Posted on Tuesday, 3 April 2012
In terms of spectacular wildlife events I am sure for many of you a number of instances instantly come to mind. In my case Orcas stranding themselves in order to hunt sea lion pups is right up there, even though I did not know much about it. During the middle of 2011 friends of ours booked an expedition in the hopes of seeing and photographing this unique behaviour. When David told us about it we immediately had our interest pricked and a few weeks later we were also booked! I must confess that I knew very little about this wildlife event, where it was (other than Argentina) and the circumstances that bring about this hunting technique. I had heard about Mel. He is probably one of the most famous Orcas in the world as he is the only adult male that hunts in this fashion. When you see this footage, it is normally Mel in spectacular action. Chris and I were under the impression that he was the only Orca in this area that hunted and as he is said to be 50 years old we wanted to be able to do this trip before the end of his life. Upon booking the expedition we were told that we would have access to two beaches over the first week, as well as permits for the famous “attack channel”, and then just the attack channel over the second week. This didn’t really mean much so it was great to learn a lot more once we arrived.
The following explanation will explain how incredibly rare this situation is and I hope this will help you appreciate one of the world’s most incredible wildlife events and the animals that participate.
Punte Norte is the most northern point of a small peninsula (Peninsula Valdes) off Patagonia. At Punte Norte there is about a 1.5km to 2km stretch of beach on either side of the north point. These two stretches of beach are made of small pebbles, not sand. This is the catalyst that enables the orcas to strand themselves in pursuit of Sea lions and then more importantly use the pebbles to gain purchase to move back into the water (like a marble effect). South American Sea lions are found here in small colonies scattered along this section of pebbly beach. The pups are born in January and by late February / March they are capable, and curious enough, of travelling down the beach to socialise with the other colonies.
When they travel by swimming and of course when they play in the beach break, they become a target for a hunting orca. The Orcas are somehow aware of this exact time period and time their arrival normally in early March. There are eighteen Orcas that are known to the researchers and guides and of these eighteen only nine individuals engage in the “stranding” hunting technique. This stranding behaviour has only been observed elsewhere at The Crozet Islands (in The South Atlantic) so this makes Punte Norte an extremely special place to spend time if you are interested in natural wildlife behaviour. Interesting for me was how this small area correlates with Seal Island in terms of a number of crucial factors coming together to produce a perfect hunting ground for an apex predator.
Of course, nature always likes to throw in a curve ball... We were booked over what is normally the peak period for activity but for the first eight days we had not so much as seen an Orca fin! By 22 March we had broken the record of the latest arrival of the orcas. I can tell you, that’s not a great record to be part of! But we completely understood and know how nature works, we just so badly wanted to see them.
Unfortunately this first week when we did not see orcas was when we had access to the private beach. This side had the most potential for great photographs due to the angles one can get. On the attack channel it is a little more one dimensional. Aside from the animals it is often the people who really make a trip. The owner of the private beach (who is also the naturalist / researcher) and his colleague are extremely passionate about the orcas and even though we did not see orcas with them, we learnt a great deal about them. We were also so fired up from hearing all their orca stories as we waited for twelve hours each day! Not only are Juan and Pablo passionate about the wildlife they are also extremely sensitive whilst working with the animals. They take every effort not to disturb any outcomes and Juan’s research is purely non invasive. He has relied on huge amounts of time each day spanning over many years to collect his data. It was a privilege to spend time with people that truly care for the well being of the animals they work with and we believe this attitude has gone a long way in preserving this special behaviour.
I am particularly interested in animal personalities so it was also great to hear about the different orcas that these guys have spent so much time with and know so well. I also need to mention that the rangers and guides on the government side of the beach (the attack channel) had the same working ethos and it was a huge pleasure to spend time with Hector as well.
OK, now to the good part. We arrived three hours before high tide on 23 March in order to make use of our permit for the attack channel, but not expecting orcas. As already mentioned this is the government side of the beach and 60% of all orca attacks take place in this narrow channel. A couple of reasons are that a near perfect channel exists between two reef systems and there is normally a high volume of “pup traffic” crossing between two sea lion colonies.
I could hardly believe it when Hector told us the orcas had been sighted! We immediately got into position on the beach at the attack channel. The rule is, once you are there, you don’t move. With very little waiting the group of six orcas arrived and went directly into the channel. Juan had told us that the first day of hunting is normally the best of the season. The pups as yet know nothing about the danger of orcas so provide a much easier target. Within minutes we had seen our first attack. It was incredible, like watching a huge submarine approach the beach behind a wave then ploughing through the wave to catch a sea lion. The first thing that struck me was how calculating the event was. We are of course used to full blooded breaching attacks by Great White sharks which is a very intense and powerful event. The Great White hunts on instinct and it became pretty evident to us that the orca is an altogether different beast in terms of intelligence. They are completely calculating and strategic, and extremely efficient. Within an hour there had been eight attacks.
