Monterey Melee: Orcas vs. Humpback Whales

When I sit down to write a piece such as this I typically base it around some profound bit of knowledge I have gleaned from my travels. That knowledge could have been gleaned from one of the many intelligent and gifted colleagues I am lucky to have or perhaps from nature itself. I admit that I am typing these words right now from a much different position, that of utter bewilderment. That is not a bad thing but it also sets a different tone than normal and I hope that you as a reader will not hold that against me.

I woke up on the morning of May 1st with my heart still buzzing from the previous day’s encounter between Gray Whales and Orcas, and the success of the Gray Whale in defending her calf despite incredible odds. Having also seen a multitude of Humpback Whales and a Blue Whale on that trip plus Pacific White Sided Dolphins I was unsure of how this next trip would stack up. The Monterey Bay holds endless possibility and I have documented more individual cetacean species there than in any other of my photography journeys. It was on my first whale watch in that bay where I was gifted a chance to see the Baird’s Beaked Whales, it was where I have witnessed epic Humpback Whale lunge feeding encounters, and where I have made many friends during my quests. Still, while I had no expectations, I freely admit that I did not think anything I could see would have quite the same level of gravity.

Setting out in the early morning with clear skies and calm seas we had an abundance of time available. The all day trip I had booked was specifically designed for tracking Orcas during this particular window of the year and I seized on a rare opportunity to sign up for two days in a row. There was an abundance of time available in order to explore the entire bay to maximize our chances of locating the world’s most apex predator. The tone of the trip changed quickly after the first radio reports came in and it became clear our abundance of time would allow for more observation and exploration. The Orcas had struck early that morning, the defeat of the previous day had not slowed them down one bit and they had already accomplished a kill of a Gray Whale calf that morning. With feeding activity about to begin and the carcass beginning to sink it would appear as if today’s encounter would be much more one sided.

Then the second report came in...the Humpback Whales had arrived on scene.

The media has only recently picked up on this documented trend of Humpback Whales intervening in Orca attacks. This behavior has been seen world wide and Humpback Whales have become known as the only animal on the planet who go out of their way to pick fights with Orcas. Science is not sure if the behavior is entirely altruistic, or if perhaps there is a survival component to discouraging Orcas from feeding in areas where Humpbacks would also like to feed. Perhaps there is a sense of justice or revenge if Orcas have attacked them or others of their kind in the past? We do know that cetaceans are emotionally and intellectually complex animals, so associating them with higher levels of mental and emotional activity (benevolent or otherwise) is not unreasonable to think, it is just that sufficient evidence does not yet exist.

More curious still, these Humpback Whales were not intervening to save a live calf. By the time they had arrived in force, the Gray Whale calf was long dead and the mother long gone. The number of Humpbacks that would set to task discouraging the Orca’s feeding varied between one and six individuals over the next few hours, with three of the individuals being consistent presences during much of this time. They would swim in echelon formation towards the Orcas and use their massive bodies as shields to defend the lifeless Gray Whale calf, and although they were outnumbered by the Orcas they held an advantage in size and tonnage. One of the behaviors I noted was a “crucifix block” where pectoral flippers were splayed outwards, it is a behavior I have only ever personally seen before in Maui where the Humpback males shield females in an attempt to retain a close position during competition pods. 

The Orcas harassed the Humpbacks in turn but never attacked in earnest, choosing to feed opportunistically when the battle drew the defenders away from the carcass. A single Gray Whale calf can provide much of the food a pod needs for a day, and to give up on the meal would be a waste of the extreme effort spent hunting the calf. As with the previous day’s encounter, the juvenile and young calf were not far from the action and it is likely their observations would serve as an important life lesson for future seasons. The orcas found several opportunities to feed and at one point the carcass came to the surface, the damage done by the Orcas most evident when the scavenging bird life, including some striking Black Footed Albatrosses. (Interestingly, as I am writing this and double checking that “albatrosses” is the correct plural form of the word “albatross” I have also learned that a group of albatrosses is referred to as a “rookery”. ) The birds fed on the smaller pieces of the carcass torn free by the Orcas as they stripped the precious muscle and blubber from the remainder of the body.

The number of intervening Humpbacks waxed and waned during the day, reaching a peak of six actively engaged individuals with more on the periphery within a mile. In the distance were many more Humpbacks plus at least one Blue Whale given away by its silvery skin. I feel it is worth mentioning because I feel very strongly that the Blue Whale was equally aware to what was transpiring as the Humpbacks were. Blue Whales are just as capable of defending themselves, if not more so, and they have also been attacked by Orcas in the Monterey Bay. I feel that it lends evidence to the idea that the personality of the two species are quite different and perhaps it is a difference in personality that leads the Humpbacks to be more aggressive towards the Orcas. There is ample evidence that shows Humpback Whales are far more social within their species than Blue Whales are with theirs (although this could be attributable to the much larger Humpback Whale population). 

 Is it possible that the Humpback Whale, with its more social attitude, feels more emboldened when confronting a threat than the Blue Whale? Is the gregarious personality that makes the Humpback Whale so energetic a greater part of its strategy than we give it credit for? Is it possible that the anatomy of the Humpback, unique amongst the rorquals and well adapted for agility and maneuvering, somehow more suited for the offensive stance the Humpback takes against its adversary? Could the competitive nature of Humpback Whale courtship somehow play into this, where competition pods have fostered a more aggressive species of rorqual that is also more mentally and physically suited for battle with Orca?   

There are so many questions, and I feel as if seeing this battle in person has only raised more questions while providing few answers. The only thought I have taken away from this encounter is that these behaviors we cannot fully describe may seem illogical, perhaps even wasteful. However, the behavior of our own species still continues to elude us even in this modern era. Although vast differences exist between humans and cetaceans, what we are witnessing may in fact mirror some of the behaviors human beings readily engage in on a daily basis should we learn how to appropriately interpret them. The idea that Humpback Whales may possess a sense of justice or even spite is certainly within the realm of possibility. The onus is on human beings to continue working towards a future where our own activities allow the cetaceans to have a future where these behaviors are still possible. The Humpback Whale is enjoying a recovery right now but other species are not quite as fortunate.  

Orcas, despite their status as the apex predator of the Ocean, are suffering setbacks around the world. The pod I documented during my time in Monterey however is thriving for the time being, fueled by another successful season of hunting Gray Whales (which have also tremendously recovered since the end of industrial whaling in the US). As the members of this pod age the experience they have accumulated will be passed on, and Orcas that are many years from being born will one day reap the benefits of what their ancestors have sowed this season, Over the course of 12 days this pod successfully hunted six out of the seven Gray Whale calves they attacked. Plentiful seasons such as this will help pave the way as the pod grows and perhaps one day one or more of the females will splinter off and start their own pod with their own children. If so, they my reunite on occasion, much to the chagrin of Gray Whales on their northbound migration.

I can only come to the conclusion that this is a mystery that will not be unlocked anytime soon, but that the answer we seek is of great importance. I feel very strongly that if we can unlock more of the secrets of the advanced behaviors of the Humpbacks and Orcas we may yet inspire ever more people towards the conservation efforts necessary to protect them, and hopefully discover better means of doing so in the process.