A Family that Slays Together Stays Together.
It is a strange feeling filming, and so knowing the truth, of a wildlife behaviour for the first time. There is of course the delight of the achievement – the pleasure of solving the puzzle. But, perhaps on a more romantic level, there is sadness associated with demystifying another behavior. Somehow the ocean feels smaller after it is done.
There is a movement, mostly in the US, to call Killer Whales “Orca”. Too many negative connotations of the word “Killer”. The assumption is the probably false belief that the word will be bad for “conservation”.
There are 4 “Types” of “Orca” whales in the Antarctic. They are called Type A,B,C and D. Each Type looks quite different to the next and they all seem to live in very different ways. A’s look like your classic black and white Killer whale. We find them mainly offshore (away from land and ice) and they seem to kill baleen whales – probably mostly Antarctic Minke whales. Type B’s are the pack ice whales. They are brown and white with a big eye patch and are heavily associated with the sea – ice. They seem to kill mainly seals (sometimes by “wave-washing”). Type C’s are small fish eating Killer whales only found in the Ross-sea. Type D’s are rarely seen. They live well offshore and have a tiny eye patch (it’s almost gone) and probably feed on fish too.
Killer Whales © John Durban
In the austral summer of 2008 we were interested in Type B’s – the pack ice whales. Over the course of about 100 years they had been observed, as far as we could make out, about 6 times using waves generated by swimming in unison fast, to wash seals of ice flows. The first time was by Pointing who was Captain Scott’s photographer in 1910. The last was by a couple on holiday on a cruise ship, who filmed an unsuccessful attempt at a seal in 2006, and stuck the clip on Youtube.
Pod Type B Killer Whales © John Durban
Not much to go on but enough for the BBC natural history unit to send me and cameraman Doug Allan to try for it for the BBC wildlife series “Life” in January 2008. It didn’t turn out so good. I broke my back in a fall from the mast on the boat half way through the trip and had to be evacuated to the Falkland Islands. The crew carried on but failed to see the behavior.
Seemingly undaunted by the obvious hubris of the decision, the next BBC wildlife series “Frozen Planet” sent Doug and I back in Jan 2009. This time we worked with a team of scientists from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in the States. These guys had tiny satellite tags, which meant that if we could get one in a whale we could track them effectively using coordinates texted to our satellite phone. It made the difference. We found the type B’s early and got a tag in. Over a month we spent 75 hours running through the pack ice with the type B’s. We tracked them onto 22 wave-washing attacks on Weddle seals – 16 of them were successful. There efficiency was remarkable. We even watched them doing what can only be described as butchering their prey. They exposed the end of the spine of the seal, broke the neck the flippers and pulled the body from the skin. A couple of times we found seal “suit’s” floating on the surface.
“Butchered” Weddle Seal Suit © Doug Anderson
It was the most extraordinary experience of my professional life. An apex predator catching and dispatching prey in a completely new way – it’s an event that will happen once or twice in the career of a wildlife cameraman, if they are lucky.
Orca?….I’m not so sure. For me this family is “Killers” and should be celebrated as such.