Very Like a Whale
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th' Mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet (c. 1601)
There has been much speculation recently around the sighting of orcas around the Cape coastline. These magnificent creatures come with an interesting reputation: most searches for ‘orca’ take you straight to ‘killer whale’. Cue Jaws music and spontaneous shudders. When humans add the term ‘killer’ as a descriptive to any animal, it normally means only one thing – they kill humans. Here’s the thing: orcas, in the wild, have never killed a single human being – not one. A young boy had an arm chewed once, but he was swimming in an area frequented by seals, which are orca food. One taste of juvenile human and the orca spat him out. Of course, they have killed humans whilst in captivity, which hasn’t enhanced their reputation, but here they get my unmitigated sympathy. Take a wild creature used to freely roaming the oceans with his buddies, drop him in a plunge pool, feed him sardines and expect him to jump through hoops four times a day. Eventually even the mild-mannered orcas get annoyed enough to drown their captors. Considering what they put up with, it’s surprising they don’t do it more often.
Orcas are oceanic dolphins, although they are sometimes referred to as toothed whales. One of thirty differing species in this classification, they are by far the biggest of the group, which is obviously why they have been seen as members of the whale fraternity by sailors over the centuries. It is easier to list where orcas aren’t rather than where they are: there are none in the Baltic or Black seas, otherwise they are pretty much prevalent everywhere. They don’t like pelagic areas as much as the higher latitudes and shore areas, so it would be unusual to spot orcas in the middle of any oceans. There is a higher concentration of orcas off Norway and the Antarctic than any other areas, but they have an enormous range and have been sighted off all the continents. Having said that, there are not that many around. A current estimate is that there is a minimum number of 50 000 orcas, but obviously counting them is an inaccurate science. Their migratory patterns are poorly understood, and so the pod counted off the Aleutians may well be seen elsewhere at another time of the year. What we do know is that orcas need to be protected from humans.
Nothing eats an orca: they are what is known as an ‘apex-predator’, and basically everything else is potentially food. They have been called ‘the wolves of the sea’ due to their tendency to hunt in groups like wolf packs. Perhaps at this moment we should be thankful that humans aren’t on their menus; mind you, the thought of a pod of killer whales rounding up bathers off Clifton might make for an interesting documentary, and an empty beach. Their diet consists of a wide variety of creatures, from fish and seals to penguins and even seabirds. Basically their diet is driven by what is available locally, and their ability to hunt effectively can have a severe effect on prey species. Here in Cape Town there is much speculation around the seeming disappearance of that true killer species, the Great White Shark. There are unconfirmed reports of sightings of orcas attacking Great Whites, but whether this is the reason the shark population has diminished or left the area is not known. There are conservationists who believe that us humans have scared off the Great Whites, which seems are far likelier scenario if we look at the pollution, invasion and destruction of the shark’s habitat.
Orcas have the second largest brain of any creature on the planet; second only to that giant of the deep, the sperm whale. As we have said before when writing about dolphins, measuring intelligence in an orca is like whistling about chickens: how do we relate to a species that occupies a different world with completely differing needs and behavioural strategies? Orcas can learn, that much we know from those unfortunates in captivity. They are also known to teach their offspring and other members of their group. Fishermen in Alaska are flummoxed by the orcas ability to thieve fish off their longlines: they sneak the catches off the hooks without getting injured, ignore ‘dummy lines’ completely, and when fisher boats split up to try and fool the orcas into following the wrong boat, the orcas split up too. Researcher Craig Matkin had this to say: “It worked really well for a while. Then the whales split into two groups. It didn't even take them an hour to figure it out. They were so thrilled when they figured out what was going on - that we were playing games with them – that they were breaching by the boats.” Killer Whales? Nope. Brainy Dolphins.
The one advantage of having orcas in captivity is that we all know what they look like. Their distinctive shiny black back and white chest and sides look like they are made of some indestructible polymer, which may not be far from the truth. The robust body is surmounted by a 1.8m dorsal fin, and the sight of this cutting through the ocean at close to 60 kph has no doubt given impetus to their bad reputation. At 8 metres long and weighing in at around 6 tons, we can thank our lucky stars that they aren’t partial to humans. But all this makes for astonishingly beautiful creatures: there can be few sights more stirring than a pod of these magnificent animals porpoising through the surface of the sea.
Here’s the good news: guests aboard the Waterfront Charters boats are regularly sighting orcas on our various cruises. Obviously no sighting is guaranteed, but we know they are here, and the exclamations of delight from guests when the orcas make an appearance puts smiles on the faces of all our crew members. We love the ocean and all the inhabitants; specialised sightings make everything especially worthwhile.