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Orca Sighting

written by Monique Fallows

A pod of Orca's in False Bay, Cape Town.

Posted on Thursday, 18 April 2013

Since our extremely exciting time spent with a pod of four orcas in May 2012 we have been impatiently waiting for April 2013. This time of the year False Bay is normally full with baitfish which stimulates a very diverse eco system. First the African penguins and the cape gannets will start to feed on the baitfish and pretty soon the common dolphins will begin arriving to also patrol False Bay for the energy rich sardines.

 

Since 2009 we have observed Orcas in False Bay on very rare occasions. These orcas seem to be dolphin specialists and as such we have observed them hunting dolphins on most of the occasions we have been fortunate enough to find them. The time period seems to be around April and May each year so we have spent the past ten months patiently waiting for hopefully another chance… Even since early April we have been on the lookout for the black and white hunters, making doubly sure to carefully check the area around large schools of dolphin, and also to carefully watch the behaviour of the dolphins. We have found that the dolphins behave in a particular way if the orcas are around, they can definitely come across as being nervous and the whole school will also constantly put in big burst of speed. Of late the dolphin numbers were growing and finally on Monday last week we had a school of 2500 dolphins. A patch of bad weather arrived in False Bay and it was not until Thursday that we were back on the water.

 

As often happens after bad weather the great white shark activity at Seal Island was on the quiet side on this morning. After a couple of brief sightings the shark trip came to an end and it was time to head back to Simonstown. Not long after White Pointer was on her way we got a call over the radio to saw that Orcas had been spotted close to Roman Rock lighthouse… The orcas were with the large school of dolphins!

 

As with what normally happens in these situations, mass panic very quickly took over the boat and crew. As we are at sea all the time we are much more aware than our guests of how rare and special orca sightings are so we were all just beside ourselves. We raced over to the area as fast as we could.

 

The orcas were easily keeping speed with the dolphins and it was very evident that they were on the hunt. It seemed as if there were orcas everywhere, but on closer inspection we were confident there were between 9 and 12 orcas in this pod. It was difficult to count as they would constantly porpoise above and below. We had to be very quick with our counting!

 

The dolphins were also reacting in an extreme manner whilst under threat. Their speed picked up to a massive 15 knots, with the orcas easily keeping pace. After a half an hour chase a successful breach strike on a dolphin ended in success, and the hunt was over for the time being. The orcas then spent a short time food sharing amongst the pod and over this time the dolphins fled the area and pretty soon were nowhere to be seen. Often this time period after hunting is a great time to spend with the orcas; they are usually pretty relaxed and it’s a great opportunity to have a close encounter with them. Whilst making sure to respect their space we took the boat on the flanks of the pod and sometimes just ahead of them too. For the next three hours we had amazing interactions as the orcas sometimes chose to come close to the boat.

 

There were two adult males, a number of adult females and at least three juveniles. The younger male in particular was comfortable with the boat. He would often burst up alongside not even a meter away from us. Even though I was expecting him I still could not help the involuntary scream of excitement each time this huge predator would rise alongside us, each time with a large exhale that would give me even more of a fright! Some of the adult females did the same thing and at one time we had three orcas riding along side. One was even completely inverted on her back and was swimming just under the boat belly up! It was a phenomenal experience. 

 

Not long after White Pointer was on her way we got a call over the radio to saw that Orcas had been spotted close to Roman Rock lighthouse…

After this extended period of being with them they began to disappear under water for longer and longer periods, and slowly began moving away from us. We took this a sign that they had had their fun with us and that we now needed to respectfully leave them. There were no dolphins in sight as they headed off Cape Hangklip and out of False Bay.

 

Chris obviously took a huge amount of images. At the time he was also thinking about a taking ID shots. The best for this are the dorsal fins, the unique saddle patterns just under the dorsal fin and also the eye patches. We have recorded five different orca pods in False Bay since 2009 so we were very keen to get home and study the images. It is not easy at all, and I have to say that Chris was far better at it than me! After a few hours we became certain that this was the same pod seen in June 2010 and now the second sighting of this pod.

 

The friendly male has grown a lot since 2010, not only in size but his dorsal is much much taller now. In fact it has a great wobble each time it comes out of the water, periscope style! We also firmly identified the second male as being the adult male from 2010. Two more adult females were also identified including a mother and juvenile. The juvenile is very interesting. From 2010 Chris has images of a small calf riding alongside its mother in full pursuit of the schools of dolphins. It is really small but you can definitely see how excited and pumped up it is being involved in the hunt and the chase.  Now, after the latest sighting Chris has very similar images of a juvenile actively gunning down the school of dolphins, again next to its mom. The determination and body action is exactly the same and after matching up the dorsal fins and saddle patterns it is the same mother and calf. Amazing that they are still behaving in the same way! Personalities and characters in animals are so interesting and this is again another great example of how strong their characters can be. This little orca seems destined to become a great dolphin hunter one day...

 

 

Even though we have been on the lookout for the orcas for some weeks know it was still such a great surprise to come across them. We are certainly hoping that this will not be the last orca sighting and that a few more are just around the corner.

Tags:

Orcas, Marine Life, Seal Island - False Bay

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