Archive for July, 2009

Tracking Orcas

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

I have done whale watching in Hawaii and New England and it has been fun. But the whale watching in Galapagos took it to another level.

It was another breakfast aboard Athala (the luxury yacht  we were on) and after a rather tiring morning at Fernandina Island we sat lingering over cups of freshly brewed coffee and watermelon juice when Jorge our naturalist/guide on board barged in with news that some whales have been sighted.

Cameras ready we moved to the sun deck to catch sight of the whales. We saw them as every tourist does far off as they came up at regular intervals. Our guide helped us identify and differentiate between the killer whales – orcas and the other kinds of whales making a kill in the rich waters off the coast of Galapagos. Just when I my mind goes “oh well it is the same stuff I saw off the big cruise ship in Hawaii”, our guide calls out for all of us to the muster station.

Before I could realize what was actually happening we were on small rubber boats (dinghys), wearing life jackets and speeding towards the whales – the orcas specifically. Let me get it out right at the beginning, not all guides do this. The liability is high, it is scary and probably unsafe. But we did it as our guide was very experienced. I admit I was scared and at times really wondered what will happen if the small dinghy we were on in the middle of the Pacific just overturned and there I was in the middle of nowhere with just 20 people (the crew and tourists on the yacht) watching nature do its work without interruption. I scan the horizon in all directions – nothing – there is no one in sight – the island in the yonder seems to be closed land surface and my guide informs that the island like many in Galapagos belongs to the conservancy and has restrictions on who can land and when.

Middle of nowhere in he rubber dinghy

Middle of nowhere in he rubber dinghy with the guide and the dinghy driver

The excitement ran high and there were around 6-8 tourists in our dinghy, the guide and a dinghy driver (?) who powered the dinghy with his eyes on the sky. Yes! You read it right – you start a whale hunt looking at the sky. You look for the sea birds – the pelicans, the cormorants, the gulls, and a variety of birds I cannot name. These birds are looking for an easy meal –  the leftovers from the whale kill is what they are in search of. As our dinghy moved to where the birds where, we are surrounded by these birds fighting with each other for leftovers and right ahead of us the pair of orcas put a show and we keep going behind them.

The whale

The whale was that close to the dinghy. On the right you see the lifevest of one of people on the dinghy

The orcas typically hunt in pairs and once they have their sights set on the prey they set out for the kill in sync. One orca works from the front and the other from the back chasing the prey till the poor animal tires out. It was the turn of a poor sea lion to have caught the fancy of the pair of orcas we were following that day. The orcas are persistent – gentle pressure and you can see the sea lion tiring out. It is surreal watching the whole drama live and yes there were instances when I felt like putting my hand in and pulling the sea lion to safety.

Making a splash

Making a splash

The whales after executing a perfect 10 dive that wows us, go in with a whack of their tail.  The guide says typically they whack their tails to hit on an unsuspecting prey thereby weakening it. Yes I am in a death ground and I half expect the waters to turn red with blood. It makes me squeamish but I realize it is the food chain and it has to go on. Survival of the fitness – Darwin is supposed to have developed his theory here and years down the lane I am a witness – a silent, scared witness.

Hit by the tail

Hit by the tail

We keep following the birds, the whales, the poor sea lion in those small rubber dinghys trying to click pictures and hang on to our lives and just taking the whole scene in. We lost the whales for a while and suddenly there is a snort as one of the whales passes right under the plastic tube we are seated in. The clear waters showcase the black and white huge whale moving right below us. I wonder for a minute what will happen if the whale just lifts its head up. I shudder and refuse to think of the answer.

Yes we were that close and it was a killer whale

Yes we were that close and it was a killer whale.. See the birds waiting for the leftovers and the yacht following us

Suddenly, we lose sight of the sea lion and the air fills with a smell. Our guide informs us it is the smell of blood mixing with water. The whales made their kill and I look at the water and no the water does not turn red as I thought it would. But the smell is nauseating and the significance is overwhelming. A few minutes pass, I am sure it is not more than 3 minutes and we see the whales diving off further away in search of another prey in the oxygen-rich waters. The birds surround us looking for leftovers. We sit in rubber dinghys amazed at the sights, sounds and scents that filled us. Our guide gives us a few minutes to gather our thoughts and I am sure he has seen numerous of speechless tourists like us.

The whale, the birds and the yacht in the yonder and no one else for miles

The whale, the birds and the yacht in the yonder and no one else for miles

The yacht is right behind us and we get back on-board and sit down to talk. There is a cardiologist with his family who had Galapagos on his bucket list, there is the couple that loves mountaineering in Ecuador who decide to spend Christmas in Galapagos, there is a family from Europe visiting their sibling in Ecuador and there is us. People from different walks of life all stunned and amazed by what we saw.

Our cameras let us down – our batteries ran out but it is the memories I will treasure for today, tomorrow and forever. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done in life (no I will never sky-dive or bungee jump) and the most powerful lesson I learned about nature.