Picture Shows Sea Lion ‘Trapped’ in Mouth of Humpback Whale

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. news and stories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is based in Maryland.
July 31, 2019 Updated: July 31, 2019

A photograph captured the moment a humpback whale breached the surface of the ocean and grabbed a sea lion in its mouth.

Chase Dekker, who works for Sanctuary Cruises, a whale watching company in California, said he was in Monterrey Bay when he saw a pod of whales “lunge feeding.”

He soon saw one of the whales snatch up the sea lion in its mouth, describing the moment to his Instagram followers.

“Just the other day I witnessed something out on Monterey Bay I had never seen before. While the humpbacks were lunge feeding on a school of anchovies, a sea lion apparently didn’t jump out of the way fast enough and got trapped inside the whales mouth!” he wrote.

“At some point the sea lion escaped and the whale seemed fine too as it continued to feed, but it must have been a strange experience for both parties! That sea lion had the true ‘Jonah Experience!'” he added.

Dekker said he immediately knew the picture was special.

“As soon as I saw this photograph, I knew it may be one of the rarest shots I’ve ever taken,” Dekker told National Geographic. “Not the most beautiful, not the most artistic, but probably something I would never see again.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, humpback whales sometimes breed and feed in “large, dynamic groups.”

“Some humpback whales feed by making ‘bubble nets’ around their prey. Several whales blow bubbles through their blowholes and swim in a circle pattern so that the prey is trapped in the center of the ‘net.’ Then the whales swim right up through the center of the bubbles and ingest the prey,” the agency stated.

According to Nat Geo, humpbacks frequently appear in the bay this time of year. Sea lions usually avoid the whales as they “lunge feed,” or charge toward and engulf huge mouthfuls of food. The sea lions then swoop in to snatch up the remains.

“You start to notice this pattern around bait balls,” Dekker explains, referring to swirling masses of fish. “The whales dive down, and the sea lions generally [move in] shortly after. When the sea lions pop back up, the whales are typically 10 to 30 seconds behind them.”

While sea lion-whale interactions happen, they usually don’t result in something like Dekker witnessed, Christie McMillan, a biologist with the Marine Education and Research Society in British Columbia, told the magazine.

“The photo blew our minds,” she said. “I have never seen this happen with a sea lion. Nor have I ever heard of it.”

Dekker soon posted another picture of multiple whales breaching at the same time.

“This is what a normal lunge feeding event looks like when a sea lion doesn’t end up in the wrong spot! Just yesterday I came across a group of 5 humpback whales lunge feeding with 300+ sea lions,” he wrote on Instagram. “This time, the sea lions made sure to jump out of the way when the whales were surfacing!”

Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. news and stories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is based in Maryland.