A large pod of killer whales was spotted launching a brutal attack on a rare Cuvier’s beaked whale, a phenomenon marine biologists say is only witnessed “a handful of times” each season.
The killer whales, or orcas, were seen off the southern coast of West Australia, attempting to tear a Cuvier’s beaked whale to shreds. As sightings go, beaked whales are exceedingly rare. Rather than exploring the surface, they spend much of their time diving as far as 10,000 feet into the depths.
A whale-watching and research crew caught the gruesome attack in action on Tuesday while exploring Bremer Canyon, a popular spot for WA’s killer whale population.
Research into the beaked whales remains limited. Scientists, however, believe that they spend so much time in the deep ocean to avoid vicious killer whales. Using their muscles specialized to store oxygen, beaked whales can remain underwater for over an hour, longer than any other marine mammal.
While beaked whales regularly reach 6,500 feet below the surface, orcas can descend a mere 3,000 feet, making the deep ocean a safe zone for the smaller whale.
According to marine biologist Bianca Uyen, killer whale attacks such as these occur often. Rarely on the surface, however, making them an unusual sight for researchers. “Although beaked whales are one of the main food sources for orcas in the Bremer Canyon, a surface predation like today’s is only seen a handful of times each season,” she told ABC News.
Killer Whales Commonly Launch Coordinated Attacks Against Their Prey
During Tuesday’s research exploration, the boat’s skipper noticed a pod of a few dozen orcas. Their first observation was the predators’ line formation, an indication that they were on the hunt. A few feet away, they saw a Cuvier’s beaked whale, the prey trapped helplessly between several killer whales, the larger whales preventing it from attempting a life-saving dive.
Scientists on the scene estimate that four pods, about 30 killer whales total, assisted in the coordinated attack. “The orcas were nudging the beaked whale, keeping it in place,” Uyen said. “Others dove under the whale and pushed it to the surface. At one stage, they rammed it from the lower abdomen right out of the water.”
Like their line formation, nudging is a strategic hunting technique employed by killer whales. Instead of attacking their prey right away, killer whales nudge them over and over again in sensitive areas. Once their target is too tired and weak to fight back, the orcas attack.
Uyen explained that the hunt lasted around 30 minutes, after which the orcas abruptly killed the beaked whale. As the grisly attack continued, the sea turned red, a layer of oil from the whale’s corpse coating the surface.
The orcas continued to thrash on the surface, tearing the beaked whale to shreds until there was nothing left. Killer whales launch similar attacks on giant squid, tuna, and even sharks, when they’re available.