Humpback whale ‘swallows’ sea lion whole

Snack attack: In March, a diver was ‘swallowed’ and spat out by a Bryde’s Whale.

Is nature competitive or co-operative? A rare image of a sea lion flailing in the jaws of a humpback whale is not what it appears to be — challenging our ideas about survival of the fittest.

Chase Dekker could not believe his eyes as the 15-metre humpback surged out of the waves right in front of him, off the coast of California.

In its mouth, slipping helplessly towards the whale’s huge belly, was an entire sea lion, washed down with around 20,000 litres of water.

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

It looks like a classic ‘red in tooth and claw’ image, confirming our fears that nature is ultimately a ruthless battle for survival in which you kill or be killed.

But it is not what it seems. In fact, the whale did not close its mouth to trap the fish. It paused with its mouth open at the surface for 10 seconds — enough time for the engulfed sea lion to escape.

Humpbacks — despite their awe-inspiring size — are filter feeders that gulp down anchovies and plankton. When resting, their throats are only as wide as a human fist.

So, the sea lion was never in any danger. “I don’t think this would be any bother for it,” says marine biologist Robert Delong in National Geographic. “Hanging out in a whale’s mouth would be like hanging out in a swimming pool.”

Yet millions instantly assumed that the whale and the sea lion were in combat. This view of nature was popularised by Thomas Huxley. He believed that only the strongest, swiftest and most cunning creatures could survive.

Many political ideologies — notably, the supporters of capitalism — have used the competitiveness of nature to support their ideals.

However, Huxley’s view was challenged by Peter Kropotkin who thought that nature is normally co-operative. He thought the animals with the best chance of survival worked with others.

Whales, sea lions, dolphins, penguins and sharks often work together. Even insects can display altruism.

Who is right? Is life essentially competing for survival or do we naturally co-operate?

Unnatural selection?

Some say, if nature was essentially competitive, life would have burned out long ago. There are countless examples of animals working together: one meerkat standing guard to warn others of attack; wolves bringing meat back to those not present at the kill, dolphins saving drowning humans. We all survive better when we work together and support the weakest.

But others think that argument is simplistic. What about the anchovies invisible in the photo? Swap the whale in the photo for a great white shark and the sea lion has a bloody end. All life is essentially about survival and to survive, you have to compete.

You Decide

  1. Do you think animals can be selfless?
  2. Whose view of nature has a greater influence on international politics, Huxley’s or Kropotkin’s?


  1. In the Bible story, Jonah supposedly spent three days and nights in the belly of a whale. Imagine you are in there. Write a farewell note to your family, describing what it is like.
  2. Write less than one side of paper about a time when you helped yourself by being selfless.

Some People Say...

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 23rd American president

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Some reports say that the sea lion was eaten whole. But as the humpback whale has no teeth and a small throat, this is impossible. The photographer who took the photo told the BBC that he was “more than 100% confident” that the sea lion swam away just fine after it ended up in the whale’s mouth.
What do we not know?
If animals are ever truly altruistic. For example, a group of ravens feasting on a dead moose was observed making a call that attracted more ravens. But it turned out their selfless act had selfish benefits. The sharing ravens were juveniles that had found the moose carcass in a mature raven’s territory. By bringing other young ravens to the feast, they avoided being chased off by the dominant bird.

Word Watch

Red in tooth and claw
A reference to the violent natural world, when animals cover their teeth and claws with the blood of their prey as they eat them. Originally, a phrase in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam.
Filter feeders
Whales feed by lunging toward and engulfing food in a huge mouthful. They then push out the water and strain the fish through flexible, comb-like structures in their mouths called baleen.
Thomas Huxley
English biologist and anthropologist, who lived 1825-1925. He was known as Darwin’s Bulldog for his advocacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Peter Kropotkin
Russian biologist and activist, who lived 1842-1921. He advocated anarcho-communism.
Altruism in animals describes a range of behaviours performed by animals that may be to their own disadvantage, but which benefit others.


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