Written by: Dave Hurwitz of the Simon’s Town Boat Company
I’d been waiting for this call since we last interacted with these magnificent marine mammals in Cape Town’s False Bay in May 2013. We spend hundreds of hours at sea each year and, although we do not want to minimise the immense delight we gain whilst mingling with many migratory and resident whale and dolphin species, there is just something extraordinary about killer whales.
Despite spending most weekends as a child fishing offshore with my dad, and 18 years of my adult career operating marine tours professionally, I can only count my orca sightings on my fingers and toes. Their presence is a rarity in our bay and because they are exceptionally stealthy by design, they are very difficult to spot, even at close range. Thus, we rely on the vigilant and invaluable support of our land-based spotters, fishermen, yachtsmen and kayakers, in addition to our observation skills on the water.
The call came in at 14h15 and, within seconds, cameras in hand and blood pressure in sync with the rev counters on our engines, we rocketed out of the harbour to the position that they were last reported.
The killer whale pods that I have seen in the bay over the years appear specialist hunters of marine mammals. I first encountered them and documented their incredible hunting behaviour when witnessing a common dolphin kill at close range. Although I have observed cape fur seals also falling prey to the orcas, common dolphins appear to be their meal of choice. This is what we were anticipating – another epic dolphin hunt!
Arriving at the most recently reported position (1 nautical mile offshore Murdock Valley, Simon’s Town) we began our search, heading south with great haste. Fortunately, from past experience, I have a pretty good idea at what rate they travel. Our chosen course and speed proved accurate and we found them, exactly 25 minutes after the call.
On first sighting the pod, our preconceived expectations were blown clean out of the water (in a good way)! Instead of finding one of the four previous pods of 5 to 10 animals which we have come to know, we suddenly found ourselves amongst nearly 20 magnificent killer whales all belting along in formation and with purpose. I scanned their dorsal fins (each has a unique profile) to see if I could recognise any of them, but it was abundantly clear from the outset that this was a new pod and by far the largest that I’d ever seen!
The pod’s composition was also of immense interest to me. There were three massive males, identified by their tall, narrow, triangular dorsal fins of almost two metres in height. One of these fins was wavy and this male was immediately named “Crinkle Cut”. There were mature females, juvenile females and males with shorter falcate dorsal fins and two very special young calves. I estimate that the tiniest calf must only be only days old!
The pod showed very little interest in our boat which is unusual for killer whales. Orcas are in fact classified as dolphins and, like the common dolphin, we frequently witness their enjoyment of bow riding and surfing in our wake. This unusual behaviour prompted us to begin scratching our heads and questioning their motives for being in the bay.
After an hour of observation we noticed that they were spending considerably more time under water than on the surface. Whilst on the surface, we watched them periodically splitting into sub-groups. They did not appear to be cooperatively hunting as a group or targeting a specific prey as they do when stalking large school of dolphins. Whilst we had confirmed that there were no common dolphins about, we could see they were most certainly interested in something as they zig-zagged continuously within a range of six miles for around five hours.
There were plenty of seals about but the killer whales showed no interest in them whatsoever, even during the many occasions when they came face to face. Seals are easy prey to the killer whales as they do not recognise them as predators. On the previous occasions that we have witnessed them falling prey, they made no effort to take evasive action or offer any defensive resistance as they do with great white sharks. A visible blood slick would have appeared on the surface if this was what the killer whales were feeding on and thus we can conclude they were definitely not hunting seals.
Their focus of attention remains a great mystery to me and I am particularly looking forward to comment from the scientific community as to whether this pod may be a different form that feeds on fish rather than marine mammals. What we do know is that there were plenty of fishing boats in the area and catches of yellow tail, geelbek (Cape salmon) and squid was excellent at the time. We did notice numerous bouts of tail slapping which is consistent with a technique developed in some populations to stun their prey. However, whilst reviewing my photos of this behaviour, I cannot see any fish or squid in the splashes.
We also observed a fair amount of social interaction amongst the pod on the surface and perhaps this was continuing under water as part of a training session in cooperative hunting techniques for the juveniles.
The bottom line is that we just don’t know and that will remain my fascination with these mystical animals and spur my passion, persistence and perseverance to see and learn more. Its called “Orcalitis”!
If I have to single out the most captivating memory of this sighting it will undoubtedly be the pod dynamics towards the two calves. Witnessing how the entire pod shared the responsibility of looking after the youngsters really blew me away.
The strong bond that exists within killer whale pods is well documented and extends from their lifelong matrilineal family structure to their refined cooperative hunting strategies. The passing of small morsels of food to each other after a successful kill serves to strengthen this bond. Females even assist each other as midwives during birth and the males play an active role in alloparenting the young.
The pod clearly relished in the company of the little ones as they moved amongst its members, often swimming alongside and at times even leading the pack. However, it was evident that boundaries did exist. If one wandered too far away, they would immediately be reined in by one of the adults.
Their exuberance was hilarious to watch and they were real “show-offs” as they proudly demonstrated newly acquired skills of spy-hopping, lobtailing and flipper slapping to the family. These youngsters will be taught all they need to survive by their family and the next stage of their development will be learning and refining their hunting prowess as they mature into the greatest apex predator known to the world’s oceans.
I am thankful for the privilege of spending time with them, swimming free in the environment where they belong.