Orcas: Wolves of the Sea

Spotlight on a Species: Orcinus orca

Last week, guests taking part in our Ocean Odyssey Marine Eco Tour enjoyed a very special close-encounter. They witnessed first hand the extraordinary hunting prowess of the Orca, the apex predator of our  oceans. Seasoned skipper Johannes Pikaan was out on the water when he spotted the unmistakable dorsal fin of the elusive Bryde’s whale skimming the surface. This whale is a year-round resident on our Southern African coastline, but is quite shy and is not easily viewed in the wild. Soon thereafter the group noticed a lot of splashing and general commotion a little further away and the skipper moved closer to investigate. To his surprise, he saw three Orcas hunting and killing a baby Bryde’s whale and then feeding on it. Orcas are not seen all that often in our area, perhaps a few times a year if we are lucky, so it is a great privilege to see them in action doing what they do best – hunting! (We do feel sad for mamma Bryde’s whale though.) Interestingly, during this spectacle about six opportunistic seals showed up to scavenge on some of the titbits of the baby bryde’s body. This actually came as no surprise because killer whales have often been observed in the wild eating only the highly nutritious liver or the tongue of whales and sharks, leaving the remainder of the pickings to other marine life.

Orcas near Knsyna

Orcas, (often referred to as killer whales) are immediately recognizable by their distinctive black-and-white colouring. They were thrust into the spotlight in the 1960’s after being captured live and kept for entertainment purposes. They quickly became known around the world as the highly intelligent and trainable stars of those dreadfully cruel aquarium and aquatic theme-park shows (which we hope will one day be banned around the world).

In captivity they appear almost cute and cuddly, but out in their wild ocean realm, they have a reputation for being deadly assassins, working in pods to catch their prey. Orcas are found throughout the world in oceans from the poles to the equator, with evidence of both resident and transient pod populations. All pods use effective, cooperative hunting techniques that some liken to the behaviour of wolf packs. They feast on a smorgasbord of marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even small whales, employing teeth that can be four inches long. They also snack on fish and sea birds. 

Despite their common name, killer whales are not actually  whales but dolphins? They are in fact the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family! The name ‘killer whale’ was given to orcas by Spanish sailors who travelled vast distances across the worlds oceans and who had often been witness to the hunting skills of orcas. The Spanish sailors named them ‘Matador de Ballenas’. This term is directly translated to English as ‘killer of whales’. Due to their extraordinary hunting skills, they’ve been described as the wolves of the sea, killing demons and fish tigers, to name a few. Their scientific name, Orcinus orca comes from the mythical Orcus — the Roman god of death and the underworld, who was also known as a punisher.