Humpback Whale Named Valiant Chases Away Nine Threatening Orcas

A humpback whale breaching off Vancouver Island
A humpback whale breaching off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. keithsutherland / RooM / Getty Images

Orcas are fearsome predators that have taken on everything from blue whales to great white sharks

But one humpback whale named Valiant was able to turn the table on the aptly-named killer whales in an incident observed by whale watchers off of Canada’s Vancouver Island April 12. 

“There’s something happening in front of us that hasn’t been seen before,” naturalist Olivia Esqueda told CHEK News. 

Esqueda was one of several tourists who observed the encounter on two different whale-watching boats, the Vancouver Sun reported. At first, the five-year-old humpback whale, whose sex remains unknown, was surrounded by nine Bigg’s orcas that belonged to two different hunting families. But the potential prey didn’t back down. Instead, Valiant began to roll around and trumpet every time they surfaced. 

This is “a behaviour associated with aggression in humpback whales,” a naturalist who witnessed the encounter told the Vancouver Sun. 

Observers also said that Valiant stalked and harassed the killer whales for 20 minutes, according to CHEK News.

“No exaggeration. I’ve never seen this before. I’ve been doing this 22 years,” Brian Goodtremont of San Juan Safaris Whale Watching told CHEK News. 

This isn’t the first time that Valiant has gotten aggressive with killer whales, however. On July 11, 2019, when they were just two, Valiant chased off a group of Bigg’s orcas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to the Vancouver Sun. Then, on June 26, 2021, a large Bigg’s orca named T125A began to push Valiant while some younger killer whales tried to force themselves on top of them. However, once again the whale managed to chase off potential attackers. 

Erin Gless of the Pacific Whale Watch Association said that scarring on Valiant’s tail indicates that they might have survived an orca attack when very young. 

“Did that initial encounter shape the way Valiant interacts with orcas 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 have been known to hunt humpback whale calves, according to Real Clear Science. Humpbacks, in turn, are some of the only whales who have been documented fighting back. They even will come to the defense of non-humpback animals that orcas are hunting.

A 2016 study from Oregon State University documented at least 30 incidents in which humpbacks had actually approached orcas when they were attacking other marine mammals and interrupted their hunting or feeding.

“The humpback whale is, to our knowledge, the only cetacean that deliberately approaches attacking [mammal-eating killer whales] and can drive them off,” the study authors wrote. 

Scientists don’t know if the humpback whales mistake the orcas’ prey for other humpbacks, if they are displaying altruistic behavior or if they just want to prevent the orcas themselves from feeding, according to Real Clear Science.

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