Category Archives: Marine mammals

Granny, the orca, was seen in poor condition before her death

About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Granny shown in poor body condition in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
Granny, or J-2, shown in poor body condition in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher John Durban on NOAA’s website.

Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old, according to estimates, as I discussed in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report. The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been pregnant.

J-22, named Oreo, appeared in better shape than Granny in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
J-22, named Oreo, appeared in better shape than Granny in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

Aerial photos of the orcas also are used by researchers to record social behaviors of the animals, John notes. A photo on his web post shows Granny with J-45, an 8-year-old male named Se-Yi’-Chn, whose mother died in August. Granny and Se-Yi’-Chn were chasing a salmon that was eventually caught by the older animal and shared with the younger one, according to the report.

“Helping other family members catch food is a key role for older, post-reproductive females like J2,” John wrote. “This is a striking example that, through such cooperative behaviors, individuals will put the pod’s health ahead of their own.”

The video (below) explains the ongoing aerial study of killer whales, with John Durban interviewed by NOAA science writer Rich Press. Besides Durban, Holly Fearnbach of Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium are involved in the photogrammetric project.

For additional information, check out the following blog posts:

Granny, a killer whale unlike any other, stayed graceful to the end

If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of a killer whale known as Granny.

Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life. Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the Salish Sea.

For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.

In 1997, a group of 19 orcas from L pod spent a month in Dyes Inlet between Bremerton and Silverdale. (Check out my stories in the Kitsap Sun.) There is pretty good evidence that their record-long stay in one location was at least partly because they were not comfortable going under the Warren Avenue Bridge, which was their only way out.

If something about the bridge spooked the whales, then how did those 19 orcas make it under the enormous structure when they first entered Dyes Inlet? Although it has never been confirmed, observers at the time reported seeing two groups of whales coming into the inlet.

I’ve always wondered whether Granny had visited Dyes Inlet long before the Warren Avenue Bridge was constructed. Could she have led both the J- and L-pod whales into the inlet, where chum salmon were abundant? Did the L-pod whales choose to stay behind to catch fish only to become confused later when they tried to make their getaway? I guess we’ll never know.

When a beloved friend or relative dies, it is hard to keep going as if nothing has changed. I know there is sadness about Granny’s passing among longtime whale observers, orca researchers, educators and whale-watch boat operators.

I can’t help but wonder how the orcas in J pod are coping with Granny’s loss. How long will it take to rally around a new leader? How will Granny’s knowledge be missed as the whales struggle to find bountiful salmon runs? How will her sudden departure affect cohesion among the whales, which were already breaking into smaller and smaller hunting groups.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research ponders some of these questions in a tribute to Granny, a story that appropriately recognizes the important discoveries of the late Mike Bigg, the first person to realize that orcas could be identified individually and that each whale has a story to tell.

I was also touched by a report from Ken’s associate, Dave Ellifrit, who spent time on the water with J pod on Dec. 28 near the San Juan Islands. Dave, who knows the whales as well as anyone, found them spread out and spending significant “down time” as they foraged for food. In a scientific tone, Dave dispassionately described the actions of all the whales he could find, then he concluded his report:

“This was CWR’s first encounter with J pod in several months where we felt like the coverage was good enough to find all the whales present, and we could not find J2. Many have suspected for the last couple of months that she might be gone, and it is looking like that is the case.”

Jeanne Hyde, a longtime orca observer, offered a number of interesting observations in her blog “Whale of a Purpose,” including this:

“Late this past season I noticed Granny with the J16s. That was very curious. It was out of the ordinary. Slick J-16 in the lead with Granny behind her a ways, and Mike J-26, Slick’s oldest male, on the offshore side…hum…highly unusual…

“In the late part of the year, the J Pod whales acted, to me, like they were lost…like they didn’t know which way to go or they didn’t know what to do…their travel also seemed unusual….they have lost their leader…how will that impact this community who has not ever been without a leader?”

