Humpback takes seal under its flipper to cheat predators
by Philip Hoare
The Guardian, Thursday 26 November 2009
There are plenty of stories of cetaceans saving humans. Indeed, Jonah was rescued by a whale when he was thrown overboard, and there have been tales of dolphins assisting swimmers in distress or shielding them from circling sharks.
Killer whales, however — themselves a species of dolphin — didn’t get their name for nothing. Early Basque whalers called them whale killers when they saw them attacking other whales. Hunting like a pack of wolves, orca know no fear. They’ll tear the throats from grey whale calves, and have even been known to take chunks out of sperm whales — the largest predators that ever lived.
But here’s a sight to gladden the eye. Earlier this year, Californian scientists Robert L Pitman and John W Durban sailed to the Antarctic in search of killer whales. They were looking for a possible new species, known to hunt Weddell seals — one of the plumpest of the pinnipeds (the suborder that includes seals and sea lions) — by washing them off ice floes with their wake.
That’s what was happening here — until a group of humpback whales arrived on the scene. Unlike orca, which are odontocetes or toothed whales, humpbacks are mysticetes, harmless leviathans with only baleen plates in their mouths.
Doubtless open-mouthed themselves, Pitman and Durban — along with a film crew from the BBC Natural History unit — watched as one seal, swept into the water by the orca, swam towards the humpbacks.
As the killer whales moved in, the plucky pinniped leapt on to the vast ribbed belly of a humpback, and nestled in the animal’s armpit. Not only that, but when a wave threatened to return the seal to danger, the humpback used its massive flipper (at five metres, the longest in the animal kingdom) to nudge it back on.
“Moments later the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe,” wrote the scientists. They believe the seal triggered a maternal defence mechanism in the humpbacks. Whatever the truth, it’s a heartening tale. But spare a thought for the orca. They’ve got kids to feed, too.
Mist rolled over the mountains this morning like dragon’s breath as we cruised out of Telegraph Cove. Within minutes of our trip we saw our first blow of a humpback whale while watching several mature and immature bald eagles. We were able to identify the two humpbacks with the help of our on board naturalist, Kyle who referenced the MERS Humpback ID catalog (www.mersociety.org).
The first whale identified was ‘Argonaut’ and the other was ‘Slits’. Argonaut is so named as it has what looks like a capital ‘A’ etched into the left underside of it’s fluke. Slits is a newcomer on the scene, having been first spotted last year. Both whales appeared to be ‘logging’ i.e. spending lots of surface time resting and short dives of 6-8 minutes.
At times Dall’s porpoises were all over the whales, leaping around them. The Dall’s porpoises were numerous and very active bow and wake riding the boat. It was quite the sight.
Rhinoceros auklets and murres were some of the other alluring avians we saw today. We even saw a small black tailed deer feeding high on the edge of a cliff.
Our afternoon sailing was a glorious combination of moody fog and brilliant sunshine with the animals providing us with tantalising glimpses into their worlds. Dall’s porpoises were repeat offenders and came along wake riding the Lukwa. The mist rolled in again and we initially tried to find ‘whales by braille’. By this, we took our time and listened carefully to the characteristic resonant sound the humpbacks make when they breathe on the surface.
The fog, thankfully, was not meant to be. We made our way towards the ever increasing blue and entered Blackney Pass. The water whirled and fumed as we sailed through, churning up all sorts of small creatures in it’s fury. Two whales were found to be capitalizing on this bounty, feeding furiously in the maelstrom. The two seen were identified by Sophia our naturalist as ‘KC’ and ‘Guardian’. KC had been spotted approx.40km south yesterday so it made it all the more special to see this whale. We spent an hour here watching these behemoths weave their way through this whirlpool. An unexpected guest also joined the goodness and happened to be a minke whale which is known as ‘Bolt’. Bolt has been seen in this area since 2000.
Our guests were thrilled to see such a prolonged and wonderful sight of these whales feeding and diving. One couple called Phil and Tania from Gloucester, England fulfilled their dreams by seeing these gentle giants wild and free. Glaucous winged gulls, young and older sat and flew over the riffled water, unperturbed by all the activity around them.
At Weynton Island, a couple of harbour seals were precariously balanced on rocks. As we made our way back towards home, the wildlife kicked off in earnes. Two Steller sea lions roared in the kelp, as some beautiful bald eagles flew above them. Two more humpbacks appeared close by, providing us with ample opportunities to observe and photograph them. Slits was one of the two seen again. We wrapped up our trip with a glorious cruise back to port. Life is good!
What makes a day special? Wildlife, and particularly whales! We had two fantastic trips today with a vast array of beautiful creatures, from Dall’s porpoises, harbour seals, Steller sea lions, Pacific white sided dolphins, humpback whales, deer, orcas, eagles, rhinoceros auklets and even a sea otter!!!
The porpoises were our entourage as we started our morning. They were superseded by seals hauled out on the rocks at Whitecliff Islands. A couple of sea lions were swimming around the Plumper islands. The dolphins got in on the action and approx. eight adults bow rode the boat to our amazement. In Bull Head, Weynton Pass which is synonymous with whales and orcas, we were thrilled to see six different humpbacks. Our boat naturalist Kyle was able to identify three of the whales. The ones he recorded were ‘Argonaut’, ‘Horizon’ and ‘Conger’. Our Captain Geoff got word that a rare sea otter was in the area. They are seldom seen on our trips so we were thrilled to see one at Whitecliff Islands. It appeared and then disappeared quickly, giving just enough time for a quick viewing.
