It’s who you know.. You can find out a lot about a killer whale if you know what to look for. Some of the most useful information we are able to collect on our expeditions is our photographic identification (photo ID) shots. Each orca can be identified as an individual, just like people. In some cases the differences are very obvious, in others they are very subtle. The dorsal fin, the grey saddle marking behind it, and the white eyepatch are as unique to an individual as our face or fingerprint. These are used to create a “mugshot” for individuals – Interpol for orca! Once scientists have a whale on file, they can keep track of where it hangs out and who it spends time with. That’s how the amazingly complex culture of killer whales was first discovered in populations in the Northern Hemisphere.
By capturing this information here at the Bremer Canyon, we are able to contribute to understanding and conservation of the Bremer Canyon killer whale population. Knowing who is who adds to understanding of group and family structure, movement patterns, site fidelity (whether individuals return each year and which areas are preferred or used most), and population size, esential information to ensure good decision making for long term protection and conservation. Who you know featured strongly in today’s expedition.
The sun broke through the low grey cloud as we arrived at the canyon, the ocean transformed from slaty grey to sparkling sapphire in an instant. There were very few seabirds skimming the small swells today, and the few small slicks of oil we encountered throughout the morning were very dispersed, indicating that any feeding activity had occurred long before our arrival.
The killer whales were here though. We spotted blows rising and falling on the calm surface, small clouds of mist glistening in the sunlight and vanishing on the wind. Then, a series of black serrations spiked the waves in unison.
A tall, shiny black triangle jutting toward the blue sky gave away the identity of the pod. The distinctive notch in the trailing edge of his dorsal fin identified this male as El Notcho. The female Cookie was also easy to identify, several of our expeditioners recognising the half-moon feature in her dorsal fin immediately from our presentation before departure.
Killer Whales may do amazing things or nothing at all. They may endlessly repeat the same action or disappear under the surface for lomg minutes at a time. They may travel at high speed, socialize at the surface or make gravity- defying leaps. Sometimes they ignore us, other times they investigate our vessel at close quarters, playing gracefully or rolling sideways for a glance at our human forms, as if they too are studying us. Today, we will encountered both ends of the spectrum.
Today El Nortcho and family were aloof, keeping their distance, surfacing suppeptitiously, often at the opposite side of the compass to keep us on our toes. We kept our distance, engines barely idling, as our guests enjoyed the magnificent sight of the family traversing their southern ocean home. They were however, clearly not interested in our company, so we moved on.
Before long, our respect of the previous pods’ personal space was rewarded. We sighted familiar fins including the beautifully marked Swirl, travelling with one of the larger males we see at the canyon, his triangular dorsal fin dwarfing that of his companion. He has not yet been cataloged, however we have nicknamed him Not-So-Notcho, for the larger but similar fin shape and nick in the trailing edge of that spectacular black triangle. The two animals were travelling the pod on and off, but we were were fascinate to watch their behaviour over the next couple of hours. They remained in the vicinity of our vessel, and were mostly on their own. There is not enough known about this population to understand family structure and interactions, but there is a strong possibility that these two were on their own as part of courtship or mating behaviour. Of course their are other explanations, as for example adult males remain with their mother and close relatives as part of their matriarchal social organisation. Today Swirl was a standout not just for her markings, but for her repeated approaches to our vessel throughout the afternoon.
No matter how many times it happens, it never ceases to surprise and delight when a wild killer whale, free (thankfully) to do as they please chooses to come and investigate our vessel. Too many times to count, Swirl, followed by her male companion, made a beeline directly for our vessel, turning as she did so to eye those on deck with unhurried curiosity, turning again and again to repeat her close inspection of the audience lining the deck and the camera. Exhaling right under our feet. Until today, we did not know whether is male or female, but our footage confirms her gender beyond doubt. and came tantalisingly close to finding out today, as it inverted to swim under our vessel. That is part of the fascination of our work, you never know when another important piece of the puzzle is going to fall into place, and seeing and learning something new is an everyday occurrence.
As we enjoyed our leisurely traverse of the southern ocean, we stopped to observe a lone fur seal resting in the calm seas. Fur seals are quite a common encounter, however this one was different. A substantial open wound leaked a thin trail of scarlet, contrasting starkly with the calm indigo ocean. We were not able to get a good photo of the wound as he rolled over as we approached and rested on his back to return our gaze. We could only speculate as to the cause of the injury and silently wish him well as we continued to investigate blows ahead.
As the sun sank towards the distant coastline, our thoughts of returning to home vanished. Someting different was about to happen. Swirl and the male rejoined their pos, and the travel of the group became more purposeful. The splashing and tight dives ahead, followed by a spreading silver stain of an oil slick told the story we could not see. Unconcerned by our observation of their dinner table, the pod fed on their unseen prey. To our delight, we were able to tick off another bucket list sighting for repeat expeditioner Darren as a 2.5m dusky whaler shark surfaced right along our starboard side. Billy again worked his magic and captured the moment. Your proof of your sighting is on it’s way Darren, thanks so much for joining us again.
The Bremer Canyon Crew