Our trip to the canyon today was nothing short of spectacular, definitely an epic way to spend a birthday as our guests Christine and Gayle did today. We also welcomed back the Dawes family for their third year. The sun promised to break through the clouds as we left thw harbour, and the seas were calm as the spectacular coastline receded in our wake. There was little bird activity to greet our arrival at the blue office today, making us wonder if it would take a while without our avian assistants to find the orca. Not today.
Ahead of us, a line of small clouds of mist hung in the breeze above the calm sea surface. Then, a series of small black points pierced the waves. As we watched, a shiny black dorsal in appeared below each one. In an instant, long held dreams came true. We held our breath and edged closer. Would they remain calmly at the surface, or would they dive as we approached? We were in luck. They surfaced again, and we spotted the impressive triangle of Mako, as well as several other well known animals. A large oil slick spread on the surface, shining in the sunlight, skimmed by around 30 dainty Wilson’s Storm Petrels. The breeze blew the clean, fishy smell of the slick towards us. The scent confirming the story of the storm petrels – this was a recent slick. The killer whales did not appear to be still feeding though. We enjoyed watching them reappear, and were thrilled by a close approach from magnificent Mako. Before long, the leisurely behaviour changed.
At so many points around us it was hard to know where to look, killer whales erupted from the surface in breathtaking fashion, launching graceful black and white bodies into the air which hung suspended for a second trailing sparkling streams of whitewater before reutrning to silhouetted against the blue sky before crasing back into the ocean. other orca slapped their tails repeatedly. It didn’t matter today whether you were on the back deck, bow or topside today, there was a breach in front of you. We could hear where the latest launch was taking place just by where the excited shouts were coming from.
Why do killer whales breach? The short answer is we don’t know, but we’re glad they do! The slightly longer version is that they do so for a variety of reasons. For whales like orca that live in pods, scientists theorise that breaching may be a social behaviour. In our area, breaching often occurs when many pod members or multiple pods are grouped together, and is accompanied by other social behaviours such as tail slapping, rolling and spy hopping as was the case today. We have also observed breaching and intense tail slapping activity during hunting, as both activities can assist in herding and intimidating prey, and also likely in communication and coordination of hunting activity.
Eventually the pod dived, and we were left staring at the expanse of empty southern ocean. We rode the small blue swells in the sunshine, some still stunned, some stoked by the incredible aerobatic display. We could see several pods at different points around us, and were deciding which to pay a visit when our friends resurfaced in formation, drawing awed gasps from us all. 18 different black and white dorsal fins from large males to that of Lucky, missing it’s top 2/3. Wild kiler whales, surfacing in regular rhythm to the sound of the gentle whoosh of their breath, unconcerned by our company as if we were just another, noisier, more clumsy member of their pod is an amazing privelage that will be remembered forever.
The pod moved a little further away, but remained in sight tracked by the now seasoned expeditioners calling out locations. One of the groups spotted was set to add something different to our day. A large area of intense splashing, topped by a cloud of small bushy blows could only mean one thing – Long-Finned Pilot Whales. The huge, beautiful flotilla approached, 200 strong, a spectacular sight as they stampeded through the southern ocean, surging in showers of whitewater.
They eventually dived below our vessel, and we returned our attention to the orca. The same pod again surged alongside, at greater speed this time. Incredibly, two young calves performed some spectacular breaches as they surged alongside our vessel, something we have never seen before. Just when we thought the excitement level couldn’t get any higher, the pod changed from travelling alongside us to as up close and personal as it was possible to be without joining us on deck. They skimmed below the surface and eyed us from below the water, or surged through the swells to see above the surface. For passengers and crew alike, this was an incredible day, but for us crew, it’s hard to say if we enjoyed the orca or the whooping excitement of our guests as they were treated to a close encounter of the orca kind more!
The Bremer Canyon Crew