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Captain’s Log; A Whale of a Whales-Saving Whale Tale

A research vessel was cruising nearshore in Alaskan waters when a momma and young calf humpback whale swam up to check them out and swim along with them.

The vessel's crew knew there was a large pod of orcas several miles ahead. Turns out the momma humpback knew it, too, and was using the vessel for protection and masking of bio-sounds from herself and her young one.

Orcas are pretty darn good apex predators and it didn’t take them long to figure things out. A pack of adults broke off from their pod to come hunt the baby humpback, leaving only one adult to watch the juveniles.

The crew and passengers of the vessel watched in dismay as the pack of killer whales methodically separated the momma and baby, tiring both of them and weakening the baby by haranguing it constantly and not allowing it to breathe often enough.

The vessel pilot tried maneuvering the boat in a manner to assist the humpbacks, but the cumbersome vessel couldn’t help very much, and the orcas were clearly winning after a couple of hours.

When all seemed about to be going very badly for the baby humpy, something caught the attention of the crew. A couple of miles offshore, there were several large splashes, and with binoculars the experts determined it was a very large humpback whale, probably a big bull.

That huge bull was making a beeline straight for the helpless momma and baby humpbacks. But half way in, the big whale slammed on the brakes, made a couple of circles while it thought things over (Yes, I said it “thought things over”) and made a course adjustment.

Suddenly and with a surprising burst of speed, it headed straight toward the pod of juvenile orcas, which had been left with only one adult.

No doubt there was some underwater low-frequency but high-intensity communication going on because suddenly the hunting orcas broke off their deadly activities with the humpy mom and calf, and high-tailed it toward their kids, at just such an angle as to place themselves between their kids and the incoming bull humpback.

The battered and bruised momma humpback quickly helped her young, weakened calf surface and breathe, then ushered it away as fast as they could swim.

The bull humpback stopped short of the pack of orcas and made a noisy splashy scene, circling slowly around to the side of the orca pad that caused them all to move farther away from the momma and calf, giving her some escape time.

Timing worked so that just about the time that big bull was about to have to face off with a whole pod of furious orcas, the momma and calf had moved far enough away that the bull could turn and dash away to keep from having to do battle himself.

At the same time, the pilot of the vessel moved rapidly toward the orcas so they had yet another reason to forget about the momma and calf.

At the end of the day, the humpbacks won this round. But other opportunities would swim along for the pod of hungry orcas.

That smart bull humpback is my hero for brilliant strategy and courage.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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