Cetaceans – whales and dolphins – are amongst the most intelligent creatures on Earth, and at the top of the pile are Orca, otherwise known as ‘Killer Whales’. Orca are so intelligent that they appear to recognise themselves, as self-aware individuals, in a mirror. Very few creatures in the animal kingdom can boast as much, and I’m sure there are even those amongst us humans who might fail on that front after a particularly heavy Saturday night out!
Being so intelligent Orca are also extremely adaptable and are found in every ocean of the world. Despite this almost global range however, Orca are divided into several distinct sub-species both in the northern and southern hemispheres. Harking back to intelligence, an interesting aspect of these sub-species, which rarely interact and appear never to interbreed, is that they are separated not by their environment or by particular ecological niches (as is the case with most divergent species in nature) but by their behaviour alone. This suggests, especially in Antarctic waters where four subspecies share the same circum-polar ocean, that these sub-types have physically evolved in different directions not through environmental forcing, but simply through choice! Different whales thought in different ways; behaved in diferent ways; had different menu choices at dinner time….. It was cultural nuances and ‘artistic differences’ that drove their separation and eventual physical divergence. Orca sub-species even speak different languages, and groups within those species have their own unique dialects. Cerebral scans conducted on Orca even show that the part of their brain responsible for emotions is considerably more complex than our own. So, my point? My point is that when you witness Orca behaviour in the wild, or experience an Orca encounter in the open ocean, it happens because these amazing creatures choose to allow it. They are phenomenally bright and accordingly inquisitive. In short, they can genuinely be as interested in us as we are in them. An experience with wild Orca is a shared experience. This makes an encounter, with ANY type of Orca, all the more special. But what if you were lucky enough to interact with an Orca sub-species that had only been seen nine times in the history of science? How special would that be?
Now, cut scene to a ship in the Southern Ocean. Its early December 2013 and MV Sea Spirit is steaming rapidly eastward towards the Antarctic island of South Georgia. We\’ve been aboard for only three days after embarking passengers in Ushuaia, Argentina. The first of our days at sea we’d spent hiding behind an island, dodging the worst of a storm which was sweeping up towards the Falkland Islands bellowing winds in excess of eighty knots (92 mph) and kicking the sea into waves of over twelve meters. The ocean was airborne around the ship!
These conditions make spotting pretty much anything beyond the confines of the ship somewhat harder. Only a few hardy/ suicidal seabirds were on offer to the more intrepid photographers amongst us. So, you can imagine the relief aboard ship on day three when we found ourselves once again making good speed eastwards in sun and light winds. The ocean was up on offer for our viewing pleasure once again.
Now, although smoking carries many well-earned health warnings and can have the effect of making you something of a pariah in some social circles, never let it be said that having a cigarrete is entirely devoid of benefits. One of these benefits is that, on ships at least, you are forced to spend more time outside on deck. This means, in theory, you see more! In fact, over the course of 9 weeks at the start of the 2013 / 2014 Antarctic season, more whales were spotted by smokers on our ship than by anyone else! This being the case, it makes statistical sense that it was a smoker whom, in between early afternoon puffs, spotted some particularly pointy black triangles following us in the water. Orca!
Said smoker happened to be one of the ship’s guides, and so word quickly went out on the VHF that we had blubbery company. The resident marine biologist guide duly raced to the bridge and the ship slowed pace, letting the whales approach us.
As I’ve said, spotting Orca is always a joy. It doesn’t matter how often you see them, it’s always a thrill. Usually in the Southern Ocean we see a sub-species known as ‘Type A’ Orca, distinguished by their large and prominent white eye patches. Off the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula we semi-regularly encounter the ‘Gerlache Type B’s’ which are a distinct sub-population of the southern Type B’s set aside by their eating habits and slightly yellowish tinge, the latter caused by a coating of algae. These are the familliar faces. But there are tales of a rare and strange Orca, spotted only nine times in recorded history, known as ‘Type D’. These elusive whales are odd in appearance with a squareish head, a slightly more pronounced rearward curve in the profile of the dorsal fin and a very, very small white eye patch. For whale watchers, and especially Orca lovers, these almost mythical Type D’s, described in detail from only one examination after a 1955 New Zealand stranding event, are the holy grail. So, imagine how excitement built amongst the guides when, after several minutes spent with these whales, we had yet to spot a white eye patch! Finally, after perhaps five minutes or so, our marine biologist summoned the nerve to say over the VHF what a number of guides were already thinking:
“Guys, its hard to be sure, but these might be Type D’s!”
The race was on to get a good photograph showing both the dorsal fin and the white eye patch, preferably of a male individual. This would help us confirm or cancel our suspicions. The expedition leader made an announcement over the ship’s PA and all the big guns were brought to bear on our black and white friends. Large lenses lined the deck, vyying for a clear line of sight that might yield the all important shot.
A number of useful pictures were taken, but shown here, with this story, is the one which was sent off to the experts in British Columbia for identification.
Sure enough, Type D Orca they were. Officially the tenth recorded sighting. Ever.
Thank you Marlboro Man!