The Great Escape: Orcas vs. Gray Whales

The universe has its own ways of doing things. Human beings understand but a minuscule fraction of these ways, and what we understand we call science. When we cannot explain something, it is not because science has failed us, it is because it is up to us to learn more.

As I stood aboard a whale watching vessel in the Monterey Bay watching as a family of Orcas began to encircle and attack the calf of a Gray Whale who had positioned herself for a stoic defense I felt a strange serenity.  

I asked the universe “what will happen?” Knowing the odds would be stacked against the Gray Whale and her calf.  The universe does not reply to asked questions.  Each individual determines an answer based on their own philosophy, whatever that philosophy may be.  The universe provides clues and allows each person to come to their own conclusion.  I looked at the evidence the universe had presented and came up with my own answer. “Whoever wants it more…will win.” 

I couldn’t have been more correct. 

The female Gray Whale had to put up a perfect defense, it could not allow the Orcas to separate her from her calf under any circumstances.  Her size and her powerful fins can protect her calf but only if it stays close.  In addition, her body can support the tired calf as the Orcas exhaust it physically in their attempts to drown it.  The Orcas game plan must be executed with great precision to overcome the female’s protection.  The calf must be separated and physically attacked to force air out of its lungs before it can be held down on its final dive.  Roles of rammer, separator, and drowner sound like positions for a macabre sporting event, but they are important elements to the survival of the Orca.  Coordinating this strategy is the job of the older females, who lack the size of their male counterparts but hold all of the leadership roles.  The female Orca not only directs the daily activity of the pod, but will continue to guide the family long after their reproductive years have passed…should they survive long enough to do so.

At an approximate age of 3 months old a Gray Whale calf can weigh nearly 3 tons.  The calf has been nursing on a thick nutrient and calorie rich milk that has allowed it to gain over 50 pounds a day each day since it was born, all at the expense of the fat reserves of its mother.  The female Gray Whale fasts during the migration and thus sacrifices her body to feed the growing baby.  With a year of gestation and a year of weaning the female has been giving of herself for a long time…which plays into the strategy of Transient Orca.

Three out of every ten baby Gray Whales born each year are estimated to be eaten by the Orcas during the northbound migration.  With each adult Orca requiring 500 pounds of meat daily it is in their interests to ambush calves that are big and healthy, and prey upon them when the females are weakened.  The surge in population for the Gray Whale has been a boon to their kind and the Monterey Bay provides the southernmost key ambush point.  The Gray Whales traversing Monterey Bay must venture to waters where Orcas lurk as there is no 100% safe route.  Each calf taken provides a significant amount of food for the pod. 

Over the course of hours the battle took place with the life of the Gray Whale calf at center stage.  The female Gray Whale had given years of her life to fulfill her biological urges, the same urges we humans feel that spur strong emotions in our hearts.  The nine Orcas varied in size from a massive bull male to a small calf less than a year old.  Their dynamic was the similar goal of survival but their interests were more long term than the Gray Whales.  The immediate threat to the Gray Whale calf was balanced against the needs of this Orca family to feed themselves, and the need to indoctrinate the younger and less experienced ones in the ways of the hunt.  Those young Orcas must learn this tradition to feed their own stomachs and also to pass on these tactics to the future generations of their family.

The Orcas attacked viciously as the female Gray Whale stood her ground.  Her massive body was an impenetrable barrier capable of fighting back and dealing damage.  While the Orcas as a group are certainly capable of inflicting great injury to the adult Gray Whale, suffering a severe injury can be worse than losing the kill.  Top level predators that suffer injury can lose their ability to hunt, which diminished their ability to thrive, which can lead to their eventual demise.  The tail of the female Gray Whale is capable of landing mighty blows that even the Orcas would have difficulty recovering from, and thus they exercised caution.

