Orcas vs Sperm Whales

I just returned from an epic expedition to Sri Lanka where our team spent 9 days at sea in search of  Blue Whales. Accompanying me was my expedition partner Paul Hilton, my brother Brett, and close friends Douglas Seifert, Phil Sokol and Michael Umbscheiden. Together we battled rough seas, burning sun, cramped boat conditions and long days searching endless seas. Though not so successful with Blue Whales, what we did achieve was beyond anything any of us could have imagined, as we documented a world first underwater! This is our story!

Orcas break off attack on Sperm Whales
Orcas break off attack on Sperm Whales

Armed with my trusted Canon 1Dx in Nauticam Housing, and GoPro 3 with Flip3 Filter, all supplied by my trusted partner Backscatter in Monterey, I had everything I needed to capture full frame images at blazing fast speeds and also capture full HD video!

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Wired Magazine Feature: Photographer Captures Dramatic Battle Between Orcas and Sperm Whales

 

All eyes were fixed on the horizon as we converged on the melee of violent splashing on the oceans surface just ahead. After 8 days with little success searching along the coast of Sri Lanka for the elusive Blue Whales, it was a relief to finally find something. At first we couldn’t figure out what this commotion was all about, but as we drew closer it quickly came into focus.

Family of Sperm Whales bunched in defensive posture

Family of Sperm Whales bunched in defensive posture

Orca closes in on Sperm Whale group

Orca closes in on Sperm Whale group

A huge dorsal fin cut the surface and charged into a log jam of rolling long dark shapes. Almost in unison we shouted ‘Orcas attacking Sperm Whales’! In all my years on the ocean, I had never heard of such a thing and certainly never imagined I would see it with own eyes. We grabbed cameras and fired away as a pod of perhaps 5 Orcas tore into a family of a half a dozen Sperm Whales, right next to our boat! The attack was violent and disturbing as the panicked Sperm Whales were clearly no match for speed and maneuverability of the orcas.

Orca crashes into panicked Sperm Whale group

Orca crashes into panicked Sperm Whale group

Orcas attacking Sperm Whales

Orcas attacking Sperm Whales

I realized this was a once in a life time opportunity and summoned up the courage to jump in the water and join the frenzy. All eyes fixed on me wondering if I would become easy prey for the most formidable predators in the ocean. Wasting no time, I grabbed my camera and slid off the back of the boat. There was a frothing, dark pile of shapes ahead of me. Drifting away from the boat toward the action, I took note as the largest Orca in the pod broke off and made a bee-line for me, pinging me with its sonar. Time slowed down as my mind battled with my intuition. I had heard warnings before about the extreme dangers of swimming with ‘wild’ Orcas, especially when these apex predators are engaged in a hunt. But in my heart I knew they were highly intelligent and evolved creatures who ‘should’ have no interest in hurting me. As it approached, I thought to myself, ‘well I am about to find out the answer’.

Orca approaches me underwater

Orca approaches me underwater

The Orca came right to me then veered off at the last moment, drifting down into the deep blue below me. I spun around just in case another oOrca might be sneaking up behind me but there was nothing. I watched the Orcas return to the hunt and the battle continued. But it we difficult to keep up and I returned to boat as the Sperm Whales attempted to retreat from the Orcas. On the surface, we gasped as the assault suddenly turned into a frenzy. The Orcas appeared to separate one of the juveniles from the rest of the group and they set upon in a fury. 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.

Sperm Whales struggle to survive Orca onslaught

Sperm Whales struggle to survive Orca onslaught

Sperm Whales in chaos from Orca attack

Sperm Whales in chaos from Orca attack

Sperm Whale exhausted from Orca assault

Sperm Whale exhausted from Orca assault

It is unclear as to wether the Orcas succeeded in their attack. 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. For me, this was without a doubt the most incredible encounter I had ever experienced in the oceans and something I will never forget!

Orca charges through Sperm Whales

Orca charges through Sperm Whales

8 Responses to “Orcas vs Sperm Whales”

  1. Kenneth Skou April 25, 2013 at 1:18 pm // Reply

    Incredible pictures.
    Saw this story on a Danish newspaper website

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  2. Rod April 26, 2013 at 3:35 pm // Reply

    Maybe they were just playing??

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  3. Brian Butler April 27, 2013 at 8:34 pm // Reply

    Shawn,

    Saw this video as I was looking at the Yahoo headlines. I looked further because I had seen the video shot off California of Orcas attacking a mother and baby.

    I did not know what you were doing now, but Congratulations! Looks like you are finding success in a most unlikely field for a former AA employee.

    Good luck in the future.

    Brian

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  4. Ward Heinrichs May 1, 2013 at 4:40 pm // Reply

    Shawn,

    I have a google search on for the name “Heinrichs” just to see what is on the internet about me and our firm. As a by product, the search has allowed me to follow your Blue Sphere world travels. I love your video of the Orca’s battling the Sperm Whales. My kids love it too. They love having a “famous” first-cousin-once-removed. (You’ve given me the opportunity to explain extended family trees.) Great job!

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  5. motivational and depressing July 9, 2013 at 11:56 pm // Reply

    Some very interesting stuff. It isn’t everyday I find something worth reading on the web.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Unbelievable Battle between Orcas and Sperm Whales Caught On Camera | Blackle Mag - April 28, 2013

    […] Rarely has such an event been observed, let alone filmed, but photographer and conservationist Shawn Heinrichs was lucky enough to encounter two of the ocean’s great heavyweights engage in a violent survival contest. What did he do next? Risk his life to capture it on camera of course. […]

  2. Orcas Attack Juvenile Sperm Whale – EXPLORATIONS – A Lindblad Expeditions Blog - April 29, 2013

    […] Shawn Heinrichs, the photographer in Sri Lanka, took the bold step of suiting up to dive with the orcas attacking the sperm whale. As no humans have ever observed this kind of behavior up close, he was relying mostly on faith for his safety. […]

  3. Science -Technology Roundup | CONTRARY BRIN - May 4, 2013

    […] the coast of Sri Lanka, photographer Shawn Heinrichs captured a dramatic battle between sperm whales and orcas.  Nature is important and beautiful.  But also very tense and not […]

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