Today we saw things that very few people have, or likely will, ever see in their lifetimes. Today we saw nature in all of its glory, the harsh and the beautiful. Today we saw the Orcas of Bremer Bay Canyon hunt, and kill a juvenile Blue Whale. This blog may be disturbing to read, but the hope is these words will be respectful to the amazing animal taken down, and the mighty collection of apex predators which worked together for hours to do so.
We came across the Orcas early today, virtually as soon as we got to the hotspot they were around. They were social and active, close passes across the stern bow and stern. The wind was ENE 18 knots, the swell 2.2m and dropping. White caps on the waves and the occasional bigger wave coming through. Morning vibe – just fun! Social animals, beautiful light, warmth of the sun. At least 2 pods around us, playing and surfing the waves, as we moved with them and watched and pondered. It looked like a mixture of cruising/playing with a little bit of food searching going in the mix. Yet they were alert, and they were engaged. The birds knew too, something was brewing underneath and at the time we had no idea.
The action started slow, we were seeing a couple of surges around, but it didn’t seem uniform. Usually surging orcas are spread wide moving loosely in one direction when they hunt a beaked whale. But this was different, these surges were scattered. We hadn’t yet spotted the Blue. But as these intense pulses of Orca driven wave action picked up, and so did the Orcas pace. The time was 11.30am. The animals burst forward in a fury, then suddenly slowed. And that’s when we saw it, the call was made from above. Blair our videographer spotted it, so did Machi and our decky Ando on the roof. In the middle of the heightened buzz of Orcas, there was a long high blow that stayed in the air, definitely not an orcas. It was a Blue whale, estimated to be 16m long, with plenty of years left to live. It was venturing out across the canyon system solo. Larger than the largest orcas (big males can be approx. 9.5m long), its body was speckled silvery grey, its tail thick, we could see the animal clearly at the surface. And it was completely surrounded by Orca as it swam.
And so it began. This wasn’t a game to be rushed. This was strategic, thoughtful, collaborative, patient, persistent taking down of a gallant Blue whale. I’m taking a breath as I write and reflect on this. This scene was astounding, astonishing, a little bit disturbing and truly mind blowing. I really am still processing it, and can barely comprehend it happened. The kind of scenes David Attenborough’s voice over, or some dramatic classical music would fit. So the Blue whale wanted out, it wanted to swim away, and it tried hard. Over and over the Orcas nudged and jostled, pushed and pulled, and the animal kept swimming, near to the surface it stayed, occasionally diving but not deep, and each time it came up for a breath the orcas persisted. Tiring out the Blue was their goal. All around us more Orca kept coming in, at least 6 big males from different pods were involved. Each pod of 6 – 12 animals. The numbers continued to grow. This was an expression of collaboration that makes this apex predator the TOP of the food chain. The process was cyclical, multiple Orcas were on the animal, jostling with it and swimming fast, beside and under it, whilst others dropped off the chase to rest in our wake and cruise along and beside the hunt, easily 200m back. All of our old favourites were there… Split Tip was big time amongst it. She engaged and then dropped off repeatedly. Razor and Blade were there, Digby, Fue, Eric, Nibbles, Shredder, Lil Machi, too many to name. Baby Orcas, still yellow and red (too young to have blubber) were there, in close, learning. We motored on to keep up, following this procession which it increasingly seemed could only end one way.
The Orcas had a plan. We were watching hunting and communication. Tail slapping and breaching far and wide, there were so many, we hesitate to guess, but over 50 was the consensus, and up to 70 was a real possibility. They were literally everywhere, and they were working together. They were driving this whale from the depths of the S bends within the Bremer Canyon system at 1000m of water and gradually forcing it onto the shallower continental shelf. This was their strategy, and they all seemed to know it. They worked together to force the Blue on the shelf, where depths were 80m. The breaches and tail slaps above, and a chaos of clicks and sounds from below as the Orcas pushed the Blue forward. But the Blue was gallant, it wouldn’t give up, it went under, and for a moment we thought it was all over, yet again and again its tail would rise up, thick and silver in the dark ocean, surrounded by black and thundering fins. The Orcas attached to it, fastening themselves to its jaw, as the whale spun and turned the Orcas held on, they wanted its tongue, were waiting for the jaw to release, but it would not.
The hunt continued for hours, it was feverish and chaotic, we followed and watched. And finally, just before 3.00pm the Blue whale succumbed. A bubble of blood rose to the surface like a bursting red balloon. Black fins darting in all directions, whitewash stained red, as the whale was taken down, below the surface and beyond the land of the living. The Blue Whale was defeated, it was courageous and wilful, completely overwhelmed. It was an honour to see the end of this animal’s life. The tail of the Blue thrashed as it was dragged down. The awe of the moment did not cease, for the Orcas were sharing their prize, dividing up the carcass as it was shared with all involved in the depths below. We saw some blubber, only one hunk of flesh, and it was gone.
The birds swirled and squabbled, a hammerhead shark darted around amongst the orca, quickly getting a scare and gone in a flash. Long finned pilot whales came in, they wanted to get in on the prize, staying together a pod moved on the periphery.
In shock, awe and wonder we watched on. Some patrons in tears, some stunned silence, some excited and intrigued. Yet we all knew this was not about us, we were mere witnesses to one of the greatest natural phenomena imaginable. This was a glimpse into the life of the ocean’s apex predators. They flooded the space the Blue Whale had once been, moving, flowing, molten, bold, infiltrating the ocean in every direction.
Black fins, everywhere.