Orcas and whales

Last Monday (9th of March) Puerto Williams had a dramatic day, by the standards of this little isolated city: a number of orcas chased two whales onto the shores, and went on to kill them eventually. Orcas are seen in the area rather occasionally, and while whales are common in the channels of Chile, they don’t often enter the bay. They tend also not to be sei whales as these ones were, being the smaller humpbacks normally.

Head sei whale
The calf whale

Around midday, those on their moored boats thought they heard another boat approaching to come alongside; such was the sound of waves from the mother whale, who became beached close beside them in this narrow back inlet of the city’s bay. When we returned she was rocking end to end ponderously, a motion made with slowness and vastness, clumsily impressive. She measured 16 metres; a calf was beached near the harbour entrance in a more open place, and was 10 metres maybe. Out in the deeper water the fins of several orcas were visible, and they approached to assault the whales intermittently, though the shallows in which the victims were stuck caused difficulty. The rising tide was setting the whales free while increasing their vulnerability.

In fact the mother whale did float off this shore, briefly swimming away, but was soon on a second shore. Even if she had left the inlets more successfully, she seemed to lack a chance – orcas still filled the bay. As they attacked her tail she hurled herself much higher onto shore with sudden frenzy.

For onlookers the action occurred in an odd silence, the ominous black fin of an orca lifting out of the sea, perhaps a slight splashing in the struggle with a whale, then the black fin sliding down out of sight smoothly. We couldn’t tell what noises there were under the surface, if either of the whales could hear the other whale, for example. Now the weakened whales reacted less to the orcas, each lying expressionlessly, the sole movement the suck of the blowhole. Rains had left the water brown and muddy, and this obscured any blood completely.

At this point the orcas had one plain objective, pulling the whales off the shore to make them more accessible, and they were full of tactical efficiency. There were orcas which varied from infants at a parent’s side, to adults big as the baby whale, and the orcas of medium draught worked on the whales, while the biggest waited offshore. Two orcas were allocated to each of the whales, one of these the main attacker, the other one an assistant apparently. The rest cruised between victims and in the vicinity.

As the orcas hauled the little whale off the beach momentarily, it stirred itself to sudden effort for its life, swimming back onto the beach in the single direction available. It only obtained half an hour before being tugged off the next time; in a very final effort it broke away, taking the orca pack on a pursuit till they caught it in front of the city. In all this the orcas abandoned the mother whale, who for some time had seemed immobile. She started to throw her bulk about without apparent purpose, sending water slapping on the pebbles, the size of the throes amplifying their futility. The mother subsided with no further sighing from the blowhole. Both whales died, in the late afternoon, almost simultaneously. Birds descended on where the orcas were diving out in the bay. Two of the orcas returned to the mother’s body.

The mother was towed onto the beach for research purposes, and currently still lies on the coastline. And as for the orcas, they haven’t been seen since…

Mouth dead whale

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