Humpback whales get into a rumble with four orcas to save a sea lion

Orca and sea lion fighting

A Steller sea lion got incredibly lucky recently when a group of humpback whales fought off some orcas who were attacking it.

The incredible event was seen by whalewatchers in the Juan De Fuca Strait, just south of Vancouver Island. Michael Harris, the head of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, was there, and told the CBC that the event started normally enough, with four Biggs killer whales closing in on the lone sea lion. However, things soon took an unusual turn.

“As the hunt was going on, two humpbacks decided to intervene and actually get between the sea lion and the killer whales,” Harris said. “Then, two more humpbacks joined the fray, literally putting their huge bodies between the orcas and the sea lion, flipping their flukes on the water, trumpeting very, very loud at these transient orcas. . . .”

Orcas and humpbacks fighting
Photo by Russ Nicks/
The humpbacks put themselves between the orcas and the sea lion, blocking their path to their prey.

“The water boiled all around as the orcas tried to separate the sea lion from the humpbacks,” said Alethea Leddy, a naturalist working for the Port Angeles Whale Watch Company. She also noted that the humpbacks seemed visibly anxious.

Eventually, after failed attempts to lure the humpbacks away and get at the sea lion, the orcas gave up. The groups of whales parted, the sea lion staying with the humpbacks until he was safely out of the orcas’ sight.

Harris told the CBC that he used to be sceptical about reports of whales getting involved to save other species from being hunted, and assumed that the people who described these encounters were just anthropomorphizing the animals. “But now we have seen it first-hand, and I am a believer,” he said.

Nevertheless, he says there could be many reasons for humpbacks to intervene and save another species. Some see it as pure, selfless altruism—that they simply want to help another creature in need. However, there is also a theory that the humpbacks are fighting for territory. Both humpbacks and Biggs killer whales have recently returned to the Salish Sea in record numbers, and they may each want to claim the area for themselves.

Another theory is that because orcas sometimes attack humpback calves, adult humpbacks are more likely to break up orca feeding frenzies.

Nevertheless, Harris thinks there is something to the theory that the humpbacks acting out of a sense of kindness: “As humans, we like to think that only we are evolved enough to do something so altruistic—when, in fact, seeing something like this out there makes us wonder, how come we’re not more like this?”