A photographer who captured spectacular photos of orcas hunting humpback whale calves off WA’s northern coast has described the scenes as “intense” and “distressing” – but ultimately just part of nature at work.
The tour company, which has for many years offered people the chance to swim with whale sharks off Ningaloo, has recently branched out into WA’s new humpback swimming tours and five other staff were on a training run ahead of the start of the season.
Mrs Wheeler said eight orcas had made four attempts to take a calf, with the humpback mother successfully thwarting them on two occasions by lifting her newborn out of the water and using the shallow reef as a barrier.
But the orcas eventually adjusted their tactics and were successful in their hunt.
“It was pretty intense – the noises and also knowing the mother humpback, had made such a long journey,” Mrs Wheeler said.
“It’s a five-month journey [the migration from southern waters to birth in the north and back] and to realise the mother will be going back without a calf is quite distressing.
“But orcas are just part of the chain. It was an amazing display of nature…it’s really just humans that mess with things.”
Mrs Wheeler said it was a common misconception that orcas did not travel as far north as Ningaloo and it was estimated as many as 700 humpback whales fell prey to them during the annual migration period. There are now some 30,000 humpback whales off WA’s coast, after the figure dwindled to 1000 in the 1970s.
Despite having been involved in the whale shark swimming industry for about 10 years, Mrs Wheeler said it was only the second time she’d witnessed orcas in action so close.
She assured would be-swimmers with humpbacks that orcas posed no threat to humans – in part because regulations prevented operators putting tourists into the water when whale calves were present.
“There has never been a recorded instance of a fatal attack on a person by an orca, other than in captivity,” Mrs Wheeler said.
The photos of the orca hunt emerged days after a rare albino southern right whale calf was spotted off the South West of WA.