Clash of the Titans: Killer Whales vs. Blue Whale

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By Marilyn Cruickshank

With a vast habitat like the ocean, unusual encounters might happen all the time, but our chances of observing them are pretty slim. Last week, the naturalists of Monterey Bay Whale Watch had such a chance, when they spotted a pod of killer whales harassing a juvenile blue whale.


Credit: Monterey Bay Whale Watch

While the interaction didn’t last long, it was clear that members of the pod were rushing the rolling rorqual (baleen whale), as it flung its fluke (tail) into the air. Killer whales, which are actually large dolphins, exhibit similar behavior when they hunt gray whale calves. According to Monterey Bay Whale Watch, such an encounter with a blue whale has never before been recorded in California.

Most of the attack occurred underwater, before the larger whale retreated. It surfaced a quarter of a mile, and then a half a mile away from the killer whale pod, apparently deciding that any food gotten in that area was not worth the hassle. Since even juvenile blue whales can be 50 feet long or more, it is unlikely the pod could have done it serious damage or gotten any nutritional benefit. However, blood was spotted on its fluke, which shows that the interaction was not playful.

BLUE WHALE: TAIL THROWS, after encounter with killer whales! You can see a that the right tip of the right fluke is missing. Photo: Daniel Bianchetta.

BLUE WHALE: TAIL THROWS, after encounter with orcas! You can see a little blood flying off of the right tip of the right fluke; this fluke tip is missing. Photo: Daniel Bianchetta.

While we can only speculate about the reasons for bothering the blue whale, one such might be to practice hunting maneuvers specific to that pod, or to teach younger pod members the ropes. More such encounters would have to be observed before any scientific conclusions could be drawn, but even one helps us learn a little bit more about these amazing creatures.

When we see killer whales doing such things, it’s tempting to think of them as bullies, since they seem to gain no nutritional benefits. However, it is important to remember that such activities help to strengthen social ties within the pod, and that killer whales are wild animals that can’t just go to Safeway if they don’t find food that day. The killer whales are simply doing what they do best- working together to hone their skills as predators in a harsh ocean environment. Even still, it’s good to know that the blue whale got away with little harm, ready to eat tons of krill another day.

If you want to see these and other marine mammal and birds in their natural habitat, you can go to Monterey Bay Whale Watch for more information.

All photos were from Daniel Bianchetta from the Monterey Bay Whale Watch.

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