Did notoriously aggressive orcas just save a humpback whale from certain death?

A pod of orcas swimming in the ocean
(Image credit: Whale Watch Western Australia/YouTube)

In some extraordinary drone footage, whale researchers appear to have seen a pod of orcas helping to free a humpback whale from rope line that was entangling its tail.

At first, researchers from Whale Watch Western Australia thought that the orcas were there to attack and kill the humpback whale, which was visibly injured and weakened–precisely the kinds of easy kills that predators like orcas rarely pass up.

The first orca on the scene, a male dubbed Hookfin by the researchers, was soon followed by another male, named Blade who approached the injured whale at high speed, passing directly under it.

"Matriarch Queen arrived and moved towards the Humpback Whale which caused a commotion of white water and then something incredible happened…a large chunk of the green rope that was entangling this Humpback Whale floated free behind him," Whale Watch Western Australia wrote in its description of the event attached to the YouTube video.

Soon after, the pod of orcas went on their way, leaving the humpback whale unharmed, which calmly swam away in the opposite direction.

"The incredible fact that the Orca managed to rid most of the rope from this whale before letting him swim away freely was truly fascinating," the group wrote, "did the Orca deliberately rescue this Humpback or was the decision made that due to his ill health the effort of the hunt was not worth the energy reward at the end."

It's an interesting question since orcas, also known as killer whales, are apex predators and pack hunters who are more than capable of taking down much larger prey. In fact, according to Live Science, the original nick name given to them by sailors was "whale killers," having observed their ferocious and bold attacks on their prey.

Orca pods have been observed biting onto the fins of a larger whale and turning it on its back to drag it down underwater, Live Science notes. Unable to surface for air, the whale drowns, which is remarkable since orcas also need to surface for air, but are able to hold out longer than their prey in this case.

Analysis: no one is ever a jerk 100% of the time, not even orcas

Its an open question whether the orcas were saving the whale or just didn't feel like eating it, but it wouldn't be the first time orcas demonstrated complex social behaviors. 

Orcas are especially intelligent and appear to have similar and well-developed regions in their brains that are normally associated with emotional intelligence and empathy in humans.

They also have very complex social development that might allow for interspecies cooperation, even with species that they would otherwise prey upon. Humans eat all manner of animals, after all, but we are still capable of empathy and even affection for animals that make up part of our diet, even to the point of swearing off meat entirely.

That said, orcas are still some of the biggest bullies in the sea. As Whale Watch Western Australia notes, after their encounter with the humpback whale, the pod "spent a boisterous day of socializing together and harassing Sunfish instead."

John Loeffler
Components Editor

John (He/Him) is the Components Editor here at TechRadar and he is also a programmer, gamer, activist, and Brooklyn College alum currently living in Brooklyn, NY. 

Named by the CTA as a CES 2020 Media Trailblazer for his science and technology reporting, John specializes in all areas of computer science, including industry news, hardware reviews, PC gaming, as well as general science writing and the social impact of the tech industry.

You can find him online on Threads @johnloeffler.

Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 (just like everyone else).