A recent photo expedition off Sri Lanka in search of blue whales instead produced a far more extraordinary sighting: that of killer whales in a dramatic 30-minute assault on sperm whales.
For cinematographer Shawn Heinrichs and his crew, this was nature at its rawest, incredible but also disturbing. It also represented an opportunity Heinrichs could not pass up, so he jumped in and became what he says is the first person to document this rarely-witnessed event from underwater.
“The action was really intense as huge whales collided, pounding their powerful tails and turning the waters to a chaotic mess,” said Heinrich’s brother, Brett. “It really looked like a bad idea to get in, then Shawn shouted, ‘Guys, we can’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime moment.’
“He grabbed his camera and slid off the back into the frenzy. We had no idea what was going to happen to him and we hoped for the best. When I saw he wasn't eaten, I jumped in after him.”
Though the underwater footage is compelling, some of the above-surface images illustrate the apparent anguish among the six or seven sperm whales under assault, in what was an attempt by an equal number of killer whales to separate a juvenile sperm whale from the pod.
(Killer whales are supreme predators. Off California and Alaska, they’re notorious for killing gray whale calves in this same manner: by separating them from their mothers in a coordinated but drawn-out process.)
Heinrich, the founder of Blue Sphere Media, and five others had spent eight fruitless days in search of blue whales before spotting a disturbance in the distance.
“As we drew closer it quickly came into focus,” Heinrich states in his blog (and in the video footage). “A huge dorsal fin cut the surface and changed into a logjam of rolling long dark shapes. Almost in unison we shouted, ‘Orcas attacking sperm whales!’ I had never heard of such a thing and certainly never imagined I would see it with my own eyes.”
There seemed to be five killer whales, or orcas, versus perhaps six sperm whales, which were postured defensively throughout an attack by smaller but much swifter mammals.
Heinrichs, before jumpign in, wondered “if I would become easy prey for the most formidable predators in the ocean.” (Killer whales have never been documented attacking a human in the wild.)
After settling at a comfortable depth, Heinrich noticed “a frothing, dark pile of shapes ahead of me.”
The largest of the killer whales quickly turned and approached this strange intruder.
“I had heard warnings before about the extreme dangers of swimming with transient orcas, especially when these apex predators are engaged in a hunt,” Heinrichs wrote. “But in my heart I knew they were highly intelligent and evolved creatures who ‘should’ have no interest in hurting me.”
It became too difficult to keep up with the action in the water so Heinrichs and the others, who had jumped in for brief looks, climbed back aboard and followed the action with the boat.
“Dorsal fins sliced the surface on all sides, bodies rolled, and huge tails violently crashed down, as the sea turned to a frothing, churning mess,” Heinrichs wrote.
If anyone was rooting for the sperm whales there was hope, as it was unclear to the crew whether the killer whales claimed the juvenlie sperm whale as their next meal.
“We observed the family of sperm whales regroup and charge eastward as the orcas briefly gave chase then peeled off. And then it was all over,” Heinrich concluded. “For me, this was without a doubt the most incredible encounter I had ever experienced in the oceans, and something I will never forget.”
–Viewers might also wish to see Brett Heinrich’s video, shot from above the surface.