Killer whales are fearsome predators that prey on everything from blue whales to great white sharks.
But a humpback whale named Valiant managed to turn the tide on the aptly named killer whales in an incident observed by whale watchers off Vancouver Island in Canada on April 12.
“There is something happening in front of us that has never been seen before,” naturalist Olivia Esqueda told CHEK News.
Esqueda was one of many tourists who observed the encounter on two different whale-watching boats, the Vancouver Sun reported. At first, the five-year-old humpback whale, whose gender remains unknown, was surrounded by nine Bigg’s killer whales from two different hunting families. But the potential prey did not back down. Instead, Valiant started rolling and trumpeting every time they surfaced.
It’s “a behavior associated with aggression in humpback whales,” a naturalist who witnessed the encounter told the Vancouver Sun.
Observers also said Valiant stalked and harassed the orcas for 20 minutes, according to CHEK News.
“No exaggeration. I’ve never seen this before. I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” Brian Goodtremont of San Juan Safaris Whale Watching told CHEK News.
This isn’t the first time Valiant has gotten aggressive with Killer Whales, however. On July 11, 2019, when they were just two years old, Valiant hunted a pod of Bigg’s orcas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to the Vancouver Sun. Then, on June 26, 2021, a large orca from Bigg named T125A began pushing Valiant while young killer whales tried to force themselves on them. However, once again the whale managed to drive off its potential attackers.
Erin Gless of the Pacific Whale Watch Association said the scars on Valiant’s tail indicate he could have survived an orca attack when he was very young.
“Did that initial encounter shape how Valiant interacts with orcs today? The message is pretty clear – don’t mess with Valiant,” Gless told the Vancouver Sun.
Orcas typically eat seals and sea lions, but have been known to team up to attack other whales, The Guardian reported. They are known to hunt humpback whales, according to Real Clear Science. Humpback whales, in turn, are among the only whales that have been documented to fight back. They will even come to the defense of the non-hunchbacked animals that orcs hunt.
A 2016 study from Oregon State University documented at least 30 incidents in which humpback whales actually approached killer whales as they attacked other marine mammals and stopped hunting or feeding. .
“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that deliberately approaches an attack [mammal-eating killer whales] and can drive them away,” the study authors wrote.
Scientists don’t know whether humpback whales confuse orca prey with other humpback whales, display altruistic behavior, or simply want to prevent the orcas themselves from feeding, according to Real Clear Science.