It is said that Nature balances out life on Earth. There is a cycle of life and death where the strong prevail over the weak and the weak prevail over the weaker and the weakest. This cycle also helps to maintain the ecological balance of life and ensures that all animals have enough space for themselves to carve out their existence without any one species nudging others off the face of the map.
This is what we witnessed before our eyes, a day that I am unlikely to ever forget in my life. It is also one of my best days at sea being up close with massive sea animals as they continue with their presence on the planet.
Close Encounters with Orcas
I will try and recreate to the best of my abilities, our close encounter with the huge orcas at sea, both when they are playful and when they are hunting for food.
Last night we received a report of orcas going south of La Paz and with that information, we chalked out our plan for the next day. As decided, we picked up the anchor at 5:45 am and started the search going north.
Initially, for about a couple of hours, we drew a blank. I was doing the dive-safety orientation for our guests as today was our first day of the trip. But suddenly, around 7.30 am, the action started with a bang and stayed with us throughout the day.
It all began with Captain Gordon radioing to inform me about a pod of orcas that had just shown up, very close to our position. In no time, all our guests were suited up, we got the fast boat (RHIB) ready, and off we went to see if the orcas were in the mood to interact with humans.
We soon found them and were quite surprised to see how relaxed and curious they were behaving today. We noticed an enormous male following the pod at close quarters, but that did not stop the females and juveniles to come near the boat to check us out.
For about an hour, we had a couple of beautiful jumps with them, and several times they came around the boat and our guests saw the orcas face to face and eye to eye. It was the closest we could get to them to admire the majesty of these sea creatures.
Hunting with the Orcas
In the middle of their playful mood, things suddenly took a dramatic turn as the whole pod abruptly took off. They changed course to the east and were swimming extremely fast, splashing in the distance. We kept track of them giving them space to get to whatever they were going after. In the distance, we saw a huge red splash emerging from the water! Was that blood? What else could that be we thought. And soon our fears were confirmed!
The orcas slowed down for a bit and we saw see what was happening – right in front of our eyes was nature at its peak in full flow of raw aggression. We were awed by the mix of strength, power, intelligence, and social organization of the ocean apex predators, and simultaneously horrified by the fear, agony, pain, and unsuccessful attempts to escape of a Bryde’s whale. We were witnessing a chase like no other, a desperate fight for survival.
There are two sides to this story. One was the 45 minutes of the fastest and most furious chase for food by the orcas and the other was the most dramatic 45 minutes of swimming away for his life by the whale. This lone individual fought to his limit, using the strength and size of his tail and body against the female orcas that never gave up.
The orcas worked to a strategy, assaulting the whale together, hitting the vital organs of the whale, attacking the tail to slow him down, and jumping on top to prevent him from breathing. Spouts were often visible all stained in dark red blood, filling the air with desperation and impotence. No one heard the calls for help.
Soon, the plan of the orcas succeeded. The whale slowed down and stopped swimming. The Orca females were trying to turn him over belly up. There were a few last attempts by the whale to push the orcas away, but his destiny had already been decided.
The massive orca male now appeared from nowhere, rising his dorsal fin as tall as the RHIB and helping to keep the carcass of the whale near the surface while the matriarch of the pod ripped off the tongue of the whale. Maybe other individuals in the pod were getting other vital organs as well.
We all witnessed this from the boat and did not get into the water so as not to interfere with the hunting routine. However, we were close enough to witness this unique nature encounter.
After the chase was over, in less than 10 minutes the dead body of the whale started to sink and the gourmet taste of the orcas was satisfied. Our hearts were shocked and full of adverse feelings. We observed how the orcas formed again a line and continued their way south, relaxed, poised and composed, and calm as if nothing had happened before our eyes.
It is a day that none of us present on the RHIB will ever forget.