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Making a splash: Orcas in False Bay

Making a splash: Orcas in False Bay

May 2013

Words & pics David Hurwitz

Orca sightings in False Bay are exceptionally rare. Occasional reports come in from fishermen and other mariners, but most people are unaware of the existence of orcas in these waters. In nearly 40 years of navigating the bay, I’ve only seen them a handful of times. So two sightings in 10 days, on 18 and 28 April, is almost unheard of.

The orca’s distribution is worldwide, extending to the high latitudes of both hemispheres. It lives and hunts in a pod, which may be resident or transient. Furthermore, they are specialised feeders, concentrating on prey specific to their area. This includes marine mammals, fish, birds, turtles and they’ve even been known to attack and kill great white sharks, earning them the title of the ocean’s apex predator.

False Bay is home to a number of the orca’s natural prey sources. Yet, if their diet were primarily South African fur seals, they would be common, or at least seasonal residents, like the great white sharks that feed off the juvenile seals at Seal Island from April to September each year. But this doesn’t appear to be the case and the explanation for their presence has always been that they are ‘passing by’. In 2009 I was able to confirm that what attracts orcas to False Bay is common dolphins.

Over the past year, False Bay has been bursting with bait fish, resulting in a level of feeding activity that hasn’t been seen in many years. African penguins and South African fur seals have had little reason to move offshore to feed and this has also been true for dolphins, Bryde’s whales, Cape gannets and many other birds, fish and cetacean species. Drawn to an easy meal, orcas are staying for longer periods. On 15 May 2012 I was privileged to witness, and capture a photo, of a successful kill.

Prior to that day, the pod that I photographed had been sighted in the bay by myself and others on four separate occasions. But what made this visit interesting is that this time the orcas stayed for much longer – over two weeks. Even though I was pretty sure that they were around, it wasn’t a simple matter to just go out and find them. They move incredibly fast (they can easily cross the bay in 2-3 hours) and are naturally stealthy. So my strategy was to find and track a school of dolphins in the hope that a pod of orcas would eventually show up. After over a week and countless hours on the water, my moment finally arrived…

At that point I was about a hundred metres behind the pod and as soon as I accelerated to keep up with them a massive orca surfaced beside my boat, took a huge breath, sounded and rocketed towards the dolphins. With one hand pushing the accelerator levers down and the other holding my camera against my face, I sped towards the fleeing dolphins. I knew exactly what was about to happen. With my heart racing and body trembling with excitement, I somehow managed to compose myself just enough to predict the exact spot where the action was about to unfold. Then, almost as if scripted, an orca exploded from the water, breaching nearly four metres clear as it ambushed one very terrified dolphin, its powerful jaws driven home by eight tonnes of body mass.

Death must have been instantaneous. The enormous splash resulting from this kill radiated for about 30 metres and sounded like an explosion. Five seconds later and about a hundred metres to my left, another powerful orca lunged through the surface from beneath the dolphins, sending them flying in all directions like sardines. I didn’t hang around to see the remains as the other two members of the pod were still in eager pursuit of the now-fragmented school of dolphins. By now the dolphins had changed direction, bolting towards the centre of the bay. The orcas, probably aware of the difficulty in successfully hunting dolphins in this hyper-alert state then backed off and regrouped.

They let the dolphins move off and settle and the distance between them increased to about one kilometre. After an hour the dolphins were behaving as if they had completely forgotten the previous event. The orcas were silently stalking them again and suddenly all hell broke loose, only this time with far more aggression. Words cannot describe the raw power of these magnificent ‘killer whales’, but the photos tell the story.

In total, the dolphins were attacked four times over a three-hour period, before the orcas moved off and weren’t seen again for the rest of the day.

Please note that boats may not approach whales or dolphins without a special permit: False Bay is monitored closely by the authorities.

David Hurwitz was born and educated in Cape Town. He studied commercial photography at the Ruth Prowse School of Art. He is also a  SAMSA commercial skipper, MCM (DAFF) marine guide, a member of the SA Whale Disentanglement network & committee member of the Dolphin Action & Protection Group, a  Theta registered tour guide (marine & land) and a level 3 medic.  He has sailed and power boated his whole life, and founded Simon’s Town Boat Company 15 years ago, specialising in licensed boat based whale & dolphin watching in False Bay & marine ECO tours. 

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