Encountering a pod of killer whales engaged in a savage assault on sperm whales would generate the thrill of a lifetime for most maine mammal enthusiasts. But imagine the adrenaline rush produced by witnessing this raw spectacle from underwater.
Shawn Heinrichs did just that during a recent expedition off Sri Lanka. He and five others had been searching for eight days for blue whales, unsuccessfully. Then they spotted a commotion in the distance, and soon realized they were witnessing an event few others had seen or photographed.
When they got closer, and could hear the thrashing of whales and pounding of their tails, Heinrichs clutched his cameras and jumped overboard.
"We had no idea what was going to happen to him and we hoped for the best," said his brother, Brett. "When I saw he wasn’t eaten, I jumped in after him.”
To be sure, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and Heinrich, a cinematographer and founder of Blue Sphere Media, made the most of it.
Though the underwater footage is compelling, some of the above-surface images illustrate the apparent anguish among the six or seven sperm whales under assault, in what was an attempt by the killer whales to separate a juvenile sperm whale from the pod.
(Killer whales are supreme predators and off California and Alaska are notorious for killing gray whale calves in this same manner: by separating calves from their mothers in what is typically a coordinated but drawn-out process.)
Heinrich was with Brett and four others when they spotted the commotion.
"As we drew closer it quickly came into focus," Heinrich states in his blog and in the video footage. "A huge dorsal fin cut the surface and changed into a logjam of rolling long dark shapes. Almost in unison we shouted, 'Orcas attacking sperm whales!' I had never heard of such a thing and certainly never imagined I would see it with my own eyes."
There seemed to be five killer whales, or orcas, versus perhaps six sperm whales, which were postured in a defensive position throughout a coordinated assault by much swifter mammals.
Heinrichs was first to jump in and wondered "if I would become easy prey for the most formidable predators in the ocean." (Killer whales have never been documented attacking a human in the wild.)
The largest of the killer whales turned and approached this strange intruder.
"I had heard warnings before about the extreme dangers of swimming with transient orcas, especially when these apex predators are engaged in a hunt," Heinrichs wrote. "But in my heart I knew they were highly intelligent and evolved creatures who 'should' have no interest in hurting me."
It became too difficult to keep up with the action in the water so Heinrichs and the others climbed back aboard and followed with the boat as the killer whales ultimately claimed what they were after: the younger sperm whale.
"Dorsal fins sliced the surface on all sides, bodies rolled, and huge tails violently crashed down, as the sea turned to a frothing, churning mess," Heinrichs wrote.
If anyone was rooting for the sperm whales there was hope, as it was unclear to the crew whether the killer whales claimed the juvenlie sperm whale as their next meal.
“We observed the family of sperm whales regroup and charge eastward as the orcas briefly gave chase then peeled off. And then it was all over,” Heinrich concluded. “For me, this was without a doubt the most incredible encounter I had ever experienced in the oceans, and something I will never forget.”