Humpback whales save sea lion from orcas hunting off Vancouver Island coast

Unusual but not unheard of altruistic behavior for the largest animal on the planet.

stellar sealion and orca whale

A pod of “heroic” humpback whales came to the rescue of a desperate sea lion under attack from four cunning and hungry orcas off the coast of Sooke, a phenomenon never before seen by whale-watching operators in the Salish Sea.

The waters were glass calm on Sept. 11 when whale-watchers witnessed four humpbacks huddle around a Steller’s sea lion, slapping their pectoral fins and their flukes, “taking shots essentially, taking swings at these transient orcas,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which represents 38 companies operating out of B.C. and Washington.

Whale-watchers in the area could clearly hear the humpbacks “trumpeting like we have never heard” with a ferocity that Harris said resembled a wild elephant.

Capt. Russ Nicks of Victoria-based B.C. Whale Tours, was one of the first on scene. He said it was fascinating to watch the show of aggression.

He and his guests marvelled at the strategy of one of the planet’s most sophisticated hunters as the orcas split into two groups — one to try to draw the humpbacks away while the other group went in for the kill on the sea lion.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this,” Nicks said.

“I explained to the guests how rare this kind of interaction is.”

The humpbacks took turns diving and slashing at the orcas for about 40 minutes, until the orcas, known as the T100 family, finally retreated.

“[The humpbacks’] predator is the orca and they didn’t run away. They actually came to the aid of another mammal,” Nicks said.

Despite the handicap of lacking sharp teeth, the humpbacks used their size — between 40 and 50 tons — to their advantage.

“This was a heavyweight division going against a lightweight and the heavyweights won,” Harris said.

The humpbacks then escorted the sea lion to safety.

“So they all went to their neutral corners, if you will,” said Harris, in keeping with the boxing analogies.

The interaction confirms a study published by the Journal of Marine Mammal Science that found humpback whales will defend other marine species such as seals, sea lions and grey whale calves from orca attacks.

Harris said those in the whale-watching industry are careful not to impart human values onto marine mammals but he said it’s hard to deny the altruistic behaviour of the humpbacks, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect another species from predators.

Two researchers from Cascadia Research Collective based in Olympia, Washington, had a ringside seat from aboard a boat operated by Port Angeles Whale Watch Co., said owner Capt. Shane Aggergaard.


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