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“Astonishing” and Rare Orca vs. Sperm Whales Video Explained

The other day Alexis Manning posted a link in the Nat Geo Daily 10 to a video showing rare footage of a pod of orcas attacking a family of sperm whales (watch above). The video is from Blue Sphere Media, a production company with the tagline: “We fuse dramatic imagery with intimate and thought-provoking stories, to connect people to globally important issues and inspire action.”

Blue Sphere Media founder Shawn Heinrichs posted on his website that his team caught the footage on a nine-day trip to Sri Lanka, where they were looking for blue whales. Heinrichs wrote: “Together we battled rough seas, burning sun, cramped boat conditions, and long days searching endless seas. Though not so successful with blue whales, what we did achieve was beyond anything any of us could have imagined, as we documented a world first underwater!”

The group captured the action on a Canon 1DX in Nauticam Housing and a GoPro 3.

While the video is exciting, it’s clear Heinrichs is reading from a script, and the narration is peppered with dramatic language (“dorsal fins slicing through the water,” etc.), so the whole thing came off as a little breathless to me. I wondered how rare the attack really was.

So I reached out to National Geographic grantee Robert L. Pitman, a scientist in the Marine Mammal & Turtle Division of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in the National Marine Fisheries Service. Pitman is based in La Jolla, California, though he emailed us from the field in Cambodia.

Pitman studies killer whale predation, and co-authored a paper in Marine Mammal Science in 2001 called “Killer Whale Predation on Sperm Whales: Observations and Implications.” Pitman also co-wrote a piece in Natural History called “Terror in Black and White” in 1998, which documented orca attacks on a pod of sperm whales off the coast of California.killer whale attacks sperm whale

Pitman told us:

I did see the video and it is quite astonishing. I have spent many years at sea studying whales and dolphins, and killer whales in particular, and I have only seen this behavior once (see the above links). It has rarely been observed and never before filmed so I was quite interested in seeing the available footage. This is about the largest predatory event you can witness on our planet – the largest apex predator taking on one of the largest prey species. Truly a battle of titans.

But, despite the huge size advantage that sperm whales have, and their massive jaws that hold the largest set of teeth in the world, sperm whales are terrified in the presence of killer whales. However, their enormous size does make them a formidable and potentially dangerous prey for killer whales, which may be why attacks are recorded so infrequently:  there may be relatively few groups of killer whales that have learned how to safely and effectively prey on sperm whales.

When sperm whales are attacked they often form a rosette, a wagon-wheel formation with their heads pointed in and their tails pointed out. When they are in this formation, they flail the water with their massive tails in an effort to ward off the attackers. If there is a calf present, the killer whales will focus their attack on it, so the sperm whales will put the calf in the middle of the rosette to keep the killer whales from harming it. The killer whales must be very careful around agitated sperm whales because a slap from that tail could be life-threatening.

I think that killer whales attacking sperm whales is perhaps the most spectacular animal interaction that occurs on Earth today, and perhaps hasn’t seen its equal since dinosaurs roamed the Earth 65 million years ago. Just incredible!!

Another National Geographic grantee, Filipa Samarra, told us, “I am not an expert on this particular region, but it seems to me like a very interesting encounter. As far as I know this type of attack on sperm whales specifically is little recorded with such high quality video, but it is known that killer whales may attack sperm whales. This type of behaviour where the group of orcas tries to separate a single, usually young individual, is also known from their attacks on other whales, like grey whales off the California coast.”

Samarra, who studies killer whale social and foraging behavior in Iceland, added that little is known about the whales off Sri Lanka.

 

Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater

Comments

  1. A. B.
    United States
    October 19, 2013, 11:10 pm

    Great video. I’d like to add my 2 cents to your sound department. I’ve never really had to lower the bass on my sound system but for some reason this video has some crazy bass effect and made me feel like I was in the middle of an ancient tribal warrior battle to the death… lol So I lowered the bass and I was set. Great vid again.

  2. bbbobbbo
    August 23, 2013, 4:39 am

    Hello Shane, can you enlarge a bit on “false killer whales, pilot whales and melon-headed whales”? I wasn’t aware there are creatures such as false killer whales. What do they look like? And as for pilot and melon headed whales, I just thought all whales, with the notable exceptions of killer and sperm whales, feed on smallest of prey.

    Thanks for your time!

