Killer whale punts sea lion 20 feet in the air to teach calf to hunt

While many families spent Thanksgiving watching football in their living rooms, some lucky few spent it watching killer whales punt a sea lion 20 feet into the air in Monterey Bay.

About 120 people aboard a Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat Thanksgiving morning witnessed a rare sighting of a pod of killer whales hunting sea lions in the bay. A few minutes into the encounter, one whale punted a sea lion almost 20 feet into the air, a common hunting tactic used by killer whales to slow down and exhaust its prey, marine biologist Colleen Talty said.

Although many people on the boat were excited to lay eyes on the killer whales, some raised concern about the well-being of the sea lions, according to a photographer on the boat who called the scene “bittersweet” but a necessary part of nature.

“Of course you feel bad for the sea lion, but you have to remember it’s nature and without sea lions, the pod wouldn’t survive without the food,” photographer Morgan Quimby said.

Talty, who has seen a sea lion punt “multiple times” in her six years of working at Monterey Bay Whale Watch, said witnessing such a moment is quite rare.

“You have to be at the right place at the right time,” Talty said. “You could even get the hunt when they’ve already punted the sea lion, because oftentimes that’s done in the beginning of the hunt when they’re first trying to get the sea lion exhausted, separate it if it’s in a group.”

Based on the behavior of the four whales, Talty said it was a training session for the new calf in the pod that was learning how to hunt with its mother, grandmother and aunt.

“Once they successfully killed a sea lion, the members of the pod took turns displaying attack maneuvers and behaviors to further instruct their newest pod member on how to hunt,” Monterey Bay Whale Watch said Friday on Facebook.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch has seen this particular family of killer whales, known as the CA51As, in the bay for over 30 years and across four generations of whales, Talty said.

A killer whale punts a sea lion almost 20 feet into the air, a common hunting tactic used by killer whales to slow down and exhaust its prey.

(Morgan Quimby Photography)

Quimby was on the boat Thursday morning and caught the rare sighting on camera. The erratic movements of the whales made it challenging for her to photograph them, so she decided to focus her lens on one of the four or five different groups of sea lions in the water. The pack of sea lions she had her camera focused on happened to be the one the killer whales went after.

“Any time there are killer whales in the area, I’m constantly ready, following them, tracking them with my camera, trying to make sure I don’t miss any of the shots, any of their behavior,” she said.

The hunting session began around 10:30 a.m. and went on for almost two hours before the whales’ movements slowed down and they finished feasting, Quimby said.

“They’re so family-driven and intelligent, so to be able to watch them teaching this several-month-old calf how to hunt and how to survive is just such a special and intimate moment that we were lucky to witness,” she said.

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