Another longtime observer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, wrote a piece on her Facebook page with this observation:

“Even in her death Granny leads by example. ‘This is how it should be,’ she tells us, even now. ‘This is when we should be parting ways … at the end of a long life.’ The tears in our eyes and on our cheeks are for the loss of a whale — a beloved friend — who has led a life whose length alone is worthy of remembrance and of celebration.

“The times ahead are ones I cannot predict, for I do not have the gift of foresight. But whatever they bring — be it triumph, tragedy, or something in the middle — may we face them with the same tenacity and dignity as Granny. She lives on in the whales that still remain, in the calves that have yet to join us. She lives on in our hearts, and more importantly in our deeds.

“She is epic and awesome and impressive and she will always be.”

In 2006, M.L. Lyke, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote about how she perceived Granny’s life in a series called “The Sound of Broken Promises,” now featured on the Orca Network webpage.

Death toll for 2016 includes six orcas
from the Salish Sea

UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as “Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in 1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100. Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research website. More to come.
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When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca calves over the previous 12 months. See Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.

J-34, named DoubleStuf, with Mount Baker in the background. Photo taken last February before his death this month. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
J-34, named DoubleStuf, swimming last February with Mount Baker in the background. The 18-year-old male died this month.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar year.

The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an 18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the tribute and wonderful photos on Orca Network’s webpage.

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Sea Shepherd encounters Japanese whalers at start of summer season

It has just turned winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that it is now summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The Japanese whaling fleet has entered the Southern Ocean to kill up to a self-designated quota of 333 minke whales, and Sea Shepherd has given chase.

Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd's newest ship, moving beyond pack ice in the Southern Ocean. Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager
Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd’s newest ship, moving beyond pack ice in the Southern Ocean.
Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager

We have heard the story before, and many of us have watched the drama play out during six seasons of the TV series “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet. This year, Sea Shepherd hopes to have an advantage with a ship declared to be faster than the Japanese whaling vessels, as I explained in Water Ways at the end of August.

On Dec. 3, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin left Melbourne, Australia, for the Southern Ocean for its 11th campaign against the whalers. The Steve Irwin was followed a day later by the new ship, Ocean Warrior. Yesterday, the Ocean Warrior located one of the Japanese harpoon vessels, the Yushin Maru, inside the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, according to Capt. Adam Meyerson, the skipper of the Ocean Warrior.

“The crews of the Ocean Warrior and the MV Steve Irwin have been battling through thick fog and ice to protect the whales in the Australian whale sanctuary,” Meyerson said in a news release. “The Yushin Maru was hiding behind an iceberg and came out on a collision course.

“Finding one of the hunter-killer ships hiding behind an iceberg in a thick fog means that the rest of the fleet is nearby,” he added. “We all hope to have whaling in the Southern Ocean shut down by Christmas.”

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Amusing Monday: Mysterious ocean sounds are not always ‘creepy’

Some underwater ocean sounds remain a mystery, while other sounds are well understood by NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

PMEL’s acoustic division continues to find unusual sounds within its long-term mission of recording and measuring ocean noise and assessing potential problems created by noisy humans.

Sounds ranging from whale calls and volcanoes to cargo ships and airguns are monitored by the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory with the help of 11 Ocean Noise Reference Stations from Alaska to the South Pacific. Graphic: NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
Sounds ranging from whale calls and volcanoes to cargo ships and airguns are monitored by the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory with the help of 11 Ocean Noise Reference Stations.
Graphic: NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

I remain intrigued by ocean sounds, and I can’t help but worry about sensitive marine creatures, such as whales, that must live in our modern world of noisy ships and machinery.

One mysterious sound nicknamed “Upsweep” was present when PMEL began recording on the Navy’s SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) array in August 1991. The sound, which consists of a series of upsweeping sounds, is loud enough to be heard throughout the Pacific Ocean, according to PMEL’s website. This sound was speeded up 20 times to be more easily heard.

