The Orcas are back in False Bay.  See the incredible photos of Orcas chasing pods of dolphin taken by Dave Hurwitz of the Simon’s Town Boat Company last week (May 2012).  Below is a sequence of breaches as an Orca chases a pod of common dolphin off the False Bay coast between Fish Hoek and Muizenberg.  After many years of no sightings of Orca, they have returned to False Bay for four consecutive years in a row.  This year  they have been sighted relatively close to the shore, a real celebration of the years of marine conservation efforts in False Bay.    Orcas in False Bay chasing common dolphin by Dave Hurwitz

The Simon’s Town Boad company is the the sole permit holder in False Bay for whale & dolphin watching tours.  www.boatcompany.co.za   or www.facebook.com/boatcompany

Read the amazing account of the return of the Orcas or killer whales in False Bay in 2010 by Shark Cage Dive operators Chris and Monique Fallows of APEX Shark Expeditions

“Last night, two pigmy sperm whales were successfully returned to the sea in Simon’s Town after beaching at Surfer’s Corner in Muizenberg and the first Southern Right Whales of the season have been spotted.

After catching a snippet of Chris Fallows discussion on Cape Talk, about seeing a pod of 12 killer whales in False Bay on 1st June, we contacted Monique Fallows for the full story.  Apparently there are still large shoals of anchovy present in False Bay which the common dolphin are feeding on, and which in turn are attracting  killer whales…Read Monique’s account of an amazing morning at sea in False Bay.

 KILLER WHALE, DOLPHIN & SEAL INTERACTION IN FALSE BAY

In April last year I reported on a sighting of Killer Whales hunting common dolphin in False Bay– our first sighting of Orcas in 20 years of spending time in False Bay.  From March onwards this year we have regularly encountered large schools of over 1000 common dolphins in the Bay – a magnificent sight.  Huge schools of sardine were present all over False Bay which attracted the dolphins as well as numerous Brydes Whales and Cape Gannet.  The dolphin, gannets and whales would blaze through the sardines leaving a shimmering wake of millions of scales.  After a number of these sightings Chris, Poenas and I began to wonder if the killer whales would make an appearance this year.

Sure enough on Saturday, 17 April a colleague called … 4 killer whales were hunting a large school of dolphin just outside Simonstown harbour.  As we approached we could see that the dolphins were highly stressed and the whole massive school was travelling erratically and at high speed just outside the harbour entrance.  About 500 meters behind them we spotted the large, dark dorsal fins of the killer whales.  It was a tense situation wondering what would happen next.  Chris thought the killer whales may even drive the dolphins into the harbour, cornering them for an easy catch. He also worried about a mass dolphin stranding.

To the killer whales it seemed like a very ordinary morning as they cruised behind the school of dolphins, biding their time.  Then, just like that, they disappeared from view.   During the 2009 sighting we also lost sight of the whales just before they breached and hotted up their pursuit of a dolphin.  Exactly the same thing happened this time.

An adult female breached completely out of the water, knocking a dolphin into the air.She followed with two more breaches while chasing after the dolphin. It was a very tense situation and we were amazed to see the dolphin escape as it swam for the rocks inshore at Glencairn.  A number of cars had stopped on the road and they would also have seen this phenomenal event.

The killer whales could not have felt comfortable in the shallows so they left the dolphin and casually proceeded after the retreating school.

A closer look at the whales revealed that they were the same as those we had seen last year.  The pod consisted of 2 adult females, the huntresses, and 2 juveniles who hung in the background.  One female had a conspicuous “hump-back” deformity and the other female a distinct nick out of her dorsal fin.  We moved with the dolphins, followed closely by the killer whales for 2 hours and witnessed another unsuccessful hunt.

3 days later…………on a return trip from Seal Island, Chris spotted the dolphins again.  Suddenly one the dolphins exploded through the water and we knew this could only mean one thing.  A few moments later we sighted a killer whale breaching 3 times, obviously hunting a dolphin.

It was the same pod we had seen off Simonstown and this time they had been successful. The four killer whales took their time consuming the carcass. It was interesting to note that all the feeding took place underwater rather than on the surface. There were about a dozen seals in the feeding area and they followed the whales as they fed underwater. As I am sure you know that killer whales in other areas in the world feed on seals. It appears as if these killer whales have no interest in hunting seals and could be “dolphin specialists”.   We witnessed a similar disinterest in seals in the 2009 sightings and the seals appeared to be aware that they were in no danger.   Don’t ask me how they would know this…the intuition that nature often shows us is something that I would love to know more about.

After feeding, the whales headed off and we were able to gently cruise alongside them. To our great excitement the female with the humped back began bow riding the boat.  It was incredible to have this huge animal right alongside and to hear the great breaths she took each time she surfaced. She had done this a few days earlier whilst the other pod members moved on their chosen path away from us and we did not approach them.  We have heard that it is uncommon for killer whales to bow ride so not only were we extremely lucky to experience this but, again this comes down to witnessing distinctive personalities in the animals we come across. Only the hump back female did this.  And yes, you guessed it, only she did it last year!

As they moved across False Bay it was apparent that the killer whales had a definite destination in mind.  Chris asked Poenas to spot the dolphins from the roof of the boat but even though it was a flat calm perfect day he could not find them. With Poenas’s amazing eyes he can see dolphins from a good few miles away (we think Poenas is part gannet).

Sure enough after about nine miles of tracking with the whales we spotted the dolphins about a mile from us.  The killer whales were dead on track.  To put this in perspective, they had already eaten one large dolphin and before they finished, the dolphin school had disappeared from the area and was nowhere in sight.  There is no doubt in my mind that the killer whales knew exactly where the dolphins were in the Bay and headed straight there to hunt again – a distance of nearly 11 nautical miles ( 20km).

Once we saw the dolphins it all happened very quickly. A small group of dolphins had broken from the mega school and the killer whales were onto them just moments after we spotted them. This time the dolphin was caught after just one breach.  Feeding was slow with the 4 killer whales sharing the dolphin underwater. Nearly 100 young seals followed the goings on underwater and a few times the killer whales surfaced right next to the seals.

So, I guess there were a number of surprises for me after this encounter.  We were completely blown away by how easily the killer whales were able to find the dolphins again and we were also surprised that they would feed on 2 dolphins in 2 hours. The manner in which they feed reminded us of wild dogs, which as pack animals feed peacefully amongst each other – just as we had observed the killer whales doing with no fighting over the meal.  It seems that the good of the pod is what is most important.

We have now observed a total of 9 hunts, 5 of which were successful.  It is still too early to say whether this is likely to be an annual event, but the killer whales certainly seem to know the layout of the bay and the fact that False Bay is a hot spot for dolphins at certain times. The fact that we saw a second pod in August 2009 hunting dolphins shows that for the time being False Bay might just be becoming a regular feeding spot for killer whales.  The good thing was that the shark activity has not  taken a dive and it appears that the sharks were unfazed by the killer whales presence unlike at the Farralon Islands.

To see 1000 dolphins being hunted twice by 4 killer whales, have 9 different great whites come up to the boat in 3 hours, watch a natural predation on a seal, observe 60 000 seals and multiple sea bird species incl. penguins and see a few Brydes whales all in one morning, WOW!!!   I don’t think there are too many places that have this and we all felt very privileged!

Edited Version of Monique Fellows newsletter about the excursions of  APEX Shark Expeditions   to view and dive with sharks and watch whales in False Bay.

More about whales:

Click here to read about an encounter between kayakers and Brydes Whales off Simonstown

Click Here to read about pressure to lift the ban on commercial whaling!