Plants and Animals

Not-So-Killer Whales Apparently Free Humpback Tangled In Fishing Gear

Not-So-Killer Whales Apparently Free Humpback Tangled In Fishing Gear

A humpback whale with a fluke tangled in fishing gear worried tourists and crew on a whale-watching cruise from Bremer Bay. When they noticed killer whales approaching it, they assumed the humpback’s days numbered, a concern that the unlucky whale shared. Instead of living up to their titles, the orcas swam away after removing the majority of the fishing lines from the humpback, leaving the stunned onlookers to ponder if their acts were purposeful cetacean unity or simply chance. During the summer months, humpback whales are infrequently observed in the waters off the coast of Western Australia, where Whale Watch Western Australia (WWWA) operates. However, WWWA owner Gemma Sharp told IFLScience that orca pods sometimes attack them during their migrations.

An Orca tackling a healthy adult almost certainly crushed a tail strike. “Half the pod will distract the mother so the other half can drown a calf that is a few hours or days old,” Sharp added. When a juvenile humpback whale leaves its mother, the danger reappears, with pods grabbing the larger whale’s flukes and attempting to roll it onto its back and drown it. The WWWA crew feared the tangled individual would prove a sitting duck for the orcas, which they knew well enough to have named individually, after witnessing a humpback barely survive such an occurrence last year. They launched a drone in the hopes of capturing footage of the tragic event but instead got something far better.

Not-So-Killer Whales Apparently Free Humpback Tangled In Fishing Gear

WWWA reports on their website “we could observe Blade swimming straight underneath his fluke and peering at the rope entanglement.” “Another Orca appeared in the area and took a similar approach, charging at the humpback while he fought himself with pectoral fins and fluke swiping. Matriarch Queen appeared and proceeded towards the Humpback Whale, causing a ruckus of white water, and then something wonderful happened… a great portion of the green rope that had been entangling him fell loose behind him.”

The pod did not just give the humpback a fighting chance; they headed west, while the released whale approached the boat before going east prudently. Only a small amount of fishing line, perhaps not enough to cause a big problem, was visible as the humpback approached. The whale, on the other hand, was severely underweight and parasitized, indicating that he had been dragging the line for a long period and had struggled to eat. This was probably why, unlike the rest of his species, he was not searching for summer krill in Antarctic waters. The occurrences took place off the coast of Bremer Bay, where ghost currents create an incredibly diverse marine habitat.

Sharp told IFLScience that orca peels the skin off beaked whales – as well as squid, which is the pod’s major summer meal – before eating them, presumably to avoid parasites. Perhaps the humpback’s infection with whale lice protected him from a worse fate. That still raises the question of why the orca assisted their typical victim – according to Sharp, some customers joked that he left to fatten up for next year. 

Alternatively, the orca may have been intrigued by the fishing line and accidentally loosened it while exploring. Killer whales have been known to eat pricey satellite tags off larger whales, according to Sharp. Sharp, on the other hand, had the definite impression that the orcas “felt like giving the humpback a second opportunity” because of the peculiar manner, they moved. She observes that they occasionally bring gifts to the boat, such as sunfish, despite not fed in return. Perhaps this was an example of the much-debated phenomenon of animal benevolence.