Hello, everyone. I’m Elizabeth Zwamborn, a PhD student at Dalhousie University. I studied decision making in longfin pilot whales off of eastern Canada. I’ve been on the Whale Tales Podcast once before talking about Northern Bottlenose Whales on the Scotian Shelf.
But today I’m here to share one of my encounters with orcas in tropical waters as part of Orca month. My story starts in February of 2014. My lab mates and I were ready to head out on a two week Research survey for Sperm whales off the Galapagos Islands aboard the Whitehead Labs 40 foot sailboat called Valina. Leaving from Portnoy or on the main island of Santa Cruz, we made our way to deeper waters where the sperm whales are often found. When I say deep, I mean deep as in three kilometers, or 3000 meters deep. It was the middle of the hot season off the Galapagos Islands. The seas were calm, there was not a breeze to be felt, and humidity was through the roof. I always joke that we had two options during the Galapagos surveys. And that was to burn on deck or sweat buckets below. I’m not a lover as the heat as you might realize by now.
Why study sperm whales off the Galapagos Islands you might ask? Well, this area was known historically as a rich whaling ground for the species. We have learned a lot over the decades of research on sperm whale culture by studying the different vocal clans who use these waters. We slowly started heading west for our search, day turn to night, and we tucked into our bunks for the evening. Every two hours, we would switch out the person on watch as it is important to have someone making sure that all as well on the boat and monitoring the hydrophone in case we hear sperm whales.
Sometime in the middle of the night, we begin to hear the telltale clicks of our focal species. The steady beating echolocation that’s what we use to track them acoustically. Sperm whales on our first night, could we really be this lucky? And so the tracking began. Then, as suddenly as we started hearing them, the clicks disappeared. Silence. But out of that silence came a new sound, calls that certainly weren’t sperm whales. Perhaps they were made by one of the black fish species, the most common in that area being the shortfin pilot whales. As the night grew long those calls seem to follow our westward path. Dawn rose, brilliant calm waters stretched out before us. No sign of the sperm whales that we had heard last night.
I remember vividly sitting in the cockpit as my lab mate went down to check on the hydrophone, which we listened to every half hour when searching for whales. He remarked that the call seemed to have gotten a lot closer. Did I see anything? I looked ahead and then to the sides. Nothing. The final search area of course was behind us to the stern. And I looked out towards where the hydrophone was streaming behind our vessel. Then suddenly a sleek body arose from the water’s coming towards us about 150 meters away. I’ve rubbed my eyes. Could I’ve seen a white eyepatch? No, that would be unlikely. Not impossible. But I didn’t want to be the one crying wolf if I had seen something that wasn’t there. I stared into the blue.
The cetaceans surfaced again. And I knew with confidence that we were looking at orcas, a group of five of them including an older calf, cut up to the vessel and spent the next hour or so swimming around us as we continue to the west. They did not spend much time close to the sailboat as you sometimes see with other tropical orca encounters, but rather lingered around the periphery. Their saddle patches were faint, dorsal fins relatively unmarked, and with pelagic barnacles attached to the trailing edge.
To this day, I don’t know which individuals we saw. Little research has been done with the orcas off the Galapagos though there are some scientists who are working hard to build catalogs and understand them better. Are they part of the eastern tropical Pacific subgroup? Are there different and undocumented ecotypes of orcas found off the Galapagos? Do they simply pass through? Or are there groups who call this archipelago home?
This was my first time encountering tropical orcas, but it was certainly not my last. Little did I know that five short years later, I would be privileged to encounter and document Caribbean orcas off the coast of St. Vincent, during a sperm whale survey along the Lesser Antilles. But that’s a story for another day.
While my research focuses on a close relative an Orca, the long fin pilot whale, orcas will always hold a special place in my heart. They were after all, the species that first sparked my interest in cetacean research as a child.
This post was adapted from a voice recording in episode 55 of the Whale Tales Podcast, listen here