I've said it before, but every single week on the water, I see something that I never have before. This post will serve as a perfect example of this, as it takes place on our last sailing of the 17 last summer, but was a unique experience, and one that went viral on National Geographic last week!
Orca are a pretty common sighting in the Archipelago. They're one of the most special and amazing animals to observe, and always on the 'list' of our guests. Later in the season, as the transient pods begin to move south, one of the hotspots for both whales and orca is Frederick Sound. As we sailed through the area, heading north to Hobart Bay, we picked up on a large group of very spread out orca. We followed them around, but they were moving very quickly, and no more than two or three were grouped up at once. There were young and old, a massive bull, and a few one to three year kids, all feeding and scouting the area.
We followed along with them for an hour or so, until we noticed nearby two humpback whales, a mom and calf, also lunge feeding and breaching. The whales were extremely close to the orca, so we figured we would head over and see what was going on, then could always circle back. As we moved towards the whales, the orca followed, almost seeming to close in from all sides. As a crew, we honestly thought that they might be hunting, and that the orca were going to attempt a malicious attack on the baby humpback. We hoped so much so that this was not the case, and I found it peculiar that they would attack with a mom so close by. But still, they closed in.
Eventually the mom surfaced, dove, and fully breached right in front of the boat. With most of the guests still up front, this was an amazing sight, though not super unusual for us. Still, I could see a whale breach a thousand times and it wouldn't lose any of it's charm. The majority of people wonder why whales breach, so I've done a lot of research into all the schools of thought on the subject. So here's my best explanation.
Breaching takes an insane amount of effort. Lots of estimates put the calories burned number around 15,000 for each breach. So there definitely has to be good purpose to do so. From what I've read and also observed, I think they do it to send a message. How they can know what the message is, I can not really explain, but every time I've seen a whale breach, whether one time or for 10 minutes straight, when they finish, their behavior always changes dramatically. Additionally, studies show that the sound waves created from a 30-ton whale hitting the surface can be heard by whales 10+ miles away, making it an incredibly valuable tool.
A whale can be feeding alone for an hour, then randomly breach and move away from the spot. Or they can have a massive school of fish and krill, but be short in numbers to begin a bubblenet. Or they will randomly breach on their way from one place to another. These are all instances I've observed many times, along with countless others, but the seemingly random nature of it indicates to me that they are always talking and communicating in ways we are just now learning to understand. OK! Educational aside over, back to the story.
So the whales breach and then dive and are seen a few minutes later way in the distance. Well as we're about to leave, we all notice that the big bull orca is back hanging out with us. His buddies are all trailing behind, also headed for our stern. Well, we kind of had to go. We had places to be, it was getting pretty late, and we'd already had an amazing show. So we steamed back up, and headed for our next stop in Hobart Bay.
A few guests and I had been watching the whole show on the bow for the last hour or two, but there was action 360 degrees around us so others were scattered throughout the boat. As we motored back up, with orca in trail, they picked up on us in the same way porpoise and dolphin do. Well all season I'd been telling people that orca/killer whales really are dolphin, not whales, and this was the best proof I could imagine finding. 10-ton orca now were in our wake, diving and jumping about, breaching fully out of the water and enjoying the ride.
It was one of the most memorable and powerful moments of my life, and it happened on the very last week of work this summer. Always keep your head up and your mind open, even when you think the best is all done. Life is just here to surprise you.