Sunday, 7 August 2016

Saved by the Whale! Humpbacks Play Hero When Orcas Attack

By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer | August 3, 2016 02:07pm ET

The photo is extraordinary. In waters near the Antarctic peninsula, an enormous humpback whale floats on its back, cradling a Weddell seal on its chest and elevating it above the ocean surface. Only moments earlier, the seal was perilously close to becoming dinner for a group of hungry killer whales.

Biologist Robert Pitman snapped the image while on a research expedition in 2009 — but it wasn't the first time he had observed this unusual protective behavior.

Just one week earlier, Pitman, a researcher with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in the NOAA Fisheries Service in California, saw a pair of humpbacks aggressively confronting killer whales that were circling a lone seal on an isolated ice floe. The humpbacks plowed between the killer whales and the trapped seal, vocalizing and churning the water with their flippers, and shielding the seal until the orcas gave up and swam away.

Pitman wrote about both encounters in an article published in the November 2009 issue of the magazine Natural History, but that was only the beginning of a much longer and more in-depth investigation. In a new study, Pitman explores dozens of examples presenting humpback whales as unlikely marine vigilantes, ganging up on predatory killer whales that try to attack other species.

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