It has been four years since Rainer and Silke Schimpf from Expert Tours in Port Elizabeth observed the disabled Orca, ‘Sira’, in Algoa Bay. At the time it appeared that Sira’s family were assisting the Killer Whale with food and hunting on the Orca’s behalf.
See the www.MyPE.co.za report: Disabled Killer Whale With Missing Fins Survives.
The May 2013 documenting of Sira being cared for by fellow pod members was at the time reported as one of the few times that killer whales have been seen to feed and care for a non-hunting member.
Fast forward to 7 March 2017 and a larger, more adept, now leader of the pack Sira made a surprising and scary appearance deep in Algoa Bay. Sira and four others put on the show of a lifetime for the Schimpfs and a foreign film crew on a routine trip to dive and film the Sardine Run.
While witnessing around 1 000 common dolphins hunting sardines and forming a bait ball, the Expert Tours group witnessed a “surprise attack of the Orcas” as they separated a group of five common dolphins and successfully killing two.
“I knew when we approached the big pod of common dolphins today, that the all signs were positive for a spectacular sighting as the Orcas had been spotted in Langebaan on the West Coast a couple of days prior, and I knew they would come to hunt dolphins here in Algoa Bay. As we followed the dolphins for about an hour they seemed nervous and raced off in different directions with small groups scouting around the main pod. To the untrained eye this may seem normal, but years of experience has taught us that they were looking for enemies,” said Rainer Schimpf.
The start of the attack on the dolphins was observed when they suddenly spooked and started flying through the Indian Ocean as the Orcas. The group had to look very quickly to find the predators as they had been “invisible” until the start of the hunt. Like lions in the bush, apex predators will not give away their position or any sign of their presence until the hunt is engaged.
The Expert Tours group sped to splashing in the distance observing black fins in the air and found five Orcas hunting down five Common Dolphins which had been separated from the larger pod. The Orcas managed to immobilise and kill two of the common dolphins. Orcas strike from great depth to breach with it’s prey and then focus on biting the dolphins tail which renders it incapable of swimming and a meal for hungry Orca’s.
But before the Orca’s make a meal of the struggling dolphin they train the less experienced in the pod on hunting techniques, like cats playing with mice the Orcas then practise hunting with the disabled dolphins.
But the experience was about to get heart thumpingly more scary for the Schimpfs and clients as Rainer prepared to enter the water to try and get close up to the marauding pod.
Before Rainer entered the water the handicapped Orca SIRA eased on over to the Expert-Tours vessel for a closer look – almost as if it remembered the vessel and all the strange objects pointing at him/her. “It appeared as though Sira was waiting for me to join the pod in the Indian Ocean,” says Rainer, who regrets being too afraid to join the pod in 2013 when they first observed the disabled Orca after it’s pod had just killed a Brydeswhale.
“It is with very mixed feelings and a bit of nervousness when one contemplates sharing the ocean in close proximity to these apex predators who still have the maddeningly metallic taste of blood in their mouths. I’ve been in the water with Orcas in Norway before but, those hunted Herring and never appeared interested in humans at all,” said Rainer.
Camera in hand Schimpf entered the Indian Ocean; “I looked down still holding onto the vessel and the Orcas swam off… playing with me, I though. I let go and swam into the blue, five meters, ten meters, and more away from the vessel, listening to the voices of the crew and team on the vessel. Then, suddenly, I saw two of the Orcas passing under me at around thirty meters deep, with the dolphin still in their jaws, which they had taken big chunks out of,” says Schimpf.
Schimpf says that he tried to get closer but heard frantic voices from the vessel shouting; “They are coming your way.” He turned around and saw Sira come in close to around two meters away to to see him. No sound came from the Orcas as the second one came in closer. As Schimpf turned to move back towards the vessel he saw the third Orca come in closer to almost face to face with him and focus on him with both eyes – almost as if he was being sized up for the next meal to flipped up into the water and gobbled down the hungry maw of the killer whale.
“I nervously watched the Orca move between the boat and I, then I was washed back towards the boat and, before I could protest, was yanked out of the water and into the boat by a spooked crew,” said Schimpf.
Rainer observes that over the last nine years he has been in the water with different pods of Orcas in South Africa, which in general didn’t show signs of being interested in the human amongst them. This latest experience was in complete contrast as they took an active interest in determining exactly what this strange creature was amongst them.
Expert Tours clients Yvonne, Jens and Johannes from Germany stated that this Sardine Run/Orca Experience trip was one of the best dive adventure productions and holidays that they have ever experience in their 25 years of traveling and the pictures taken by them will win any wildlife competition.
“I am happy that I was privileged to be able to document this behavior and get the shoot, but my experience and knowledge of the behavior of the animals, as well as knowing when to clear out of their space is what saved me. Swimming with an apex predator is not for everyone,” concluded Schimpf.