The orcas left for about a two hour period where they hunted further along the beach and around in Juan’s area so everyone got to see some great activity. Its tough to listen to the radio and hear what you are missing but we were lucky in that the orcas returned before the high tide finished and we had another intense hour of stranding and hunting. I could not believe what I was seeing, just multiple attempts by the same three orcas and the pups kept staying in the water. Even though not all were successful the pups just had no idea and it was truly a whitewash. By the end of the day close to sixty attacks were recorded on both beaches (twenty in the attack channel), which I believe is a record day (that one felt a bit better).
The following morning the same group was back and although we only had one attack in the channel, it was a good one where the orca came fairly high on the beach. The hunting activity was extremely good around the corner with Juan and ironically the best events took place at the public viewing deck. Actually it was great for a lot of people to have this opportunity. On the third day the orcas were around but did not hunt. I felt my stomach drop as we watched their huge fins swim out of sight at the end of the day.
We did not see them again for four days and before we headed down to Punta Norte for our last day I really did not think we would see them again. We were really happy with what we had seen and we had both made the most of everything we saw but when you see something so incredible you can’t help but want to see more of it. But, we were in for one final surprise. As we arrived we heard that the same group plus another two orcas had been hunting at low tide on Juan’s beach, and they were now headed towards the attack channel.
When the orcas entered the channel there were absolutely no pups in the water. Multiple times over an hour period they would approach the beach. They use echo location to find the pups so each time they would check, check, check, but nothing was available. After the hour I felt for sure they would give up and move further down the beach. I couldn’t believe it when they kept staying in the channel. Eventually the first pup of the day made a mistake and one of the orcas picked up on it. She stealthily approached and had a successful kill on her first attempt. Three other orcas followed close behind, ready to step in if she missed. And so it continued for another 3.5 hours with fifteen attacks.
In that 4.5 hours I did not take my eyes off the channel and the drama that was being played out. Having this last opportunity really allowed me to start understanding what was taking place. When you see something for the first time it is quite difficult to pick up details as you are overwhelmed. I mentioned before how much more of a thought process and strategy takes place, this is a seriously intelligent animal. It felt like almost every time a pup ventured into the water an orca would be aware and attempt a hunt. It seems they definitely use a wave to approach and it is fascinating to see the orca through the wave as it lines up the seal pup. Sometimes between two and four orcas come in together. If the first one misses the others are ready if a group of pups has scattered in the confusion which aides their success. They food share, so even the orcas that do not strand still share in the meal. I am pretty sure that they have other talents that make up for this.
The most memorable moment was watching Antu (female orca) track parallel to a group of four pups that were walking across the beach. They were not in the water but Antu, who was swimming in knee high water, tracked along with them for 100m. She was clearly watching the pups the whole time and would have been ready to attack if they so much as touched the water. Another time one of the orcas approached the beach swimming sideways so that her huge dorsal fin would not give up her approach. It was this sort out thinking and cunning strategy that absolutely fascinated me and as I said before distinguishes an orca from a Great White shark.
Another huge difference is that the orcas “play” with their food. It is easy to attribute a human emotion to this and it appears cruel. But it is not clear that this is the intention or if it is to help teach the juveniles. We had a very sobering observation on the first attack day. A young pup had its back broken as the orcas flipped it around. The pup made it back to the beach but of course there was no hope. It lay on the beach in front of us for two days slowly dying. Nature is tough and this was not something that I enjoyed seeing. The rangers have strict policy of not interfering, although in this instance a mercy killing might not have been a bad thing. Again, just like with the Great White shark predatory events, we need to have respect for both hunter and prey, its all too easy to get caught up in wanting to see something spectacular when in fact we are privileged to be watching life unfolding in its rawest form. We also have to realise how brave an orca must be to strand itself and to have the confidence to get out of a very risky situation.
From a photography perspective, it is very difficult to get a great shot. It is easy to photograph an event as the approach of the orca is easy to anticipate but you need to have a lot of luck to get the “perfect high beach stranding with sea lion pup in mouth” shot. In the attack channel you are mainly shooting into the light and for photo’s that is always a challenge. I definitely don’t think we returned with bad shots but we just did not have the best opportunities in great light. Also very often there is a lot of spray as the orca strands, which obstructs what is happening. But, Chris loves a challenge and I hope that we will have another opportunity sometime.
From a wildlife watching point of view our trip was absolutely spectacular and I feel extremely priviledged to see what we did. I hope some of you will have the same chances sometime in the future and perhaps we might even take a small group down there ourselves to enjoy this remarkable event.