The Poonado Incident: A Mysterious Encounter in the Depths of Bremer Bay

In the vast, unpredictable waters of Bremer Bay, Western Australia, spectators aboard a whale-watching vessel witnessed an extraordinary event that could alter our understanding of interspecies interactions in the marine world. The unexpected encounter between a pod of sperm whales and a group of orcas has sparked intense discussion among marine biologists and enthusiasts alike, suggesting a rare defensive strategy that might be termed “defensive defecation.”

A Day of Discovery

What began as a typical whale-watching excursion quickly evolved into a pivotal observation session.

Jennah Tucker, a marine biologist with Naturaliste Charters, detailed the scene:

“The orcas were embarking on long, deep dives, which usually indicates foraging behavior. We were expecting a beaked whale to surface since that’s what this population of orcas typically preys on.”

Instead, the observers were taken aback when not one, but several sperm whales surfaced, appearing visibly fatigued and encircled by orcas.

Sperm whales release mysterious large, dark cloud to deter orcas | Naturaliste Charters, Mark Jackman

The Encounter

Sperm whales, known as the ocean’s largest toothed predators, found themselves in what Tucker described as an “intense pursuit.” This interaction is notable not just for the drama and size of the creatures involved but for the strategic responses observed.

As the orcas tightened their circle, the sperm whales arranged themselves into a defensive rosette formation, with juveniles in the center—a tactic observed in other cetaceans when protecting vulnerable pod members.

The Poonado Incident

The turning point in this aquatic standoff came when a large, dark cloud emerged among the sperm whales. “We initially thought it was blood, which is usually a sign of a successful predation,” Tucker explained. However, it soon became clear that this was no blood cloud but a massive expulsion of feces.

This cloud of fecal matter, whimsically termed a “poonado,” led to an immediate and unexpected reaction from the orcas. “The orcas just took off into a surge,” Tucker recalls, noting that the predators moved away swiftly, maintaining a distance thereafter. The sudden retreat sparked speculation: was this fecal cloud an intentional defense mechanism?

Orcas attack a pod of Sperm Whales
Jodie Lowe

The concept of defensive defecation, while observed in various animals as a stress response, is relatively unexplored in marine contexts. Tucker remarked on the ambiguity of the situation, “Defecation in sperm whales has previously been observed in association with behaviors that indicate distress. However, whether this is a stress response or an offensive technique to deter predators isn’t well understood.”

Experts are cautious about jumping to conclusions. The retreat of the orcas could be coincidental or influenced by other unseen factors. Yet, the timing and effectiveness of the response suggest a possible evolutionary adaptation worth further study. Marine biologist Dr. Samuel Gruber notes, “In the animal kingdom, survival often inspires innovative defense strategies.

While not glamorous, the effective use of such a biological response could indicate a new layer of interspecies communication and defense we’ve yet to fully understand.”

One orca was spotted with something yellow in its mouth. Flesh from whales or other marine mammals is usually a dark red, like beef, with white tissue. The researchers were confused. | Jodie LoweThis incident not only enriches our view of sperm whale behavior but also challenges existing notions about predator-prey dynamics in the deep sea. It raises significant questions about the capabilities and strategies of marine mammals, highlighting the complexity and adaptability of these creatures.

The implications for conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems are profound. “Each observation like this gives us a new perspective on the natural world, encouraging deeper investigation and greater appreciation for these magnificent creatures,” says Tucker.

Source: Discover Wildlife