      1. Upsweep-PMEL

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Death of female orca with young son raises worries about the future

It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead — even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will not survive either.

On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head.” Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and her son is probably dead as well, researchers say.
On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head” and related to malnutrition. Her 11-month-old son, shown with her, also was struggling to survive. Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and researchers say her son is probably dead as well.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks, including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of Puget Sound orcas.

Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.

Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the distinctive mark when she was nine years old.

At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other hormonal systems.

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Amusing Monday: The evolution and danger of packaging drinks by six

When I was a young child, we didn’t have to worry about wildlife getting strangled by six-pack rings, because these plastic binders for cans had not been invented yet. I was 9 years old in 1961 when this simple, convenient form of packaging was invented, so I clearly remember the transition. (See Hi-Cone history.)

At the time, nobody predicted the conservation consternation that would be created by such a simple piece of plastic. During the 1970s and up to present, pictures of entrapped birds and other sea creatures became common, suggesting that we at least cut the plastic to save the animals. The first video provides a story of potential revenge.

Before the invention of six-pack rings, people bought soft drinks and beer in cardboard packages, which sort of wrapped around the cans. Pabst Blue Ribbon may have been the first beer sold in cardboard cartons (second video), although Coca Cola may have started the phase. The Coke company claims to be the first to take its bottles out of wooden crates and begin offering cardboard packaging for consumers as early as 1923.

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Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

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Satellite tag contributed to the death of a 20-year-old orca, experts say

When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See Water Ways, April 14.)

Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. He was later found dead.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for Nigel, designated L-95.

As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately contributing to his death.

“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection to the whale,” states a report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role in its death.”

After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be developed through the International Whaling Commission.

After that, any further tagging would require a new review under the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents — the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered species.

The tagging program has provided much information about where the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook salmon, their primary prey.

For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing the existing data to see if they have enough information for expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.

A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did retain a dart for a while.

The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.

It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could have contributed to the orca’s death.

The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the bloodstream.

The final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel may have had some problems with his immune system, and this particular fungus is known to attack people who are immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals. You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But contributing factors are many.

Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher for the Center for Whale Research, had warned about the risks involved with using sharp prongs that penetrate the skin. See “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best information to government researchers through the years — not only about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.

“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore it.”

His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food, which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said, the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a population.

“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery of natural fish populations happens.”

The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination between the U.S. and Canada, he added.

Humpback whales intervene in orca attacks against other species

Humpback whales have been making the news for their organized “rescues” — seemingly heroic efforts in which the humpbacks have intervened in attacks by killer whales against other marine mammals.

Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.
Humpback whales come to the rescue of a Steller sea lion near Victoria, B.C. // Photo: Alethea Leddy, Port Angeles Whale Watch Co.

The humpbacks have not only protected their own calves but they have gone well out of their way to protect gray whales, minke whales, Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, Weddell seals, crabeater seals, harbor seals, northern elephant seals and even ocean sunfish, according to researchers.

The latest incident, in which humpbacks reportedly intervened in a killer whale attack on a Steller sea lion, is said to be the first reported incident in the Salish Sea. The incident took place last week off Sooke, BC, about 20 miles west of Victoria.

“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” Capt. Russ Nicks of BC Whale Watch Tours of Victoria said in a news release from Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We had four humpbacks trumpeting, rolling on their sides, flukes up in the air multiple times.

“The killer whales split many times into two groups, with one that appeared to try to draw the humpbacks away from the sea lion. The other group would go in for the attack while the humpbacks were safely away – but then they’d get in the middle of it again, fighting the orcas off. It was amazing to watch.”

These killer whales were of the transient variety, a subspecies of killer whales that eats marine mammals, as opposed to the resident orcas that each fish.

The same attack and rescue was viewed by naturalist Alethea Leddy of Port Angeles Whale Watch Company, as reported in the news release:

“We got there in time to see some crazy surface activity, with humpback whales splashing in the distance along with orcas. Then two humpbacks surfaced next to us trumpeting, and the next thing we know there were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea lion.

