Who would win in a fight between a humpback whale and an orca? The humpback is significantly larger, with adults being roughly 10 meters longer compared to their panda-like cousins, but orcas are infamously the surgeons of the sea cutting off and/or out animal-parts including tongues and the livers of great white sharks (their penchant for the organ is shared by these otters). Most of the time we don’t have a video to hand to demonstrate the outcome, but as it happens a whaling boat got more than they bargained for in Australia when a four-hour assault on a humpback by two pods of orcas kicked off right by their boat.
Australia is no stranger to deadly animals though I expect most aren’t accustomed to seeing life or death battles play out with such enormous opponents. On the surface of it (the subject, not the water) the humpback seemed to be on the back foot with not one but two gangs of killer whales on its tail. Add to that, that the male whale was just two-to-three years old and the outlook looks even grimmer for this gentle filter feeder.
"We knew we were witnessing something significant," said Gemma Sharp, the co-owner of Whale Watcher Australia who witnessed the attack on February 17, to the Sydney Morning Herald. "The orca were in full-on attack mode and the humpback was desperately trying to protect itself."
More common items on the orca menu include squid, giant squid and beaked whales who are easier to take down than giant humpbacks. Though Sharp had seen evidence of orca attacks on humpbacks evidenced by scars on their skin, this was the first time she saw a live attack.
She and around 40 tourists watched the drama unfold from 200 meters (656 feet) away, and it was soon evident the orcas were trying to drown the young humpback by grabbing its dorsal fin and flipping it over. However, the two pods had bitten off more than they could chew as despite their ongoing assault the humpback wasn’t yielding as easily as a calf.
Humpbacks in this sort of situation are known to seek out refuge as a means of shielding from an assault and sure enough, the humpback pushed itself up against the boat of whale watchers to get away from the orcas. It continued to hide alongside the boat for almost an hour and the commotion and resulting blood loss soon attracted an inquisitive pod of 50 pilot whales and what looked like bull sharks (probably hoping for some scraps).
One pod gave up while the other – a group of six – continued to wait for the humpback to move away from the boat. Forty minutes later, having caught its breath, the humpback made a break for it but its escape was met by El Notcho, a 9-ton male from the family of six who charged at the humpback in an attempt to break its jaw.
When the whale seemed completely unphased by the headbutt, it became apparent to Sharp that the orcas were finally relenting as the leader called the group back with a series of tail slaps and the pod swam away. Our victor lived to see another day, but it paid a heavy price in the fray. “They did take his [dorsal] fin, but his tail flukes and pectoral fins were all fine, which is important. If they exhale blood… that’s always a real concern but there was none of that,” said Sharp. “At one point, we didn’t think he was going to make it, but he proved his resilience.”