By Richard Brown
A MURDEROUS POD OF ORCA WHALES ONCE GAVE ME A KILLER SHOW IN THE ICY WATERS OF FALSE BAY.
‘How would you like getting up close and personal with the ocean’s apex predator?’ I was once asked by a former editor of mine. ‘Well, I’ve already gone cage diving with the great whites in Gansbaai, if that’s what you mean,’ I replied haughtily.
‘Yes, congratulations,’ he said, ‘but they’re not the apex predators of the ocean, are they?’
Orca whales, also sometimes called killer whales, were what he was referring to. Great white sharks might be the apex predators in most seas for the better part of the year, but when the orcas are in town, the sharks are no longer top of the food chain. Sometimes they themselves even fall prey to the orcas. And yes, of bloody course I would like to see them up close, is what I told him.
Which is how, a few days later, I booked a wet seat on a small boat operated by a mad man. Crashing from crest to crest on an unforgiving sea, I was trying to keep my camera level and steady enough to shoot the school of common dolphins cavorting just ahead of our bow. No mean feat when you’re also trying to avoid losing teeth on the gunwale. The skipper, Dave, a local boat charter owner and expert in all things orca, was chasing after the dolphins like a crazy person for a reason. They were the prey…
The orcas had arrived in the bay only a few days prior. Big shoals of baitfish occur in False Bay at certain times of the year, attracting predatory fish, seals and large schools of dolphin, which in turn entice the wolves of the sea, orcas.
We had started out early in the morning and Dave had piloted us to a few waypoints where he had spotted the orcas on previous trips. When we caught sight of a large pod of dolphins having a bit of a feeding frenzy, we followed them in the hope that the orcas would show up.
A couple of hours later, the initial excitement at seeing the dolphins had worn off, bums were sore and clothes were drenched. I had long since given up on steadying the camera for dolphin photos, and the din of the engines limited conversation to occasionally pointing and nodding at particularly jumpy dolphins.
Then, a kilometre or so off St James Beach, it happened... The dolphins suddenly became unusually excited and skittish. Behind us, huge, black, menacing fins cut the water.
Wet clothes and sore limbs instantly forgotten, I fumbled for my camera and tried to capture this once-in-a-lifetime brush with the ocean’s deadliest.
Called the wolves of the sea because of their organised and hyper intelligent hunting methods, the orcas put their brutal technique on full display for us.
First, the pack of nine or 10 whales chased the panicked dolphins in a pincer formation, their extraordinarily powerful tails propelling them around the flanks of the dolphin pod. Once surrounded, the dolphins became even more frantic, ducking and diving under one another, trying to escape the jaws of death.
The orcas then took it in turns to dive beneath their surrounded prey, power their eight-ton bodies upwards through the centre, explode two or three of their smaller cousins a few storeys into the air like sardines, and then catch the falling bodies in their open mouths.
I was also open-mouthed, but in sheer fascination at this devastating, horrifically effective show of killing. The ride had been worth it and I snapped a few breathtaking photographs, but more importantly, I had witnessed an event that would stay with me forever.
Mother Nature … she’s fierce and cruel, but decidedly awesome.