Humpback Whale Mistakes Pelican for Lunch

A pelican had an unwelcome surprise when a humpback snapped it up.

A hungry pelican was happily feasting on anchovies when the water beneath began to move. Strong baleen jaws clamped down hard—a humpback whale snatched up the seabird.

"It was evident that the pelican was not happy," says Kate Cummings, the naturalist and co-owner of Blue Ocean Whale Watching who witnessed the event.

At this time of year, many animals gather off California's coast to feed on anchovies swimming away from whale feeding zones—but they do this at their own peril. Whales swim below schools of anchovies then break toward the surface to scoop up a bite. If other predators don't get out of the way fast enough, the whale gets a bigger mouthful than it bargained for.

Luckily, humpback whales don't eat large creatures, so they have no incentive to swallow. Sensitive organs in the mouths of whales like humpbacks may allow the whale to differentiate between desired prey and unwelcome visitors.

Cummings has seen incidents like this before. Once, a whale trapped a Pink Footed Shearwater and a cormorant in one gulp. "I also saw a sea lion jumping out of a whale's mouth," she says. Each time, the trapped creatures got away when the whale realized what it had grabbed.

In this case, the pelican escaped. Cummings thinks the whale must have sensed it was there because it didn't fully close its mouth. Before submerging, the whale opened back up and the pelican flew away, seemingly unharmed.