The patient hunters used their numerical superiority to land a series of blows to the calf.  Ramming attacks are designed to daze the calf and to weaken its breathing so that it can be drowned more easily, and when the opportunity arises painful bites are inflicted.  For each blow the Orcas landed the female Gray Whale continued to maneuver her body to stay in contact with her baby, lifting it out of the water to breathe when it could not support itself and to keep the Orcas from jumping atop it to hold it under water.  The calfs breathing intensified as exhaustion set it, but its mother continued to hold steady with an unwavering resilience.

The juvenile Orcas, including a very small calf, also took close passes at the baby Gray Whale but were partially shielded by the older members of their pod.  Regardless of the outcome of the battle, the juveniles must take every encounter seriously as the experience of battle is equally precious to the sustenance that they seek.  The Orcas do not hunt out of malice, they hunt for survival.  Contrary to myths the Orcas will eat much of what they kill, and the muscle and blubber of a Gray Whale calf can provide multiple meals as they are capable of storing pieces of carcass for later on the ocean floor.

The Orcas continued to pummel the calf, and the female continued to counter as best as she could.  Without warning all of the battle’s participants disappeared for several minutes.  Confusion permeated the whale watchers on multiple boats, arrayed in a bubble to keep distance from the encounter.  After hours of consistent activity the animals appeared to have vanished.  I learned that this is consistent with behavior that occurs when the Gray Whale calf is finally drowned.  When the calf succumbs the Orcas will harass the female Gray Whale out of the area and then return to the kill to feed. 

The battle had ended, but I was reminded once more that human expectation is not a factor in how the universe works.  Defiantly, the spout of the female Gray Whale emerged at a distance away and right next to her was the faint spout of the exhausted calf.  Through some manner they had broken free of the gauntlet and were making a break for shallow waters.  The Orcas emerged in a different location and heading in a different direction.

The Gray Whales had won the day.

The Orcas appeared to take their loss in stride as they resumed patrolling the undersea canyons.  It is not as if their position as supreme predator of the ocean had suddenly been jeopardized by this one instance of victory, and wallowing in defeat certainly would not fill their bellies.  It would only be a matter of time before they ate again.  In fact, barely twelve hours later they would be successful in another area of the bay.   But that is another story for another time.

As the wind and swells picked up and the sun began to set, keeping track of the Gray Whales became too difficult to continue.  We do not know how long she rested before proceeding and the possibility exists they will be attacked again before reaching the feeding grounds of Alaska.  However, I believe that whatever else they encounter there is a strong possibility this calf will survive and make it past its first birthday, a feat only an estimated half of Gray Whales ever born ever achieve. Gray Whales will fight for their calves until all is lost, the biological urge to protect that child she has raised give birth to perhaps the most powerful of emotions…love!

A number of humans will vilify the Orcas for killing the Gray Whales, but the Orcas hunt not only for their own food but for the food of their family.  They support the young, the sick, and the injured members of their family that need help.  Food sharing is well documented with their species.  Love is also born from the individuals desire to provide and protect their family as they are protected in turn.

I stood on the bow of that boat as the final events unfolded, still amazed at the spectacle I had witnessed and even more dazzled by the outcome.  Originally when I thought about what the outcome of this encounter would be I was simply interested in the result.  I realized now that doing my best to view the battle objectively stirred my own emotions even more so than if I had been actively rooting for either side.

Nature requires balance, the predators must eat but prey species must defend and survive or eventually the predators will have nothing left to consume.  The balance nature can find when left on its own is not always perfect, but nature does correct itself.  With this in mind the human race needs to find balance in how it interacts with nature.  Even those of us who do not eat meat consume resources after all.

The predator vs prey dynamic has taught me much, but I am not sure I would have ever considered it to the extent I have if I had not been objective regarding the outcome.  This feeling I have, that these animals were fighting out of love for their respective families, brings me a renewed sense of purpose to protect the ecosystem they depend on.  I hope anyone else who sees these animals the way I do will be spurred to more action as well.