Our afternoon trip was slightly damper with the rain coming in. Luckily the wildlife here are predominantly pelagic so pay no heed to such frivolous concerns. At the Plumper’s, the eagles swooped and soared over the trees. Argonaut came back with a big steaming breath near our port side. He had a companion to the starboard side which we were unable to identify. Within minutes, two more humpbacks appeared with one of them confirmed as ‘Guardian’ by Alison, our naturalist.
We got word from a local researcher, Jared Towers that transient or Bigg’s killer whales were close to Alert Bay so off we went. Our excitement mounted as we ventured forth to find ‘Blackfish’. A big male orca known as T012A was the first one we spotted, swimming close to the shallows. This is a 32 year old lone orca that is known to occasionally associate with other transients. A small family group of transients was then seen straight ahead of us known as the T109A’s. This family consists of a 24 year old female with three young ones that were born in born 2005, 2009 and 2012. These four initially appeared to be resting but then the young ones youthful exuberance took over. Breaching, spy hopping and tail slapping were all behaviours witnessed over the next half hour to our delight.
Heading back to port we saw some harbour seals with last year’s young. The Dall’s porpoises made another visit through the Plumper Islands. A guest from Switzerland spotted a young deer on shore nimbly leaping over the rocks. The eagles were seen to gather in the trees high above us, young and adults all vying for space on the branches. Below them, four male Steller sea lions broke the water surface in unison, before diving swiftly again. A day bursting at the seams with wildlife and incredible spectacles. We were truly blessed.
A day of calm, fine weather with quite ‘wild’ wildlife made for a heady brew for our trips today. We started with a very exciting morning, with one area in particular being a hot spot for us. As we cruised out, we were flanked by some Dall’s porpoises, leaping in parallel to us. On entering Weynton Pass, things really started to go off, Three Steller sea lions were found morphing their bodies in with the bull kelp. Then a super pod of Pacific white sided dolphins appeared. They bow rode, leapt and swam in an astonishing display of cetacean synchronicity. And if that was not enough excitement, we were joined by a humpback whale.
We were lucky enough to get some good shots of it’s tail fluke and it was identified by our on board naturalist Sophia as ‘Argonaut’. A couple of humpbacks were seen in the area also from a greater distance so we were unable to see who they were. We are continuing our efforts to identify as many whales and orca as we can this season to help all the scientists and researchers who work with these magnificent creatures. With proper identification shots of dorsal fins and flukes, we can send these pictures to MERS (www.mersociety.org). This whale has been seen in the area every year since 2009.
The clement weather continued to accompany us on our afternoon sailing. In the Eastern Queen Charlotte Strait, we had a feeding frenzy with birds and dolphins capitalizing on the bounty. The dolphins showed incredible agility and leapt in a way to give any acrobat a run for their money! One passenger observed a single dolphin do 18 leaps high out of the water.
Approaching Broughton Archipelago, a sleepy humpback whale was seen by us and the dolphins. They rapidly approached it and started swimming and jumping around the weary whale. From what we could see, the whale appeared irritated by the intruders, perhaps somewhat akin to a dog being ‘buzzed’ by flies.
At the Whitecliff Islands, another somnolent whale was briefly observed on the surface. Harbour seals were relaxing amongst the rocks and suspended in the water, as they espied us. An adult bald eagle surveyed the scene from it’s perch above them. Other birds that were seen during this trip were pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets.
At Bull Head, Weynton Pass, a humpback surfaced quickly before descending. It afforded us the chance to get another identification shot for the day. This one was recognized by our naturalist Alison as ‘Argonaut’. It appears that this whale shows consistent site fidelity as this area has been a stronghold for it since 2009. At the Plumper Islands we saw a large eagle’s nest high up in the trees. Argonaut continued to trail close behind us, fluking intermittently. The Steller sea lions were also seen again in the kelp with jumping Dall’s porpoises in the background! To add to the party, a harbour seal popped up and Argonaut gave us his encore before we sailed back to port.
The weather and wildlife gods smiled on us today as we set forth on our boat ‘’The Tenacious III’’. Our first brief stop of the day was in Seymour narrows, close to Ripple Rock. Sun glittered on the water as we cruised through and cut the engine. We were afforded the chance to linger in this auspicious piece of water and watch the swirling whirlpools churn and froth around us.
Around the cliff rock called Copper Bluffs, small flocks of pigeon guillemots flew to and from their nests on the cliff face, illuminated by the brilliant sunshine. No sooner had we approached Quadra Island when we had some curious visitors approach us. These inquisitive creatures were harbour seals! A few seals eyed us keenly while their braver comrades swam ever closer. We wondered, who was really watching who?!
We ventured towards Quathiaski Cove, whose name comes from the Salish words which mean ‘calm waters’ or ‘bear with something in its mouth’. The water was unsettled at this time however, with gulls circling and feeding. Two harbour porpoises popped up amongst them and seemed to also be indulging in a luncheon snack of young herring. A few Bonaparte gulls flitted elegantly above the water to also capitalise on the fishy goodness.
We stopped for lunch off Mitlenatch Island which is a bird sanctuary and research haven, and enjoyed our food in the sun. Some passengers had a brief view of a Steller sea lion during our break. Not long after eating, we headed south to view more of the spectacularly beautiful surroundings. Our boat sped smoothly through the water as we watched the snow capped mountains and forests around us. Captain John kept us entertained with interesting anecdotes and history on the area. The on board naturalist, Anne rounded off our trip with a fascinating talk on the local wildlife and our interconnectedness with all of these creatures.