About the relationship between Sperm Whales and Pilot Whales

by firmm Team

Text: Brigitte, Photos: firmm

On the 04th of August we saw many, many Pilot Whales from a distance. As we approached, we could spot a Sperm Whale in the midst of the 70 or so animals.

We had the impression that the Pilot Whales were really annoying the Sperm Whale. They seemed nervous and excited, swimming restlessly around him.

We had the impression that their behaviour towards the giant was not very friendly. Behind this spectacle we saw a second Sperm Whale in the distance and a third one even further away. At some point, the Sperm Whale had had enough and dived down. The Pilot Whales then slowly swam away and dispersed. Only now did we have the time to take a closer look at the individual animals of the large Pilot Whale group. There were many females with their young. We also recognised many sponsored animals, namely Ponce, Baby Hook, Rikki, Edu and Dracula. A little later we met Nina, Oliver, Fernando and, for the first time this season Dientes.

The interaction between these two whale species described here is not an isolated case.

Although Orcas are the greatest natural threat to Sperm Whales (apart from humans of course), they have also been observed being chased by Pilot Whales. There is no evidence that Pilot Whales pose a real threat to Sperm Whales. Nevertheless, the latter apparently react to attacks by Killer Whales and Pilot Whales in the same stressed manner. These two largest dolphin species are considered threatening factors for Sperm Whales, as they represent a potential food competitor.

The Society for Marine Mammalogy writes about an unusual encounter between short-finned Pilot Whales and Sperm Whales in the Gulf of Mexico. In the report it is described that the Sperm Whales reacted to the presence of the Pilot Whales with a defensive posture. Again, there is evidence that short-finned Pilot Whales may show aggression towards Sperm Whales or at least threaten them. Pilot Whales attempt to molest and harass Sperm Whales, but nevertheless seem to have no intention of harming them in any way. Videos of similar incidents exist on the internet, e.g., near the Caribbean Island of Dominica. Such encounters between Sperm Whales and Pilot Whales also seem to occur frequently off the coast of Ecuador.

In August 2016, we observed a group of about 40 Pilot Whales aggressively attacking a young, weakened Humpback Whale. The poor animal sought shelter under our boat hull. Read the blog about it.

On other occasions, however, we could observe how the encounter of the different species was extremely peaceful. Like on one October day in 2017 when we observed 10 Sperm Whales lying on the surface for a long time and also partially taking up the so-called marguerite formation. During this encounter, we could observe Pilot Whales approaching from all directions. On this day, however, they seemed completely relaxed and peaceful.

The Pilot Whales showed a completely different side in April 2013 when about 70 of them, together with 50 Bottlenose Dolphins, curiously watched a mating scene between two Sperm Whales in which a third was also present. You can see it in this YouTube Video.

Over the course of time, the Pilot Whales have shown many different behaviours and we are curious to see which facets we can still get to know and discover.

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