Bill Oddie's musings on his pursuit of the well-traveled cetacean, the orca

Orcas off the coast of Vancouver Island, CanadaI have now been on three whale watching trips in – or should that be from? - Iceland. The first one was quite a few years ago, out of Husavik in the north.

We saw a couple of porpoises and a distant dolphin, but no whales whatsoever.

This struck me as worryingly ironic.

Firstly, because the country’s stated intention was to expand whale watching as a tourist attraction.

Secondly, because it was rumoured the Icelandic whaling industry – dormant during a moratorium - had announced it intended to resume its activities.

The contradiction seemed almost laughable, in that both whale watching and whaling are a bit of an anti-climax if there are no whales!

In subsequent years, I have been on enough “pelagics” in various parts of the world to realise that the fact whales are not visible doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Any cetacean seeker will tell you there will be bad trips and there will be average ones, and now and again there will be a real mind-blower.

The second Icelandic trip - in August 2012- was not mind blowing, but it was fascinating meeting and marvelling at the work of the International Fund for Animal Welfare scientists monitoring the impact of the satisfyingly escalating whale watching business, and meeting a splendidly cosmopolitan team of young volunteers who were intercepting tourists and appealing to them to “Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us”.

A plea on behalf of the whales, not the volunteers.

A charmingly petite Polish girl had even disguised herself in a less than life-size whale costume, which was extremely hot and heavy.

‘Try anything’ tourists intent on sampling local specialities like whale steak could get belligerent if their dining plans – or even their morality - is challenged, but IFAW’s lobbying is peaceful. On this trip I saw only civilised dialogue and this time I did see whales.

Several minkes, mainly some distance away and somewhat prone to diving and then surfacing somewhere you are not looking. The IFAW boat crew seemed reasonably happy with the survey so far, but they were extremely unhappy at another recent rumour that fin whaling might recommence in 2013.

And so to mid-March this year. The weather was pretty awful. A raw easterly wind, a temperature below freezing and frequent blizzards of snow, hail or freezing rain.

But that was in England!

Iceland was much more clement.

In Reykjavik, there was evidence there had been a snowfall not long ago, with shovelled white piles at the roadside, and white caps on the distant hills, but the temperature was several degrees warmer than in London, the skies bluer - and sometimes even sunny and - best of all - the sea was as flat and calm as the colloquial looking glass.

Off we sailed in search of orcas.

I have been fortunate to have previously had two pretty memorable orca experiences.

One was in Canada, on Vancouver Island, where the local marine expert has rigged up a network of underwater microphones (hydrophones) out in the bay and quite some distance apart.

I sat with him on a couch in his front room as if we were listening to music on his speakers. What we heard was the music of the whales somewhere out in the bay, but “coming our way”!

Of course, not even Free Willy could have leapt through the bay window, but we were able to anticipate the orca’s route, race to the jetty, leap into a speed boat and land – or rather be thrown out – on what we had been told was a small island, but turned out to be little more than a rock!

The cameraman and I were almost swept into the water by the swell as a small pod of orcas hurtled past us like glossy torpedoes, whilst the sound recordist was lost in his earphones, beaming with delight as he captured enough whale songs to release an album.

Cetaceans really ought to get royalties from New Age relaxation records.

My next orca experience showed the rather more ruthless side of killer whales and also why they deserve that name. 

We were filming on the Valdes Peninsula in Patagonia, Argentina. Most of the resident wildlife is not difficult to film.

Penguins either snooze by their burrows, or waddle off to the beach no faster than Charlie Chaplin.

Elephant seals behave every bit as badly as they look as though they should. They either lie there farting very loudly, or every now and then a couple of  massively misshapen bulls will try to bite each others’ heads off.

“Normal” seals were much more pleasing to look at, and to smell. Generally though, they were not much more active, largely lounging on the sand, occasionally nuzzling their cuddly little offspring, or even nudging them to go for a paddle in the shallows. Not always a wise idea.

The action that I and the film crew witnessed was unplanned and unexpected. We were literally packing the gear into our van, when someone – I think it was me - spotted a distant fin slicing through the water, parallel to the coast.

