From the Field: Orca Everywhere!
From Sarah Sinn-White, Safari Explorer
Orca, orca, orca, are everywhere this week while we cruised on the Safari Explorer! After 7 plus years of working in Southeast Alaska I have seen Orca feeding, breaching, travelling, sleeping and socializing. This week, though, was an exception of sightings for these elusive top predators of the sea.
Killer Whales, another name for Orca, originated as Killer of Whales as they were observed targeting large whales such as Bryde’s and Sei. They are a cosmopolitan species, found in all the world’s major oceans and are known to follow the migratory paths of the wide-ranging Humpbacks and Greys down to Hawaii and Mexico respectively. Travelling in a family unit, ruled by a matriarch, they are nicknamed the “wolves of the sea” for their pack mentality and communication skills they have honed over thousands of years. Even their Latin name refers to their carnivorous nature, Orcinus orca, roughly translating to “messenger of the underworld.”
These top hunters are also one of the few animal species, besides humans, to have evolved distinctly different ecotypes based on culture. Their cultures are differentiated a number of ways, some differences are based around the foods they eat, some specializing in fatty nutritious Pacific Salmon, some focus on seals and sea lions, hunting them off of ice floats and sandy beaches. Some Orca hunt sharks around the deep continental shelves offshore. Others specialize in grabbing skates and rays off shallow coastlines while other northern pods go for small schooling fish, stunning them with a quick underwater tail smack. It’s also these unique hunting ground locations that separate the cultures of these ecotypes, a difference based on where they travel. These distinct ecotypes most importantly differentiate themselves based on the language they speak to each other, unique vocalizations that are only understood by fellow ecotype members. Unique languages, food and locales all separate Orca into the unique culturally driven organisms that was once thought to be strictly anthropogenic.
Up until the 1960’s these members of the dolphin family were persecuted by humans. Feared widely by sailors and whalers, there was even a gun mounted on the southern tip of Vancouver Island to shoot at Killer Whales making their journey into the inland waters off the west coast of British Columbia. Although never fired, shooting an Orca these days is foreign and completely illegal. It was when they were first brought in captive situations, aquariums and water parks, that the public’s opinion changed on these incredible animals.
This week, on board the Safari Explorer, we watched Orca, not one day, but three days in a row.
Our boat watched a family of three investigate the feisty and toothy Steller Sea Lions around South Marble island in Glacier Bay National Park. We then saw another pod of nine individuals slowly sleeping their way down the Sitakaday Narrows. This family of Orca gently logged at the surface, giving us full views of dorsal fins, saddle patches and striking white eye patches. They even had a tiny so-fresh-it-was-still-slightly-yellow calf. Then the next day we came across an active family cruising through Chatham Strait, tail throwing into the air and finally harassing a worried sea otter before moving south. Seeing Orca once in a week is great, twice in a week is incredible but three times in a row is a set of sightings we are not likely to forget.