A comment that not only I but also our guests often receive before they come on board with us. Family and friends who pull up a media report and shout the word dangerous without knowledge of the animals. In this blog I would like to tell you about snorkeling with Orcas and one of the many conversations that take place when we are sitting at the dinner table.
“Killer Whales is the forbidden word 😉”
But first we have to go back in time a bit.
Killer Whales or Orca, unfortunately these animals do not have the name in their favor. Many people when they hear the word Killer immediately think of an aggressively murderous machine. But that’s not quite where the word Killer from Killer Whale comes from. It comes from the stories of the past, where fishermen or whalers returned from the sea. They saw that these Orcas were hunting whales, and with success. This gave rise to the name Killers of Whales. And that has been shortened to Killer Whales. Now there is only a small group of Orcas that hunt Whales as their main source of food. But this name certainly damages the image of the Orca. That’s why I always talk about Orcas on board and Killer Whales is the forbidden word 😉
But recent media reports do not help the Orca’s image either.
It is a shame that there have been many negative media reports lately of Orcas ‘attacking’ boats off the coast of Gibraltar. And then immediately using the word attack in the title creates a negative image. While animals, including the Orca, act from action-reaction. From the various images I have seen of the events, I would not consider the behavior an attack at all. Aggression is not a natural behavior; it is always a reaction to an action in a situation. Orcas are curious animals and this group has invented a new game, and with success. When the animals start playing with the rudder and it comes loose, the animals have achieved a success, so to speak. The fact that an entire ship can or will sink as a result is not something that will cross their minds. They achieved success and because of their action, there was a response. And as I say ”this group” that means that not all Orcas make a game of playing with your rudder. There are many Eco-types of Orcas and many more different family groups. All these groups have their own cultures, hunting techniques and diet preferences. For example, one group likes to eat seal and the other likes fish.
Back to Snorkeling with Orcas
We do this in the North of Norway during a specific period, yes, winter. This is the moment when the Herring enters the Fjords to lay its eggs there. As I said, there are different species of Orcas, with different diets. And the Orcas that attend this event mainly eat fish.
The animals are here for a purpose. And not just the Orcas, Humpback whales and fin whales also come to this area to benefit from the herrings that the Orcas skillfully collect as bait balls.
“Everything depends on what these animals show”.
Because the animals are here for a purpose, we must respect this purpose of foraging. The sea is their home, and they must get enough food from this time of year. We are therefore guests in the water when snorkeling with Orcas. And before anyone even goes into the water, we (Johnny and I) look at the behavior of the animals. Including speed, direction, breathing (frequency and force), group composition, time above water, type of behavior, for example foraging, socializing or other… Everything depends on what these animals show. And based on this we decide whether snorkeling can be done respectfully with this group of animals at this time. So we don’t just jump into the water with the Orcas, there is much more to it. Small nuances in behavior can have completely different meanings. For example, the force with which a tail hits the water, and which animal from the group performs this behavior. So, it is always important for us to continue to watch the behavior that the animals show. It therefore always remains the decision of the expert with years of experience to read the behavior of the animals. Above all, we work with respect for the animals and therefore choose the best moments for the animals that call the sea their home, without disturbing them.
But because the animals are here in the Fjords to forage, we see a lot of behavior that allows us to enter the water with the Orcas and whales.We can watch these spectacles of bait balls and foraging from the water by positioning ourselves in the water on the outside of the bait ball. The animals are so focused on foraging that we as snorkelers have no influence on the situation and can therefore watch this spectacle as spectators. A memory and experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Debbie Bouma, Marine Mammal Behavior Expert, Assistant Expedition Leader.