By BECKY EVANS
PUBLISHED: 19 May 2013
A disabled killer whale that is missing two fins is able to survive in the wild with the help of its family, who hunt food its food.
The young killer whale has no dorsal fin or right-side pectoral fin, leaving it unable to hunt for itself.
But rather than be left to fend for itself or die, the whale appears to be cared for by members of its pod, which share their food with the youngster.
It is one of the few times that killer whales have been seen to feed and care for a non-hunting member.
Underwater photographer Rainer Schimpf came face to face with the pod while the members hunted in waters off Port Elizabeth in South Africa.
He said: ‘Incapable of fast hunting and ambushing prey it has to be dependent on the pod which, one assumes, looks after it very well.
‘It shows these mammals are not really just ruthless killing machines but they also have complex, caring social-structures in which they and care for their own disabled members.’
Mr Schimpf had been tracking the pod of seven as they hunted a Bryde’s whale – measuring 50ft (15m) in length and weighing a massive 15 tonnes.
Killer whales are known to hunt and kill larger whale species – but sometimes only eat the tongue, research has shown.
The pod also included a female with a bent dorsal fin like the killer whale in Free Willy, a ‘huge male’ and four other females.
He said the younger whale followed at a distance and appeared to have fallen behind.
The younger killer whale stayed at a distance when the rest of the pod hunted at the surface and then in the depths.
‘It was brave and curious enough to come close to the boat and inspect us,’ said Mr Schimpf, a guide for Dive Expert Tour.
‘But after a while he disappeared as well, presumably to dive down to the whale-feast below.
‘Such a kill would easily support the entire orca pod and make sharing of the kill much easier than if they had taken a seal or a dolphin.’
The find is one of only a handful where injured or disabled killer whales have been known to survive with the help of its pod.
In 1996 researchers spotted a killer-whale calf that was missing its tail and part of its dorsal fin – believed to have been sliced off by a boat propeller.
The injured killer whale – known as stumpy – was not seen for many seasons afterwards and presumed dead until it popped up again seven years later.
It was last seen feeding with a pod off the coast of Queensland, Australia, in 2008.