weaker dolphins. This separates the stragglers from the main pod. Once this is achieved the lone selected dolphin is pounded by the veteran Orcas’ strong tails and kept from surfacing to breath. It soon drowns and is eaten, shared by the Orca pod. Depending on the geographical habitat Killer Whales feed on over 30 species of fish, cephlopods like squid or octopus, mammals (even deer swimming island to island), sea birds and sea turtles. Personally, I have the highest respect and fear of Orcas simply for their astute intelligence and ability to hunt as a pack—strength in numbers with highly evolved brains and 56 razor sharp teeth per Killer Whale. Seriously, what isn’t to fear about this animal!? When I learned that even Great White sharks will not stay around if any Killer Whale pod is in the vicinity, I concluded that this creature was today’s T-Rex of the seas; the unequivocal Champ/King of the food chain with no contenders.
Then I learned about one of the most fantastic natural events in animal behavior. They are knights in shining armor, the Sir Lancelots of the Brutal Seas. I was stunned! I could not believe my eyes and ears and what I was reading and watching on PBS.
The One Ocean Mammal that Will Stand-up to Killer Whales
They are not the largest mammals on Earth, but despite the hunted species in distress fearing for its life Humpbacks are seemingly compassionate heroes and fearless defenders when it comes to lethal, attacking Killer Whales.
Increasingly more and more oceanic documentations and studies from around the world seem to show a pattern of extraordinary altruistic behavior among Humpback whales when Killer Whales attack prey. From the August 2016 LiveScience.com article:
The study found that large and powerful humpback whales, the only whales known to attack orcas, will band together and sometimes travel great distances to interrupt and terminate a killer whale attack, regardless of what type of animal the orca is attacking.
Yes, as if the weak and defenseless had little to no hope of surviving the hungry pod’s trap and guaranteed feast starting with little ones, the proverbial cavalry swoops in and swims to the rescue. Is it possible that highly evolved aquatic mammals like whales, dolphins, and octopuses that we’ve only just begun studying intimately the last few decades have an intricate social-system connected with levels of empathy and compassion? We know they protect offspring, of course, as most mammals have done for many centuries and millenia. However, just how expansive is interspecies relationships, friendships, or compassion for animals not their own?
One account in the study described a killer whale attacking a gray whale mother and calf, when “out of nowhere, a humpback whale came trumpeting in.” Four more humpbacks shortly followed, which the observer found odd because no humpbacks had been sighted in the area before then. Their timely arrival allowed both calf and mother to flee to safety, the researchers said.
— Saved by the Whale! Humpbacks Play Hero When Orcas Attack, https://www.livescience.com/55639-humpbacks-protect-when-killer-whales-attack.html, LiveScience.com accessed Jan. 8, 2020
Are these events and reports just random, freak occurrences that do not portray such a learned, high-level of caring, compassion, and empathy of which we assume is only a behavioral manifestation by “God-created” or socially evolved humans?
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are known to interfere with attacking killer whales (Orcinus orca). To investigate why, we reviewed accounts of 115 interactions between them. Humpbacks initiated the majority of interactions (57% vs. 43%; n = 72), although the killer whales were almost exclusively mammal‐eating forms (MEKWs, 95%) vs. fish‐eaters (5%; n = 108). When MEKWs approached humpbacks (n = 27), they attacked 85% of the time and targeted only calves. When humpbacks approached killer whales (n = 41), 93% were MEKWs, and ≥87% of them were attacking or feeding on prey at the time. When humpbacks interacted with attacking MEKWs, 11% of the prey were humpbacks and 89% comprised 10 other species, including three cetaceans, six pinnipeds, and one teleost fish. Approaching humpbacks often harassed attacking MEKWs (≥55% of 56 interactions), regardless of the prey species, which we argue was mobbing behavior. Humpback mobbing sometimes allowed MEKW prey, including nonhumpbacks, to escape. We suggest that humpbacks initially responded to vocalizations of attacking MEKWs without knowing the prey species targeted. Although reciprocity or kin selection might explain communal defense of conspecific calves, there was no apparent benefit to humpbacks continuing to interfere when other species were being attacked. Interspecific altruism, even if unintentional, could not be ruled out.
— Pitman, R.L., Deecke, V.B., Gabriele, C.M., Srinivasan, M., Black, N., Denkinger, J., Durban, J.W., Mathews, E.A., Matkin, D.R., Neilson, J.L., Schulman‐Janiger, A., Shearwater, D., Stap, P. and Ternullo, R. (2017), Humpback whales interfering when mammal‐eating killer whales attack other species: Mobbing behavior and interspecific altruism?. Mar Mam Sci, 33: 7-58. doi: 10.1111/mms.12343
It is quite rare for scientists to film a united Orca attack, but it is even more rare for them to catch and film Humpback whales intervening to stop the attack. More and more footage is showing that if Humpback whales are able to arrive soon enough during the Killer Whale hunt, the Humpback whale(s) will put themselves between the Orcas and the prey. They will defend and deter the Killers however they are able until the Orcas swim away defeated. It is truly astonishing.
As I watched the PBS Nature show The Whale Detective, I was pleasantly blown away by this heroic behavior from adult Humpbacks. I had never known ANY modern oceanic species that was capable of stopping, let alone scare away Killer Whales from an almost successful, team/pod hunting attack. Seriously, how often do Orca pod attacks end in failure? They are phenomenal pack-hunters with cunning skills in various conditions and places when they set out together to kill an animal, in the water or on the beach! Finally, they have an opponent that will not back down to them and do what they can to protect other vulnerable sea mammals.
Is it not a wonderful moment when knowing full well we humans are by no means at the top of the food-chain—when NOT in our own controlled environments, especially—and you witness or learn that what once was thought to be an unstoppable, unmatched predator (e.g. grizzly bears, Burmese pythons), a given… in and on this planet’s carnivorous flesh-ripping arena, the hierarchy is turned upside down. Suddenly the top dog, the apex predator actually DOES have a serious threat or contender, a weakness? I do! I love when big slices of humble pie are served up. I thoroughly enjoy watching hyper-arrogant bullies, in dismay, meet their match and fall embarrassingly to the next champ, the next better killer, or more advanced, more evolved highly skilled species, and “the fall,” perhaps extinction, suddenly becomes a serious F*CKING reality. 😆 Nature seems to have a way of rebalancing things, of realigning or reorganizing equality, huh?
Ahh, Natural Selection and advanced, progressive intelligence: a wonderful bitchin’ combination ain’t it? Three cheers for the Humpback whales!
Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always — Know the Food Chain
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