Bremer Canyon really is a place to see to be believed. When people book on to come killer whale watching with us, they are often super excited to get to see orcas in the wild. This in itself is an absolute blast. Then, there are those days that the ocean and all her inhabitants have something extra special in store, making this place next level. Relaxing – not so much, but epic – oh you betcha! There are days out there when we literally get to see a wild orca show!
February 27, 2020, The day in Bremer Canyon Killer Whale Watching that had it all….
“Double the Ceteacea species, triple the kills, quadruple the orca pods and unlimited smiles today!” was how our ever knowledgeable and enthusiastic Marine Biologist Pia Markovich described the orca show.
So this is how the epic day rolled out… Be warned, this one is a little gory, but as we know out in the Bremer Canyon, this is life.
After a lumpy journey out, we crossed the continental shelf and into the canyon system. Here water depths are 80-100m across the shelf, then vary between one and four kilometers once we get into the canyon system. The bathymetry below us is a complex ancient river system of canyons and abrupt changes in depth. This amazing seascape below is one of the main reasons we see such a profusion of life at the surface. As we moved above the deep sea canyons in dark and wind chopped waters, the surface was littered with the white caps tumbling from the tops of waves – typical of a ‘windy’ day.
But on approach we realised these were no ordinary white caps, they were surging Orca!! Surging orca move with purpose and with pace. They lunge forward, punching out of the waves and getting high up out of the swell to take a breath, and in doing so displace a spray of water which arches either side of their powerful silhouette. These orca were surging and moving fast from port to starboard side! When the crew see surges we get so pumped!!! To us, this is code for ‘the orcas are hunting, they are moving fast and they are working together to chase something in the depths below’. Before our passengers even had time to get their orca spotting eyes in and comprehend what was happening, a large commotion occurred only a few hundred metres from our bow! We had literally arrived at this special and auspicious location we call the hotspot, and in front of our eyes were killer whales finishing a hunt that may have been going on for hours before! We saw a streaking firework of blood and white wash mixed together, concentrated with the black figures of the scavenging seabirds flesh footed shearwaters, the monstrous wandering albatross accosting the kill from above and huge orca bull dorsal fins exploding upwards thundering towards the water’s surface. We had literally motored directly into a kill. As we were pulling up, so were another pod of orca who must have been attracted to the frenzy and come in as back up.
Bremer Canyon really is a place It wasn’t long until one of our great Matriarchs, an adult female orca named Three Stripes was parading around our boat with their hunt. A big hunk of meat is often shown off like a trophy after a kill, and in this case – it was a Beaked whale HEAD!!!!!! We have observed this behaviour before, where after the hunted animal is killed, it is divided up amongst the pod in an act of cooperation seen in this matriarchal society. It was great to confirm exactly what the Orca had eaten! Beaked whales are shy, living at depth and rarely seen on the surface. There are numerous different species which utilise the deep sea canyon system, for foraging and for protection. Found circumglobal, beaked whales are quite hard to study, because they are just so darn hard to see! Unfortunately, for the beakies, when we do see them whilst out killer whale watching – they are often closely trailed by hunting orca like today.
Throughout the day three more large oil slicks bubbled to the surface with no big surge or kill at the surface, and we were intrigued! An oil slick is often an indication of a predation event, with the blubber of beaked whales or oily fin fish coming to the surface, visible to the eye and strong to smell. These days, when the weather is rough, seem to be the conditions orcas do a lot of cooperative hunting. As yet, science is still catching up the exact mode behind this, but we have our theories. On rough days there is lots of mixing at the surface layers of the water column. These days are likely to drive heightened activity from lower trophic groups such as fish, feeding on plankton as its mixed and suspended in the photic zone where light penetrates, and we think this might just feed all the way up to our mighty ocean predators, the killer whales.
Pilot whales are another toothed whale species which predate on fish and cephalopods like squid in the bremer canyon. On this stirred up day these also powerful predators, which call angry sausages, were out in force. There were multiple pods of twenty or so whales and appeared to be following the apex predators around! It is common to see long-finned pilot whales in large pods of tens or hundreds of animals at the Bremer Canyon. These pods form very tight family groups, which like the orcas are matriarchal and maternally orientated. Unfortunately, the very close relationship between long-finned pilot whales means that this species is known to beach themselves in high numbers across southern Australia with the dynamic linked to their close family bonds. We love to see active and happy pilot whales, as they are extremely charismatic and engaging!!
After lunch the wild orca put on a show and we had front row seats to it! Two sub- adults mugged our boat for over an hour while the rest of their pod cruised up ahead. These two cheeky Orca tumbled, spy-hopped, rolled on top of each other and sat metres from the bow with their mouth completely agape showing off their conical shaped teeth. Dundee, our skipper who has been in the canyon every season since the beginning has never seen anything like today where he could see straight down the Killer Whales throat!! Tears of joy were flowing as the excitable crew and passengers soaked up the best part of the day!
Two pods then joined together to have a snooze but little one year old Neo was clearly not sleepy as he darted around the other whales begging for attention! Sleeping orca are quite a sight to see, especially once you understand what they are doing. They engage in something called unihemispheric sleeping, where half of their brain rests, whilst the other half stays alert, and in the meantime the opposite eye to the sleeping side of the brain is closed!! They do this because they need to continue breathing at the surface when sleeping. So we saw them all sync their breathing up and cruise along in a sleep formation. Very impressive indeed. This rounded out the day’s expedition and as we ventured home we could not wipe the smiles off our faces!! As patrons napped and dreamed about the day that was, as we cruised on back to the Marina in Bremer Bay to the relative quiet and calm of the shore.
Today we got to see some of the best the Bremer Canyon has to offer, a truly wild orca show!
Images by our onboard photographers Jodie and Nathan and featured image by our passenger Patrick Leung!
For more information about our tours and to get a chance to be part of a Wild Orca Show, book now or contact us for more information on 08 9750 5500.