The Blackfish Sounder
Annual newsletter of the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program
The Blackfish Sounder is the annual Adopters-Only eight-page newsletter of the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program that is sent to anyone who joins the program by adopting a whale. Through a mix of news and feature stories, The Blackfish Sounder keeps adopters up-to-date on what we currently know about killer whales - in B.C. and around the world - and what we hope to learn in the future. See the article below for a sampling from the 2016 issue.
Killer Whales at the tip of Africa
Long-time readers of the Blackfish Sounder may remember stories about False Pass. Located in the Eastern Aleutian Islands of Alaska, it is a place where Bigg’s (transient) killer whales congregate every year to attack and feed on migrating grey whales. Annual trips to False Pass were part of my life for years until a decade ago, so you can understand my confusion when filmmaker Joe Kennedy with Table Mountain films invited me to join him on a killer whale project in a place called “False Bay”. False Bay, as it turns out, is a large inlet on the east side of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa—18,000 km from False Pass!
Kennedy is a former Vancouverite who divides his time between London (UK) and South Africa. He described watching a large herd of common dolphins storming along the surface in False Bay, with killer whales in hot pursuit. Whale watch operator Dave Hurwitz of the Simonstown Boat Company informed him that killer whales had not been seen in False Bay until very recent years - and the seed of an idea to shoot a documentary was planted.
Unable to resist this unique opportunity, I joined Kennedy for a few weeks in both 2014 and 2015, with the hope of catching the killer whales during one of their still-uncommon visits to the Bay. More importantly, however, I was there to review the observations, video footage and photos taken over several years by Hurwitz (a keen and knowledgeable observer with the uncanny ability to spot whales on the horizon) and to compare the behaviour of the killer whales and their prey in False Bay with mammal-eating Bigg’s killer whales in B.C. and Alaska. And what a fascinating comparison it was!
In B.C., Pacific white-sided dolphins were rare in coastal waters for many years prior to the mid-1980’s, when they began slowly moving in from offshore waters. At first, the local Bigg’s killer whales seemed incapable of catching them; they were too alert, too agile, and by staying close together, the dolphins made it difficult for the whales to focus on a single individual and chase it to exhaustion. After a few years, the whales learned new tricks, such as driving the dolphins into small bays before attacking, or splitting their herds into smaller and smaller groups until they could attack a single individual. In South Africa, in contrast, the local common dolphins initially swam in an uncoordinated way when approached by killer whales and were relatively easy for the whales to seize in their jaws. The dolphins learned quickly, however, and within several years, mastered the art of coordinated fleeing, making themselves much harder to catch. Attacks are now much more dramatic, with the whales attempting to ram the dolphins from underneath, tossing them into the air and crippling them.
Every day on Hurwitz’s boat in False Bay revealed new wonders: great white sharks pursuing Cape fur seals; dusky dolphins leaping; common dolphins herding fish; bottlenose dolphins patrolling shorelines; southern right, humpback and Bryde’s whales cruising through the scene; and penguins, seabirds and schools of fish everywhere. In the end, my views of killer whales were limited to the images and video taken prior to my visits, but it was a wonderful experience nonetheless. The resulting documentary, “Killer Whales: the MegaHunt”, will be airing on Discovery this fall—don’t miss it!