Fearless, Baby Pilot Whales Follow Mother Orca


An unusual sight was captured off the west coast of Iceland, when a baby pilot whale followed a mother orca (Orcacinus Orca). Photo/Live Science/Orca Guardians Iceland

REYKJAVIK – An unusual sight was recorded off the west coast of Iceland, when a baby pilot whale followed a mother orca (Orcacinus Orca). Long-finned pilot whale calves (Globicephala melas) swim fearlessly near orcas, known as the ocean’s apex predators.

Researchers who filmed an orca swimming with a pilot whale calf still can’t solve the mystery of how the two got so close and intimate. Scientists suspect this possibility occurred as interspecies adoption.

The researchers observed the orca and calf for 21 minutes before the ship moved on. At that time, the orca, which has been given the Icelandic name Saedis, appeared to be guarding the pilot whale calves.

“He (orca) was showing protective behavior, and he was showing caring behavior towards the pilot whale calf,” Marie-Therese Mrusczok, orca researcher and President of the conservation non-profit organization Orca Guardians Iceland, told Live Science, Monday (6/3/2023) .

Mrusczok and his colleagues published the discovery in the Canadian Journal of Zoology on February 17, 2023. It says it may be the first documented case of orcas caring for the offspring of another species of whale.

Mrusczok and the researchers note that the Orca Saedis was childless for nine years and may have been too old and not producing milk. Though pilot whale calves need to eat and are in poor condition. When Saedis was seen again in early 2022, the pilot whale calf was not with him.

Fearless, Baby Pilot Whales Follow Mother Orca

Mrusczok noted that the pilot whale calf most likely died, but researchers still have to work out why the two were together. One possible explanation put forward in this study is that the orca found a stray pilot whale calf and adopted it as a surrogate calf.

Another, more sinister possibility is that orcas abduct pilot whale calves. It is known that pilot whales will chase orcas in Icelandic waters, possibly in response to competition for food or risk of predation.

But Mrusczok observed something new when Orca Saedis and mates were chased by pilot whales in 2022. “Once the pilot whales stop, the orca will turn around and head back towards the pilot whales,” says Mrusczok.

The study’s authors suggest that the Orca Saedis, may have repeatedly approached the pilot whale to try to find another pilot whale calf it could retrieve and that is why the pilot whale chased it. Mrusczok records data annually on social interactions between the two species and hopes to learn more about them in the future.


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