Humpback whales save sea lion from orcas in ‘unbelievable encounter'

A group of humpbacks are being called heroic – after stopping transient orcas from killing a sea lion.

“What we witnessed was pure aggression,” said Capt. Russ Nicks, who watched the rescue unfold about 20 miles west of Victoria, British Columbia.

“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.”

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This isn’t the first case of clash of the titans in northwest waters. Passengers sat aboard boats on a foggy, rainy, early August evening when two humpback whales breached waters in defense of their young as transient orcas charged against them. 

The transient orcas, or Bigg's killer whales, appeared to be going after the calf in Sunday's rare sighting. Though they usually prefer to hunt gray whale calves, transient orcas do hunt humpback calves -- for their tongues.

Executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association Michael Harris explained that in an attack, the transient orcas hold down the calf and drown it. But the most recent case did not turn fatal, as the four adult humpbacks fought off the orcas in their protection the calf. 

Though attacks can leave gnarly marks on the humpbacks, the encounters between the whales seldom result in a kill.  

The short answer as to why attacks between humpback whales are happening isn't too grand of an explanation, and it doesn't have too much to do with the food chain. It's simply nature.

"We don't see it often [in the Salish Sea] because it's off the coast, but now that we have the 'humpback comeback' we have whales and calves and a record number of transients, it was just a matter of time," Harris said in August.

Amid these unprecedented sightings and behavior, some whale watching captains say that they would never expect to see a humpback protecting a sea lion from killer whales.

There were four humpbacks, possibly six, all defending the sea lion. When the defeated group of four orcas finally swam away, the humpbacks appeared to guard and escort the sea lion in the opposite direction.

Researchers call it an unbelievable encounter and theorize as to why these humpbacks wanted to be nature’s guardian angel.

“Why did Mother Teresa do what she did? We’ve come to learn that whales are capable of just as much saintly behavior as any mammal on this planet,” Harris said on Tuesday.

“In this case, they’re foregoing opportunities to feed, rest, socialize, and they’re clearly taking on great risk by battling these Bigg’s whales. As humans we like to think that only we are evolved enough to do something so altruistic -- when in fact seeing something like this out there makes us wonder: How come we’re not more like this? How many stories do we hear about some person in trouble on a busy city street and other people just passing them by? It’s just another reason to love these whales. They teach us how to be better humans.”

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