Humpback whales harass killer whales

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Humpback whales harass killer whales off bow of Fast Raft; video screen grab

Transient killer whales are the supreme rulers of their realm, with no natural predators and a long list of marine mammals they regard as prey.

Dolphins, seals, sea lions… even large whales do not generally like to be anywhere near killer whales.

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But every now and then the dynamic changes. In the accompanying footage (two videos), several humpback whales are shown harassing killer whales that had been feeding on a sea lion. In the second video, viewers can hear the trumpeting of what appears to be aggravated whales.

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Kate Spencer, captain and naturalist for Fast Raft Ocean Safaris in Monterey, California, captured the footage Sunday during an amazingly close encounter that lasted more than 20 minutes.

At one point Spencer wondered whether to back away, because the whales had essentially surrounded her boat, which was stationary with its engines shut off.

But the whales seemed to be aware of the boat, so the group remained where it was and let this extraordinary scene play out.

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Humpback whale (left) squares off with two killer whales; video screen grab

Spencer said the humpback whales at times slashed at the killer whales with their tails. At one point the killer whales, also called orcas, were pursued directly under Fast Raft, a 33-foot inflatable outboard (first video).

Humpback whales are extremely powerful and their tails are their only means of defense when they’re under assault by killer whales. (Killer whales usually target whale calves.)

At least nine humpback whales were in the area. It’s not clear why some of them repeatedly pursued the small pod of killer whales, in behavior that has been documented before, but rarely observed.

Stated Spencer, a marine biologist, on her video description: “Like crows mobbing hawks, the humpbacks might be just harassing their primary predator.”

The encounter occurred during a six-hour excursion out of Moss Landing, with researchers from Deep Blue Conservancy and Ocean Friendly Whale Watching in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

After reaching port, Spencer wrote on her Facebook page: “Just had perhaps THE most incredible day on the water, ever. Five killer whales being followed, harassed, and tail-swished at by a growing group of humpbacks that gathered to nine, with dozens of curious sea lions watching, as the killer whales ate a sea lion carcass, most of it with no other boats around.”

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