A Family Affair: Humpbacks and Killer Whales Feeding Together

By , April 19, 2010

Saturday evening we saw something that might not be that unusual, but we’d never seen it before, nor had we ever heard or read of such a thing. Movement about a mile out in Lynn Canal caught my eye from the dinner table. About 7-8 killer whales, maybe 4 adult females and 3-4 calves zig-zagged back and forth along a current line, apparently fishing for the herring that are moving through the area. We saw no adult males, those with the improbably tall dorsal fins, which seemed odd; whenever we see killer whales, they are two or more males present.

The pod drifted southward as they worked the shoal. We heard and saw a humpback whale join them—many of its exhalations came as a trumpet or bellow, something the humpbacks seem to do when other animals are nearby. We think it might be annoyance, as it’s most frequent and loudest when the boisterous sea lions compete directly with them for fish at close quarters.

After a bit I realized that one of the killer whales wasn’t an orca at all. It was a humpback whale calf. Killer whale and humpback mothers and children fished fluke to fluke for the herring, while sea gulls wheeled above and dipped around them. Even at such a distance, I’m positive this wasn’t a hunting situation. Other than the humpback’s vocalizations there seemed to be no stress or urgency. Whenever the adult surfaced, “she” lulled around almost lazily. When both kinds of animal dove, they often did so in the same direction, side by side. A few times the humpback calf surfaced among the killer whales while the adult submerged. The only tail slapping we saw came from the killer whale calves, who were probably trying to stun herring.

I don’t mean to go all “lion and lamb” on you, or anthropomorphize the sight too much, but I have to admit, this was pretty cool! I suppose it’s not uncommon for resident killer whales and humpbacks to feed in the same area, even intermingle. If herd animals will ignore predators up to the moment their intent to hunt telegraphs through changed posture, more intelligent whales should be able to tell threat from non-threat quite easily. But, as I say, I’ve never heard of this before. Common or not, it was quite a thrill to see killer whales and humpbacks swimming together, especially in company of each others young.

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