Orcas day one: An introduction and my first experience seeing an orca

Aug 06, 2018 by afdadmin
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– By Steve Kavakos, Iceland explorer at large @stevechristopher__

My first day out on the water in Iceland and we were there to spot North Atlantic Killer Whales. Since the age of six or seven I knew I wanted to see orca in the wild. At twenty-seven, my chance had finally arrived.

The weather here in Iceland is quite unpredictable. It makes spotting and searching for orca very difficult. If the swell is high and cloud cover is heavy, chances are you are not going to see anything.

But on our first day we had clear skies. Out of the blue, I spotted a long, straight, black fin, followed by the sound of water spurting out into the air. Right away I knew it was a large male orca. There he was, just cruising at a low speed revealing his large white saddle patch.

Male Northern Atlantic orca – type 1

My smile could have broken my jaw, my eyes watered because I refused to close them. He popped back under, leaving a blueprint behind him and then. Three more followed.

Once I’d had a chance to gather my emotions, the team and I got stuck into some research and answering some important questions.

Research questions

  • Where do the orca go and what do they eat?
  • What about group structure and acoustic communication?
  • What do we need to know now?

Orca have extremely strict diets and this controls and designates where the different species are spread right throughout the world. As there are over ten different species of orca, it’s important to understand they all do not eat the same thing.

In fact, they all have their own unique diets. Icelandic orca have a strict diet of herring, forage fish who travel in great numbers off of the coast and surrounding waters.

North Atlantic killer whales type 1, the orca we are seeing, eat fish, some shark and at times mammals. But when it comes to the diet of the Northern Atlantic killer whale type 2, they eat mostly marine mammals.

Male Northern Atlantic killer whale – type 1

What is most fascinating is the orcas here make a unique set of calls not found anywhere else in the world. That’s why the Icelandic Orca Project, headed by Dr. Filipa Samarra are studying these animals to learn about their general behaviour, acoustic calls, where they go when they aren’t in Iceland, but more importantly, if they are true herring specialists.

Dr Samarra is trying to understand whether the majority of the Icelandic orcas’ diet is dependent on herring and if so, why? Is there a chance they may face the same issue as the Southern Resident orcas whose diet comprises of over 80% chinhook salmon? Southern Resident orca have been in decline because of this issue and shortages of salmon have seen some orca refuse other prey. This is why data collection is essential to understanding the Atlantic orca’s future in Iceland.

The primary issue facing these Atlantic orca is fish stocks. If fish stocks dive so too does the orca population. Declining fish stocks means increased whale mortality and decreased whale births. There has been a 60% decline in herring stock over the past 10 years. The Icelandic Orca Project’s biologists have many observational tactics to help them learn and act on this growing issue.

Photo identification is key to understanding the orca. Knowing individuals and tracking a consistent orca is key to gaining specific meaningful data. Photos are taken of the dorsal fin and the saddle patch just under it. Specific marks, grazes and scars give the orca their own personal profile. This means the team can recognise the orca, monitor their movements and learn more about their behaviour. A total of 432 orcas have been photo identified and many more as we are here.

On the research boat.

What the research does tell us is there is an odd mix of orca who are mixing their diets. A diet of sea birds, seals and fish to be more specific. Some are distinguishing this phenomenon as a form of “speciation”, however the Icelandic Orca Project don’t seem to think that is what is happening.

Speciation in plain language, is the evolution of a species who become a more distinct species. Meaning the oracs here in Iceland are completely unique.

Nothing will ever compare to the breathtaking feeling of first seeing an orca in the wild. They are truly fascinating animals and I can’t wait to get them to know them more.