My legs were hanging over the side of the boat, my fins skimming the water, as we ploughed through the heavy seas. My mask was on and both hands were holding my camera. I was ready…
Several hours earlier I had heard through a network of friends that orcas had been spotted in a particular area. I jumped straight into my car and drove through the night to the location. I boarded a boat hours before dawn and travelled two hours out into the deep blue to their last known coordinates in the hopes that they might still be in the area……
I had wanted to swim with orcas since I was a child. I have always been fascinated by their intelligence. They have one of the largest brain-to-body ratios in the animal kingdom. Because of this large brain they are extremely social and emotional. Orcas even have their own language, and it can be so sophisticated that it contains distinct dialects between families and pods. Using this language, a complex array of whistles, squeaks, and pulses, they can strategize when hunting, socialize and express emotions.
However, there is nowhere in the world you can reliably swim with wild orcas. To see them requires you to be at the right place, at the right time, in the right season. It also requires a lot of persistence and time in the water, and a little luck. I had relocated my life to Baja, Mexico because of its high density of year-round large marine animals, but specifically I hoped for the opportunity to get in the water with the orcas.
Camera Set and Ready for the Moment
I spotted the blow hole on the horizon a kilometre away, but it was another 20 minutes before I could see the dorsal fins breaking the surface. To my delight there was a pod of seven orcas. The boat slowed a hundred meters ahead of them. If they were not feeling friendly, they could simply turn and avoid me or if they were spooked then they could dive deep and it’s unlikely I would see them again that day. This interaction would have to be on their terms.
As the captain yelled “vamonos!” I stepped into the water, with only one thing going through my mind…
I ran my hand over the front of my camera lens in order to dislodge and microbubbles that stick to it when you enter the water. One last check of my camera and I was set. I didn’t have to wait long. I first saw dark shadows in the distance that quickly materialised into torpedo-like shapes. They grew and grew as the pod approached and their distinctive white patches became apparent. They didn’t stop growing until they passed just under me at what was a lazy pace from them but impressively quick to me. I was absolutely astounded by their size.
Orcas are the largest members of the oceanic dolphin family. They can grow to lengths of 8m (26ft) and can weigh in excess of 6 tones. A large male’s dorsal fin alone can reach 1.8m which is about my height. They are incredibly agile and fast despite their bulk and can reach speeds of 56km/h (35 mile/h). It is breathtaking to be in the water with such impressive animals.
Getting into the Mind of the Orca
I spent over 30 minutes with the pod of Orcas fulfilling a childhood dream I had been chasing for what seemed a lifetime. The Orcas were curious, changing their path in order to approach, swimming past me just a meter or two away. They would roll slightly so one eye could focus on me as they went by. They wanted to know what this strange creature was doing in their ocean. They were just as fascinated with me as I was with them. It was a humbling experience I will never forget.
I wanted more time in the water with them but the pod behaviour suddenly changed. Their casual and predictable path altered and the pod fractured. They began to dive deep for long periods. Something was amiss. Spending more time with them was now looking unlikely.
Following them was not an option as Orcas can dive deeper than 150m (~500ft) and hold their breath for over 15 minutes, so I clambered aboard the boat and waited patiently for the pod to regroup and surface. In the meantime I wracked my brain as to why their behaviour had changed so drastically.
The Pod Resurfaces…
Orcas have a complex social structure which is usually organized in matriarchal societies. Individuals form friendships within their pod and the young are more social than the elders. However, studying Orca behaviour is notoriously difficult as you often can’t see what they are doing beneath the waves. This is compounded by the fact that each pod has its own set of behaviours that can vary dramatically dependent on their geographical residency. I would have to be patient and hope to see what caused the change in their behaviour.
Sometime later I noticed the pod had resurfaced and were all congregated in a small area. We set off to investigate. We stopped short of the pod giving them plenty of space and I slipped quietly into the water in the hopes of glimpsing what the Orcas were up to. It was not long before I was greeted by a rather unique looking creature, its bulbous eyes, open mouth and unique shape immediately gave away its identity. The ocean sunfish was littered in puncture marks. It all made sense now!
Back from the Hunt
Orcas sit at the pinnacle of the food chain. Nothing hunts them. They feed on many different types of prey, including fish, seals, dolphins, sea birds, squid and even hunt animals much larger than themselves including Humpbacks and Minke whales. They are the only animal known to predate on great white sharks and they are known for their ruthless hunting efficiency, often casually toying with their prey before a kill. They are a true apex predator and today they decided that sunfish was on the menu.
The sunfish tried to take refuge between myself and the boat in a last-ditch effort to avoid becoming lunch. The Orcas all began circling but not once did I feel afraid. They had only shown curiosity towards me and nothing else. In fact, there are less than a handful of incidents in recorded history of wild Orcas acting “aggressive” towards humans. There was nothing for me to worry about… I hoped.
One Orca broke rank and slowly approached. It passed less than a meter from me, giving me only a brief look, before it carefully nudged the sunfish away from the boat. A second Orca moved in to help.
They pushed the ill-fated creature down into the deep…