Migratory whales are winter’s gift to Knysna’s dynamic coastline, and during this time our waters literally heave with the activity of both humpback and southern right whales. Our dynamic Indian Ocean boasts many other varied species and, throughout the year, we enjoy regular sightings of the Indian Ocean humpback and in-shore bottlenose dolphins and, less frequently, we happen upon huge pods of common dolphins feeding offshore. And then, there is that one wild encounter which we all dream about – an orca encounter. In true gangster style, they appear when we least expect it, sending us into an excited frenzy.
The mere sight of Orcas sees a sudden spike in our adrenaline, not only because they don’t come around very often, but also because these magnificent creatures are considered the true apex predators of our oceans. They are seriously efficient, bad-ass hunters. On Saturday 25th January 2020 the guests onboard our 3pm Eco Marine Tour enjoyed a surprise close encounter with a pod of 7 orcas, seen cruising about a kilometer off the coast from Buffalo Bay, most likely on the hunt for great white sharks or seals.
It has been quite some time since our last Orca encounter. On April 5th 2018, we witnessed first-hand the supreme hunting prowess of an orca pod. Over the course of several hours a pod successfully predated on a baby Bryde’s whale, despite the mother’s valiant efforts to protect it. Several months later we briefly encountered two mother and calf pairs.
Often referred to as a ‘killer whale’, this mammal is not a whale at all, but the largest of the ocean’s many dolphin species. They inhabit all the oceans of the world, but are more common in some regions than others. With their characteristic black and white patterning and distinctively large dorsal fins, a pod of orcas moving swiftly through the water is one of the most extraordinary sights in the natural world.
An orca is a highly specialised dolphin, the combination of supreme intelligence (they have the second largest brain of any animal on the planet), self-awareness, strength, size and the ability to efficiently communicate and hunt as a team, makes them the ocean’s most successful predator. They are not particularly fussy eaters and their diet is often considerably broad. They have been seen snacking on fish, seals, octopus, birds, polar birds, whales and sharks (even great whites). Some pods however have developed highly specialised hunting skills to predate on a specific species common in their ocean range.
Orcas have an average life span in the wild of between 50 and 80 years and can grow up to 9 meters in length and weigh in excess of a hefty 6 tons! Hard to imagine? Think of a small bus, and then imagine a whole pod of those cruising the oceans at speeds of up to 56km/h looking for their next snack. They often swim up to 40 miles and they are known to dive regularly to depths of 150m.
Family is everything to an orca and they have been known to live in closely-knit pods of up to 50 individuals. Much like humans, orcas are fiercely protective of their young, and other adolescent females often assist the mother in caring for them. On average, adult females give birth every three to ten years, after a 17-month pregnancy. Orcas have been known stay with the pod it was born into its entire life, but this is not always the case. The eldest or alpha female orca is at the helm of the family, guiding and imparting wisdom and survival skills to the rest of the pod.
Tragically, there are currently more than 60 orcas held captive in ocean themed-parks and aquariums around the world, targeted specifically because of their high intelligence and ability to perform tricks. It is beyond inhumane to keep orcas in captivity, as these highly evolved social animals are built to live, migrate and feed over great distances in the wild, open ocean. Fortunately, people are slowly realising that the practice of holding orcas captive for human enjoyment equates to severe animal abuse and the practice in on the decline and is even banned in some countries.
The total global population is difficult to census given their worldwide distribution, but it is estimated that it is at least 50 000 of these monochromatic beauties swimming wild and free around the world.