Below is the daily whale blog from a day spent out with these “killers” on our Bremer Bay Killer Whale Expedition. Sections of information can be found intermittently throughout this blog post. They are here to elaborate on some of the orca behaviours and explain WHY they did what they did on this particular day.
Neo and Nani:
Neo is BACK! We began the day by cruising along with little neo and his big brother Nani who has really grown into his fin since seeing him last season and is now the bull of his pod. The other youngsters were having a social hour, darting around the “teens” that were just “too cool” to play.
We often observe the largest bull (adult male orca) spending a lot of time very close with the youngest member of the pod, the neonate. The neonates are identified as under 1 year old. The largest male will not be the father but a close relative of the neonate. This bond is very important while mum (the matriarch) is keeping a close check on the other pod members.
It wasn’t long until the juveniles started to surge. This instantly sparked our attention but we didn’t want to get our hopes up as every other recent surge had just been a part of their social behaviour. Such as practicing their navigation and speed skills so when the time comes they can be at the top of their game! It wasn’t long before the adults soon started to join in too! Slow surges developed into fierce porpoising. White water was erupting across the surface. A distinct black dorsal fin would slice through the wash at each surge. The pod was on a mission!
We started to notice other pods propelling toward us from every angle. Our focus was solely on Neo’s pod that we had completely forgotten about the other orca in the area!
With a clear direction point ahead of us the orca’s from all directions honed in on their target. We were now not only part of the pod but part of the HUNT as we found ourselves in the middle of this unfolding predation.
Imagine standing on the boat’s bow with over 20 other eager passengers and crew, orcas rising and taking off ahead of you, the vessel speeding at 20 knots, your eyes trying to keep up with the energetic darts and flashes of orcas popping up in an instant! If you took a second to blink you’d miss the milliseconds of action between moments of quiet! The charge lasted over 5 minutes, taking us up onto the continental shelf into less than 800 metres of water.
Barren Ocean or calm moments before chaos?
Then, it all stopped, every orca had descended below the surface. As they dropped, so did the energy. There was nothing breaking the surface, no more white wash, no more orca to be seen. If you’d arrived at this moment you’d think the canyon was a barren, vast body of water. The anticipation was rising, everyone was holding their breath, where would they pop up? WHAT and where would it arise?
Since we have been undertaking the killer whale whale watching expeditions here in the Bremer Canyon we have observed the orcas behaviour more attentively each year. Each season that we return to this orca population we learn more about them and their families and social structures. We also learn more about their diet and consequently the other species present here. This particular group has specific behavioural patterns. Such as the surge, dive and then on occasion a successful hunt. The orcas will hear an animal, chase it or hunt it down then as it dives to escape they will go down and catch it. Sometimes they kill the animal down deep, sometimes they will bring it to the surface and kill it here, for us to see. This doesn’t leave much to the imagination and answers the question “are killer whales really killers?”
Were the killer whales successful?
A small oil slick emerged behind us. As we pivoted around in a 180 degree turn the orcas started to rise back to the surface. One by one they resurfaced. The huge exhale on each orca teared through the silence and demonstrated the intent of the breath hold. The orcas exhales after their long, energetic dive were piercing as they gasped for air. The huge whoosh of the exhale and then wispy whistle of the inhale, we breathed in sync with them. All eyes were intently scanning for any sign of what they’d either injured or already “taken out of the gene pool” (as Captain Dundee would say).
A handful of the pelagic birds that were swirling above were now squabbling over a few small chunks of meat…. Apparent remains. This begged the question WHAT WERE THE REMAINS FROM?
One of the more recent matriarchs, Billie surfaced close enough to the vessel and down a wave that we all got a glimpse of a large chunk of meat in her mouth! As she edged closer it was revealed that she in fact had the entire beaked whales head clenched tightly in her jaw. It was as if she was showing it off like a trophy!!! Billie continued to hover with the head, lifting it enough that the beak would just break the surface for all to see!! The juveniles were taking turns ripping pieces of flesh from the decapitated head as Nani and a few other adults hung around as if they were in line at the drive through!
We often see this behaviour after a successful predation where the head of a beaked whale is carried by the Matriarch. We consider ourselves very lucky when the big boss orca brings us a part of the hunt to “show-off” as if it were a trophy.
Why so oily?
Every time the beaked whale remains broke the surface a small oil slick would form. It didn’t take long for the wind to waft the organic oily scent toward us for the whole boat to “enjoy”. Fresh meat anyone? The excitement of the kill stayed in the air, now with over 50 killer whales scattered as far as the eye could see. The orcas were all intermingled with no obvious pod groups. The cohesion between multiple family groups is incredible and this was witnessed here today. They can strategise and coordinate a successful hunt and together reap the rewards.
An oil slick appears each time the meat is brought to the surface because all marine animals are filled with oil. They cannot have gas spaces like us because the pressure would be too great and would cause a detrimental effect for their organs and other body functions. This means that once the animal is pulled apart, it will leach oils. The larger the animal the bigger the oil slick, whether its a fish, squid, GIANT squid or mammalian. This can continue in some instances where a large whale sinks to the seafloor for almost a year!
TIME TO EAT!
The pods started to merge back up into their own family groups. The matriarch was parading her feast around for almost TWO HOURS before finally indulging in the morning’s efforts and sharing the rest of the remains out to her family.
The matriarch will hold the meat at the surface and drop it down. It will swirl and topple through the water column before a sibling grabs it below. This process is done over and over again. As it falls, parts will come away making it much easier for the orcas to eat. They may need to tear some sections and this can be done by two or more orcas holding onto the piece of meat and letting their jaw strength outdo the strength of the meat’s sinew and muscle sections.
An orca’s teeth are very strong but unlike a shark whose teeth will replenish consistently the orca only gets ONE set of teeth for their entire life! They must be careful to not break or damage their teeth as an infection could result in injury or even death! This is why they tend to take a lot of care when eating their successful prey.
By the afternoon the swell had picked up and the kids were ready to play! As the calves were hull bound you could trace their outlines beneath the surface. At least 4 orcas under the age of 4 made our bow their playground for our remaining time in the canyon. What an end to an epic day!
Are killer Whales really killers?
We hope this helps answer your question about Orcas truly being Killer Whales. They are at the top of the food chain and this is because of their ability to coordinate, strategise and work coherently with other orcas. You must be a killer to be an APEX PREDATOR.
However great their killer-ability is, orcas in the wild have never reportedly injured or killed a human…! In some parts of the world you can go on a TOUR to SWIM with the orcas! These orcas are solely fish-hunters which begs the question: is it safe to swim with the Bremer Orca….? After witnessing them almost effortlessly take down a beaked whale – I would strongly suggest against it!