  3. Asha de Vos
    Sri Lanka
    June 21, 2013, 2:39 am

    I am a marine biologist who runs the only long-term research project on blue whales in Sri Lankan waters. This therefore happened in my stomping grounds. Apart from my blue whale research I also have a database of information about all the other marine megafauna I encounter on my surveys and apart from documenting sporadic, fleeting sightings of these killer whales around the coastline over the past few years, we really knew nothing. This video is incredible in that it tells us so much about the food preferences of this population. The day I saw this video (just a few hours after its release) I sent it off to Bob (Pitman) and Hal (Whitehead) who were both really excited to see this encounter captured so graphically. As a local scientist, I was thrilled that it enabled our knowledge base on the orca pod to increase two-fold in minutes…there’s still alot to learn but chance encounters captured in this manner are a treasure trove for us scientists!

  4. Asha de Vos
    Sri Lanka
    June 21, 2013, 2:34 am

    I am a marine biologist who runs the first long-term research project on blue whales in Sri Lankan waters. I also document all the marine megafauna I encounter during my surveys and it has been interesting to document this particular killer whale population over the last few years. Apart from the brief sightings and encounters, the knowledge we had on them was very little and this footage really is amazing in that it tells us a lot about their food preferences. As soon as I saw it, I sent it to Bob Pitman and Hal Whitehead and their reactions also told me a lot — they were both very excited to see this encounter captured so graphically. Lots of new information for me when it comes to this pod and definitely something rare and exciting!

    To learn more check http://www.whalessrilanka.blogspot.com

  5. Jessica Lippett
    Fairplay, Colorado
    May 8, 2013, 2:31 am

    I seem to be confused. The video shows him going in the water, capturing one hit on a sperm whale, him getting clicked, and then he gets out. Where is the rest of the video? Or is that really all he captured before getting back on board? I even looked on Vimeo.com. Should I look somewhere else? I just can’t believe he was in the right place, at the right time with the right equipment and yet that is all there is from the underwater angle.

    • Brian Clark Howard
      May 8, 2013, 10:24 am

      Jessica, I was a bit disappointed as well with the actual video, I definitely wanted to see more. It’s hard to tell what is going on. That’s part of why I asked two marine biologists to look at too, because it was hard for me to judge. They were both really excited about it, so I think their expert eyes are getting more out of it.

  6. Angelina Fairweather
    Australia
    May 7, 2013, 8:51 pm

    You should read the story of how fisherman used killer whales in Australia to hunt and kill other whales – that is truly astonishing http://www.killersofeden.com/

  7. Nevestin
    Bulgaria
    May 7, 2013, 10:24 am

    So Orcas are known to attack sperm whales babies by chasing the group for a long time until they separate them from the mother. As far as I can see this is different case. Is there a study if they use the same technique for the adult mammals or not ?

  8. Roy Macalma
    Philippines
    May 7, 2013, 1:45 am

    Sperm whales are known to fight back and are not hunted by the whalers here. It’s just astonishing that even they are fearful of killer whales. Is there a technology being developed so events like this can be recorded clearly? I mean, Crittercam would not survive an ordeal this, right? :)

  9. Shane Gero
    May 1, 2013, 11:08 am

    As a biologist who runs a long-term research project on sperm whales in the Caribbean, Shawn Heinrich’s photos and video were interesting to me from a number of perspectives:

    1) They tell us that mammal-eating killer whales live in the Indian Ocean. There are several “types” of orcas, but generally they can be divided into mammal eating or fish eating families. They are two different food cultures. If a pod of whales is a fish eating pod they are specialized in catching fish, sometimes only certain species of fish, calves learn their specialization from their family members, and do not eat mammals and vice versa. I was not aware of any documentation of mammal eating orcas in the Indian Ocean.

    2) The pictures suggest that sperm whales open their mouths as a defensive posture, similar to dogs bearing teeth or chimpanzees flashing theirs. Our study in Dominica has thought this to be the case for some time, but have never observed an attack from in the water. Orcas are very rare in the Caribbean, but false killer whales, pilot whales, and melon-headed whales have attacked sperm whales off the island of Dominica, where we work.

    3) The video shows their amazing communal defense of the calves. Sperm whales only give birth every 4-6 years, although our study suggests it might be even longer. As a result, every calf is precious and must be protected. Females will live together their whole lives in small social groups, called units, in order to be able to provide calves with babysitters to protect them at the surface while mothers make long (>45m), deep (~1000m) dives to hunt for deep sea squid. Calves cannot or do not dive with mom, so babysitting seems to be the foundation of sperm whale society.

    Learn more here: http://www.thespermwhaleproject.org

  10. Robert Rhodes
    April 30, 2013, 9:15 pm

    And the date of the attack was ….?

  11. Dom
    April 30, 2013, 8:25 pm

    That’s a lot of frothing