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Far East Russia Orca Project expedition 2013

Translation by Marina Maksimkina

This year we had an initial experience of observing the hunting process of mammal-eating killer whales in the Commander Islands.

In one of July mornings our observer announced that there were three killer whales close to the shore in the bay. We supposed those orcas to be mammal-eating, because fish-eating killer whales do not form such small groups. The orcas disappeared faster than we got ready. The mammal-eating killer whales are less predictable in comparison to the fish-eating ones, - they can move very close to the reefs, or vice-versa, move far away in the sea, - that is why there were little chances of finding them. But we were lucky - we noticed sharp dorsal fins of our group among numerous humpback whales just in front of Dikaya Bay. Indeed, there were three orcas – one of them – a male with a rounded, wide and shorter than usual, fin and two “others”. Judging by their patches and fins those were typical representatives of transient orcas. They moved in close rank in the southern direction within four kilometers from the shore. They did not pay attention to us, so we managed to make good pictures.

The weather was good; it was the beginning of the day, so we decided to follow them for some time hoping to find out their destination. The sea around us was full of life: wherever you look there were majestic humpback whales; the sea lions were sleeping on the water, some jumped out in a dolphin style. From time to time frivolous groups of vigorous Dall’s porpoises raced beside our boat producing typical fountains of sea sprays.

One of the humpbacks seemed to sleep, lying still on the way of killer whales. The group dived 50 meters before the whale, but suddenly the whale exhaled indignantly, rolled over on his side and hit with his tail. We decide that we were about to become witnesses of predator’s attack of the giant whale, but sharp fins appeared on the other side from the humpback. The whale, puffing accusingly, turned back and followed the orcas. For some time it resembled of humback’s attack of killer whales. I don’t know what happened between them under the water – maybe the orcas touched long “hands” of the sleeping whale or maybe he just noticed them and waking up from the sweat dreams decided that the best defense is offence.

The humpbacks do not like mammal-eating killer whales and sometimes even protect other marine mammals from them. For example, , there is a described case of protecting a seal from orcas by two humpbacks. . Another case describes the protection of a calf grey whale from the group of attacking orcas by two humpback whales. It seems like a mature humpback can resist the killer whales thanks to his long “hands” protecting him at the front, while other whales have only one means of protection – their tail.

МMeanwhile our group of orcas, successfully escaping from the woken humpback, continued to move decisively to the south further and further from the shore. They moved as whales often do: changing long dives with short surfaces for breathing. During one of the long dives we noticed circles on the water on the other side from the boat. Among the circles there were several Dall’s porpoises. Suddenly right from the center of the circle soared a black-white body and vanished under the water. Straightway we understood that it was hunting! That’s it! Finally, after thirteen years of our work we can witness the hunting of mammal-eating killer whales.

Unfortunately, we have not seen a breath-taking chase and victims flying the air in “National Geographic” style. The process took less than one minute. There was a single jump and then orcas began to move together, slowly, as if they were pushing something with their heads under the water. Later, looking through the pictures we managed to see something resembling a piece of meat in the water.

We approached very carefully hoping to get a better look at a prey and to take a biopsy if possible for further genetic analysis of species identification. Something bright-red flickered in the water. Coming closer we saw a bunch of entrails on the water surface. By that time killer-whales retreated back either done with the tastiest part of the prey or being frightened by our approaching. The entrails turned out to be a Dall’s porpoise’s head, ribs and lungs, heart, liver and intestine.

There were no necessity in a genetic analysis for species identification – visual check was enough. The breastbone was uninjured, but the spine was pulled out; fat and meat were carefully ripped off and it seemed that the animals used a knife and a fork instead of their teeth. In comparison to the orca’s mouth the head of the Dall’s porpoise was tiny, but skin and fat were ripped off the head, including the melone (“a fat lense” for sound focusing). The Dall’s porpoise’s teeth turned out to be very small, hardly seen in gums. Most likely, the orcas chose the youngest animal from the group.

We continued to follow orcas hoping to explore the hunting process in details, because the previous time was so unexpected and sudden that we did not manage to get what happened.

They partly met our expectations – the next hunting was more spectacular and lasting but with failed result. The hunting beginning was similar to the previous time – the group disappeared and unexpectedly a killer whale jumped out vertically. I had never seen such a high jump. It was so delightfully and breathtaking that we forgot about cameras. We managed to shoot the next several jumps, but they were not vertical. There were fast horizontal jumps out of the water in pursuit of the Dall’s porpoise.

This time the Dall’s propoise was faster and in three or four attempts orcas stopped their hunting and kept going their way.

In August, we went to the east of the Sea of Okhotsk. As it is quite expensive to rent a boat – the sum of money we had was enough for three days of rent only. So we chose a more suitable variant – a yacht. On the 21-st of August we moved from Petropavlovsk on a six-seater yacht “Emma” with a cool captain Sergey and his assistant Yuri.

In Kambalny Bay we worked successfully with humpback whales and near the Atlas Island we met a North Pacific right whale. They are considered to be rare, but recently they can be met more and more often. I hope that in five or ten years it will be possible to meet them as often as humpback whales.

Then we went to the south along the Kuril Islands. There was huge fog in the fourth channel. We moved without any hope to see something interesting. Then it brightened unexpectedly and we reached clear water. The sun was shining and in a minute, we saw a male orca. In no time at all we were in a boat and followed a large group of killer whales. But it was still foggy, sometimes the visibility got better, sometimes it was impossible to see anything.

There was a moment when the fog had thickened and we decided that was it, because it is impossible to follow killer whales in such fog. We stopped, got a hydrophone in the water to record remote sounds. We were sitting and listening to such sounds and suddenly Ivan said: “Just imagine that right now the fog will disappear and we will see a white orca”. The sounds became louder and orcas began to be very close to the boat. And…no, the fog remained, but we did see a white orca! It appeared out of fog as a spirit of the sea, swam close to the boat and disappeared.

Then the fog lifted and we were in clear sea full of killer whales. There were not less than a hundred of them. We worked with them the rest of the day, but we didn’t meet the white one. Probably it exists in the fog only.



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