Spectacular photographs by David Hurwitz, of whales, dolphins and the marine life of False Bay, are on display at the Simon’s Town Museum until the end of January 2013
The following article was submitted by Dave to accompany a selection of his photographs.
Orcas in False Bay
“The dolphins were leaping, splashing and rapidly changing direction. I knew that this panic could only mean one thing – the Orcas have arrived!”
Orca sightings in False Bay are exceptionally rare. Occasional reports come in from fishermen and other mariners, but most people are unaware of the existence of Orcas in these waters. In nearly 40 years of navigating the bay, I’ve only had the privilege to see them a handful of times.
The Orca’s distribution is worldwide, extending to the high latitudes of both hemispheres. They live and hunt in a pod, which may be resident or transient. Furthermore, they are specialized feeders, concentrating on prey specific to their area. This includes marine mammals, fish, birds, and turtles, and they’ve even been known to attack and kill great white sharks, earning for themselves the title of the ocean’s apex predator.
False Bay is home to a number of the Orca’s natural prey sources. However, unlike the Great White Shark which feeds off the juvenile seals at Seal Island from April to September each year, it appears that the Orca’s diet does not consist primarily of South African Fur Seals. Rather, as I was able to confirm in 2009, it is the Common Dolphin which attracts this magnificent species to our bay. They are described to be ‘passing by’ rather than common or seasonal residents within False Bay.
2012 has seen False Bay teeming with Bait Fish, resulting in a level of feeding activity far exceeding that of recent years. African Penguins and South African Fur Seals have had little reason to move offshore to feed, and this has also been true for dolphins, Brydes Whales, Cape Gannets, and many other bird, fish and cetacean species. Attracted to the idea of an easy meal, the Orcas seemed to extend their stay within the bay. It was during this active season that I was privileged to witness and capture a photo of a successful predation.
Prior to Tuesday 15 May 2012, myself and several others mariners had sighted the pod featured in the accompanying photographs on four separate occasions. Interestingly, the Orca’s had been present in the bay for much longer than usually expected. Despite being aware of their presence, it was no simple matter to just go out and find them. They move incredibly fast – they can easily cross the bay in 2-3 hours – and are naturally stealthy. My strategy was to find and track a school of dolphins in the hope that a pod of Orcas would eventually show up. A week and countless hours on the water later, my moment finally arrived…
I was out more than a kilometer off St James Beach and had been with a school of dolphins since sunrise. At about 9.30am I noticed a sudden change in their behaviour. From feeding in a typical semi-circular formation, they began to spread out in a line formation almost 500 meters in length, accelerating to over 25 kilometers per hour. They were leaping, splashing and rapidly changing direction, and I knew that their panic could only mean one thing – the Orcas had arrived!
At that point I was about a hundred meters behind the pod and I accelerated to keep up with them. A massive Orca surfaced beside my boat, took a huge breath, sounded, and rocketed towards the dolphins.
With one hand pushing the accelerator levers down firmly and the other holding my camera against my face, I sped towards the fleeing dolphins. Knowing exactly what was about to happen and with my heart racing and body trembling in excited suspense, I somehow managed to compose myself just enough to predict the exact spot where the action was about to unfold. Then, almost as if scripted, an Orca exploded from the water, breaching nearly four meters clear as it ambushed one very terrified dolphin, it’s powerful jaws driven home by eight tonnes of body mass.
Death was surely instantaneous! The explosive splash resulting from this kill must have radiated for about 30 meters. Five seconds later and about a hundred meters to my left, another powerful Orca lunged up from beneath the dolphins, sending them flying in all directions like Sardines. I didn’t hang around to see the remains – the other two members of the pod had not yet had their chance and they too were in eager pursuit. The now-fragmented school of dolphins had changed direction, bolting towards the center of the bay.
The Orcas, probably aware of the difficulty in successfully hunting dolphins in this hyper-alert state, backed off and regrouped. They let the dolphins move off and settle, and the distance between them increased to about one kilometer.
After about an hour the dolphins had seemingly forgotten the previous event. The Orcas took advantage of this opportunity to quietly resume stalking them, and I observed intently. Suddenly all hell broke loose as the Orcas made their second attack – this time with far greater aggression. Words cannot describe the raw power of these magnificent ‘Killer Whales’, but the photos tell the story.
The dolphins were attacked four times over a three-hour period, before the Orcas moved off and weren’t seen again for the rest of the day.
About the Photographer
David Hurwitz was born and educated in Cape Town. He studied commercial photography at the Ruth Prowse School of Art and went on to run a graphic design studio for 21 years. He is currently a SAMSA Commercial Skipper, MCM (DAFF) Marine Guide, a member of the SA Whale Disentanglement Network and Chairperson of the Dolphin Action & Protection Group, a Theta registered Tour Guide (marine & land), and a Level 3 Medic. He has spent his life sailing and power-boating and founded Simon’s Town Boat Company 15 years ago, offering the only licensed boat-based whale- and dolphin-watching tours in False Bay (Official permit holder: Ocean View Masiphumelele Fishing (Pty) Ltd.)