Searching for Answers: Trying to Spot Orcas
To any of my friends and family back home, it is no secret that I am fascinated by orcas and their role in the wild as an apex predator along with their vastly diverse interpretations and opinions by humans. When I first arrived at Marine Dynamics Academy (MDA), I remember one of my first conversations with Marie-Laure, another intern, was regarding the new orca predation of great whites in South Africa. Recently, the topic regarding orca boat attacks off the coasts of Portugal and Spain have also come up as topics of scientific debate in many of my conversations. I have never come in contact with an orca but it is a hope of mine to see one in the wild. Although I love these animals so much, I have recently experienced debate and dilemma regarding their harm and role on the ecosystem especially among the South African great white population.
Throughout my first week, I asked many questions to all the biologists on site regarding the situation. I wanted to see if anything could be done to combat the effects. After talking with many of them, it just seemed there wasn’t enough data to come to a conclusion on the reasoning behind the attacks. It was very hard for me to believe that the orcas were attacking with no cause so the gap in knowledge just intrigued me further into wanting the answers.
Orcas (Orcinus orca) are the strongest and most powerful ocean mammals worldwide. Contrary to their commonly known name, killer whales, they are actually the largest existing member of the oceanic dolphin family. Although found in all oceans worldwide, they are most commonly spotted in colder waters near Alaska, Norway, and Antarctica. In fact, aside from humans, they are the world’s largest distributed animal. Usually, they live with generations of their related orcas in a social structure called a pod for the majority of their lives. Orcas are known to be extremely intelligent social animals learning and adapting to habits from other orcas in their pods. These mammals can reach weights of 6,000 kilograms and live anywhere from 50-80 years in the wild. Being apex predators, they are at the top of their food chain. There is evidence that their carnivorous diet has local specialization, varying from region to region, due to hunting techniques being passed down through each specific pod’s generations.
On July 11th, we had planned to go fishing and ORI shark tagging. About 1 hour into fishing, Ralph, the MDA manager and head of research for the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, received a call from Christine. Still on the phone, he signalled for us to pack up quickly but did not tell us why or where we were going. Once we arrived at the Kleinbaai harbour, he told us he didn’t want to get our hopes up but some fishermen saw some orcas off of Dyer Island. Quickly, 8 of us prepared Calypso, one of the Marine Dynamics vessels, and headed out to try to spot the orcas and collect any data we could on them.
Regardless of opinions regarding the orcas we all had a common goal: to collect data that will aid in the research and knowledge regarding them and potentially collecting information that would help combat negative effects on them and/or on the ecosystem. Although it was unlikely, even the slight chance of spotting the orcas excited me and gave me fulfillment. Unfortunately, we were unable to spot them as once the coordinates came through, it was too far away. Although disappointing, it is a reality in the scientific world and when working with nature and wildlife.
Nevertheless, we didn’t let the voyage to sea go to waste. We stopped by Dyer Island to collect a deceased penguin that we later conducted a necropsy on to help determine cause of death. This was extremely informative and important in the conservation of these endangered species, so I was honored that I got to be a part of the process from picking up the penguin to learning about its biology and cause of death.
Additionally, we went to Geyser Rock to observe the wild seals and see if any were harmed from washed up fishing nets. Whenever we saw something that could be harmful we informed Wilfred, the founder of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, who then took the steps to help the seals or remove that harmful waste such as washed up fishing nets.
July 11th, was a day that I think represents how uncertain and quickly changing this field can be. I loved being a part of the adventure and action taken in these conservation effects and I learned the true meaning of acting on what nature and scientific research needs in the moment.