I held my breath long enough to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Then yelled “Orcas! Coming this way!”

The camerman and sound recordist unpacked and set up their gear quicker than the gunners at the Edinburgh Tattoo. There were four or five fins proceeding with menace, in what was surely a hunting party.

The animal that was about to be hunted seemed totally oblivious. Some of the larger seals were lolloping up the shingle to safety. But one didn’t. A little one, a youngster, snuggled in the tideline foam, as cozy as in a duvet.

The camera lens swung left. One of the larger whales had split from the group and was surging forward as if he had slipped into a higher gear. As he headed for the shore, he sank under the water.

I whispered to the camera: “I know what might happen, and I sort of want to see it, but then again, I don’t. Maybe it’ll escape.” At which moment, the cameraman panned onto the baby seal at the tideline.

There were three seconds of nothing. Then the orca leapt into the picture, grabbed the seal and started to shake it violently. Spray spurted everywhere. Soon there would be blood. Killer whale indeed.

We expected the whale to slide back with its prey, as sleek and slick as it had come. But it didn’t. Then we realised that it couldn’t.

It was probably an inexperienced male. Young and foolish, it had grounded itself on the sand bank and now it was panicking. It had no choice but to grant me my wish.

With one last flourish it slung the seal pup back on the beach, and with a final flail and an ungainly lurch, it returned to the sea, and sank out of sight before the rest of his pod could start teasing him. Sometimes you get what you wish for!        

All whales are special.

Each species is different. Some barely or rarely break the surface. Others wave to you with their gigantic tails, or leap into the air causing a cascade and a mighty splash.

Some are still hunted. None should be.

Happily, orcas are more suited to catching food than becoming it, though they have their problems, not least from ever increasing noise pollution in the world’s oceans.

Drop a hydrophone into the water and listen on earphones. The first time I did that - in The Moray Firth in Scotland - I was half deafened by a noise that sounded like Status Quo tuning up, or a race day at Brands Hatch.

It was actually the engine of a single ship over half a mile away. Imagine the confusion and chaos this must cause to the subtle and complex communications of orcas and other cetaceans.

And so to my most recent experience of orcas, only (as I write) a couple of weeks ago. This time our boat sailed from somewhere I can neither remember, spell or pronounce, (Grundarfjordur) but it wasn’t a long way from Reykjavik.

I have learnt to ration my optimism when setting out whale watching but folks around me showed no such restraint. In fact, I have never known such confidence. I was assured that “the sea will not be rough” - and it wasn’t. I was told “we will see orcas” - and we did! Just don’t ask me where!             

I  do know that for the past two years huge shoals of herring have appeared so close to land that at one period thousands of them beached on the shore, at first providing great scavenging for gulls and sea eagles, then feed for domestic animals, and finally disintegrating into a pretty disgusting eye (and nose) sore!

Orcas would of course demand fresher fish. And for two years they have been getting them as the shoals of healthy herring have increased. And so too have the number of orcas.

Whale watching has never been easier.

We simply sailed into the shelter of the bay, cut the engine and dropped a hydrophone to provide the live soundtrack of clicks, cries, howls, barks and no doubt all sorts of sounds that are beyond our frequencies.

Are they just echo location and contact calls? Or is it a language? Is it gossip? It was tempting to believe the latter. After all, there were quite a lot of them.

Counting wasn’t easy as they rose and dived, whacked fish with their tails, grabbed them in their teeth and finally swallowed them before popping up again, waving their dorsal fin.

When several do that at the same time it looks like the bay has been invaded by a regatta of black sails. How many did we see? I’d say at least 30.

By early April, the orcas have refuelled with herring and there will come a day when the whale watching boats will be disappointed.

We don’t know where the orcas go. Surely not to Vancouver? Patagonia maybe. Or do they swim south east, to South Africa, Sri Lanka or Malaysia?

Orcas have an almost worldwide distribution. Just like us. We can’t even be certain that they will return to Iceland later in the year. We hope they will. We hope that people will be able to enjoy them. And we hope that whaling will soon become a thing of the past.

--BO

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