Something we have never seen before

by firmm Team

40 pilot whales harass weakened humpback whale

Text: Mirjam Cott; Fotos: firmm

It is 5 pm, the last trip of the day.There are a lot of families with small children on board of our boat Vision. With high expectations they watch the surface of the water, from the harbour of Tarifa in our back to the Moroccan coast in front of us. After only ten minutes Striped Dolphins appear. First we see them jumping in a distance, then they approach the boat. Soon we are surrounded by about 1000 playful animals that show themselves at every side of the boat. While swimming very fast, they are jumping time and again, rotating about their own axis or surfing in the waves. What an enjoyable sight, especially because there are so many young ones among the Striped Dolphins. We observe them extensively before we move on to search for other marine mammals.

Only after a short time Katharina Heyer tells us through the microphone that she has spotted a big group of Pilot Whales to our left. As we get closer she informs us that there are Bottlenose Dolphins among them and probably a Sperm Whale in the middle of the group. Three species at one place – now at the latest all eyes are focused on the group of animals that gets closer and closer. Soon we suspect that the bigger whale in the middle of the group is a Fin Whale. They draw nearer to our right side… then there is another whale watching boat in about 50 metres distance.

The animals move between the two boats, now they get closer to the other one, very close indeed. About 40 excited Pilot Whales are swimming around the fin whale. Now and again you can see the long back and the small dorsal fin of the bigger whale in the middle of the group. The Bottlenose Dolphins have disappeared.

Pilot Whales circle Humpback Whale Back of Humpback Whale Franzfin with Humpback Whale 

Now the group of whales is approaching our boat again, the bigger whale swims directly towards us. Adults and kids are screaming while amazement and respect mix equally in their voices. The Pilot Whales do not leave the big whale, even when he dives underneath our vessel. On the other side of the boat the spectacle continues. The big whale is so close that we can even see his two blowholes. Out of the corner of my eye I can see his long white flippers. It could be a Humpback Whale as well… but this species you normally do not find in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Flipper of the Humpback Whale Blowhole, Baleen Whales have two!  

The big whale hits the surface of the water with its tail fin, it is moving in a wavy line, slowly, it fights and at the same time it seems too week, nearly disorientated. The whale is between nine and ten metres long, his skin dark grey with many small white scratches that gleam in the sunlight. Its bottom seems to be white as well, like the underside of the tail fin. It keeps on slapping his huge tail fin on the water.

Children are screaming and the first time ever on a boat trip I tell them to be quieter. I explain to them that the whale is obviously suffering and we must not give him a fright, too. Luckily, the parents help me to spread out the request for silence. The kids understand: the situation is serious. When the animals swim away a bit, they ask me whether we can help the whale. I have to deny.

Then the whale draws closer again, it does so on purpose. I think the kids are right: the whale is looking for help or even shelter next to our boat. But the pilot whales do not let the bigger whale go; it seems as they do not mind the boat with all the people on it. As I poke my head out of the window, I can hear their heavy breathing. The pilot whales unremittingly swim towards the big whale, in groups of two to four they harass it from all sides. It looks like they try to dunk him under water. They even approach the whale in an aggressive manner. The pilot whales jump on the big whale so that it has to rotate around its own axis. Some pilot whales bite.

Head Mouth Big Head  

Eventually, we hear a new announcement from Katharina Heyer. She says that we were very sad because the pilot whales were attacking and biting the whale in their middle. We leave the scenario – everyone on board has plenty to talk about. On the way back I am busy with talking in German, Spanish and English, explaining that this was the first time ever we have watched such an “attack” by the pilot whales. Up to now we knew them as protectors… Years ago we could observe 50 pilot whales defending a bleeding sperm whale by forming a circle around it. Their intention was to save him from shark attacks and to let him die in “peace”.

Humpback Whale amid the Pilot Whales Zackzack 

The behaviour of attacking we so far have only observed when the pilot whales defend their territory against orcas and chase them away – even though orcas are much bigger than pilot whales. Today – as we later found out – they were attacking a young humpback whale which seemed to be weakened and disorientated for an
indiscernible reason.

The course of nature? By all means, Mother Nature tells us new stories every day.

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