“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the sea lion from the humpbacks. It was a wild scene, with the humpbacks even circling the sea lion trying to keep him safe while he frantically struggled to get his breath.

“The anxiety of the humpbacks was palpable, and they took turns diving and slashing at the orcas. This life-and-death drama went on and on until the four transient orcas, known as the T100 family, moved off in the distance. As they did, we saw the sea lion appear next to the humpbacks being guarded and escorted in the opposite direction.

“This was an unbelievable encounter. Hats off to our courageous humpbacks and best wishes to our little Steller sea lion, survivor for another day!”

In July, 14 marine mammal experts reported on 115 apparent rescue efforts by humpback whales during what appeared to be killer whale attacks on other species of marine mammals. Their report appeared in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Reasons for these rescue efforts are open to much speculation, but the researchers noted that evidence is mounting in favor of a belief that killer whales that eat marine mammals, called MEKW, attack young humpback whales more often than commonly reported.

“Clearly, MEKW predation, even if rarely observed and targeting mainly calves and subadults, represents a threat to humpbacks that is persistent, widespread, and perhaps increasing,” the report states. “As such, humpbacks could be expected to show some specific anti-predator behaviors, and indeed some have been suggested. Ford and Reeves (2008) summarized the defensive capabilities of baleen whales faced with killer whale attack, and they identified two general categories of response.

“Balaenopterid rorquals (including fin whales and minke whales) use their high speed and hydrodynamic body shape to outrun killer whales and were classified as flight species. The generally more rotund and slower-swimming species — right whales, bowhead whales, gray whales and humpback whales — apparently rely on their bulk and powerful, oversized appendages (tail and flippers) to ward off attackers. This group was categorized as fight species.”

Of course, it is one thing for the humpbacks and other baleen whales to take a defensive posture. It is quite another thing for them to go after killer whales when another species of marine mammal is under attack.

In the report, humpbacks initiated encounters with MEKWs 58 percent of the time, while the killer whales initiated contact 42 percent of the time — at least for those cases when the killer whale ecotype could be identified as marine mammals eaters. On a few occasions when known fish-eating killer whales were involved, the encounter was relatively benign, the researchers said.

The video, shot by BBC filmmakers, show a pair of humpback whales attempting to prevent a group of orcas from killing a gray whale calf. In this case, the effort was unsuccessful.

When humpbacks went to the rescue of other marine mammals, it appears that the rescuers were generally a mixture of males and females, according to the report. Humpback postures, whether attacking or defending, involved slapping their flukes on the surface, slashing from side to side, bellowing, persuing and flipper slapping. The length of battles reported ranged from 15 minutes to seven hours. In the end, the prey that was at the center of the battles was killed 83 percent of the time — at least for those cases when the outcome was known.

“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that deliberately approaches attacking MEKWs and can drive them off, although southern right whales may also group together to fend off MEKWs attacking other right whales,” the researchers stated, adding that humpbacks’ powerful flippers covered in sharp barnacles can shred the flesh of their opponents.

When in hunting mode, transient killer whales are generally silent, not making much noise. Once an attack begins, they become more vocal, perhaps to coordinate the attack. It appears that humpbacks respond to killer whale vocalizations from distances well out of sight of the attack.

The reasons the humpbacks would get in a fight with killer whales to save another species are listed in three categories:

  • Kin selection: Protecting an offspring or closely related animal.
  • Reciprocity: Protecting unrelated animals, generally as part of a social organization.
  • Altruism: Benefitting another animal at some cost to the one taking action.

It is possible, the researchers conclude, that humpbacks could be improving their individual and group fitness to fend off attacks against their own by protecting other species. One idea is that the killer whales may think twice about attacking a humpback of any age.

“We suggest,” they write, “that humpbacks providing benefits to other potential prey species, even if unintentional, could be a focus of future research into possible genetic or cultural drivers of interspecific altruism.”