A small pod of orcas (Orcinus orca) near the Galápagos Islands was caught on camera as they pushed, spun and dragged sea turtles around as if the turtles were pool toys. Orcas are known to play with their food before eating, but this was likely the first time they've been filmed tormenting sea turtles.
Nicolás Dávalos, a photographer and marine biology student in Ecuador, was in the area assisting with research when he and his colleagues spotted the group of orcas, also called killer whales, splashing around nearby.
"There was a lot of action and a lot of movement. Birds were flying around, so we thought [the orcas] were feeding," Dávalos said. The researchers hopped in a small boat and motored over to the orcas for a better look. [Photos: Drone Reveals Killer Whales]
It was clear that the orcas were chasing something, Dávalos said, "so I decided to go in the water." (Because what's there to fear from being in the water with one the ocean’s largest and most ferocious predators?)
Dávalos dove into the water with his snorkel and a GoPro. "At the beginning I was wary, but then I just felt the killer whales knew I was there," he said. "They turned around a few times to look at me, but they were totally fine with me being there."
The orcas, he said, seemed far more interested in entertaining themselves with the sea turtles than they were with him. "They would run away with their turtle, like a dog with a bone," Dávalos told Live Science. "They didn't want to share."
While this is probably the first time orcas have ever been caught on camera torturing helpless sea turtles, this kind of playful behavior is not unusual for the majestic carnivores.
"Killer whales will at times play with potential prey for a half hour or more, and then just move on, leaving the victim unharmed," Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Southwest Fisheries Science Center, told National Geographic.
"Other times, they will chase prey around and kill it but not eat it," Pitman said. "They're like cats in that way — can't resist the urge I guess."
"If you're a hunter, keeping a potential prey item alive for a long period of time — continually chasing down and catching it — is a good way to practice a lot of the skills that you might need later in life," Michael Weiss, a biologist and doctoral student at the Center for Whale Research, told National Geographic. Weiss added that younger orcas seem to play with their food more often than adults.
Very little is known about the orcas that frequent the Galápagos Island area, Dávalos said, which makes his encounter even more special. He hopes the video entices people to support ocean research and conservation efforts.
"The oceans are full of opportunities to uncover beautiful and intricate mysteries," he said.
Original article on Live Science.
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Kimberly has a bachelor's degree in marine biology from Texas A&M University, a master's degree in biology from Southeastern Louisiana University and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a former reference editor for Live Science and Space.com. Her work has appeared in Inside Science, News from Science, the San Jose Mercury and others. Her favorite stories include those about animals and obscurities. A Texas native, Kim now lives in a California redwood forest.