A wildlife photographer captured a one-second sequence of incredible and rare images of a killer whale attacking a common dolphin, tossing it into the air like a rag doll, all for the sake of feeding herself and her two offspring.
Sea Wolf II captain and marine biologist Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch had just completed a morning whale watch trip, during which a pod of killer whales successfully hunted down a couple sea lions. Black phoned photographer Jodi Frediani, asking if she wanted to join her as she went out on her own to follow the whales in the afternoon. Frediani excitedly accepted the offer.
They found the whales milling around just north of Moss Landing three miles off the coast. Soon, the whales began hunting, as they porpoised and moved at a high speed, zigzagging as they chased dolphin.
"The chase took about 45 minutes in total," Frediani said in an email to GrindTV Outdoor. "[Whale] CA138 was with her two juvenile offspring. Suddenly she let fly with two huge tail lobs. Then in the blink of an eye, she leapt out of the water.
"I managed to track her, and through my lens saw the dolphin flipping through the air like a bowling pin. I must have said something like 'Oh no or OMG.' I managed to get off five frames as CA138 leapt out of the water and dove back in, the hapless dolphin spinning through the air until it hit the surface. The time stamp on my camera shows that the action took all of one second.
"Once the dolphin landed, the two juveniles popped up, and within less than a minute, we could see the mouth of one showing bits of the bloody dolphin."
The remaining sequence of photos, and aftermath:
The photos were taken during the recent winter whale-watching season, but the photos made their Internet debut this week on Wired.com.
Marine ecologist Robert Pitman from NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center told Wired that the head-butt-and-punt behavior is most likely to occur when orcas pursue speedy prey, which was the case here.
"I have seen this with several different species of dolphins from various places around the world, so I think that killer whales probably do this regularly but not commonly," he told Wired. "With slower swimming species, like seals and sea lions, killer whales prefer to use their tails to swat them out of the water."
Another biologist told Wired that killer whales will just ram fast-moving dolphins "and in doing so, the prey often do go flying in the air."
For a wildlife photographer, this bit of nature at work couldn't have happened at a better time.
"As a photographer, this was an amazing gift," Frediani said. "I felt honored to be able to witness and record this rarely photo-documented kill of a common dolphin. As brutal as the world of killer whales may seem, one has to admire their tremendous skill and fortitude in making a living."
Photos are courtesy of Jodi Frediani. Photos are copyrighted and can only be used by permission.