False Bay Killers
The 1970s Spielberg film, Jaws, instilled fear of Great White Sharks in the bravest of hearts. Contrarily, Free Willy, a film about a friendly Orca and attempts to set him free from captivity, portrayed the Orca species – despite their forbidding nickname, ‘Killer Whale’ – as harmless, loving creatures similar to Dolphins. But is this an accurate depiction?
Where sightings in the past have been uncommon and irregular in these parts, the Orca or Killer Whale population in False Bay has grown extraordinarily in recent months. David Hurwitz, False Bay resident and founder of Simon’s Town Boat Company, has dedicated himself in documenting these animals. He observed that the increase is largely due to the recent high concentration of bait fish in the False Bay waters, which in turn attract high dolphin numbers.
Orcas are highly intelligent and organised hunters and typically feed on dolphins in the Cape waters, as Hurwitz discovered in 2009. A commercial photographer, a SAMSA commercial skipper and a MCM marine guide, Hurwitz was recently able to take stunning photographs of a pack of Killer Whales hunting a large pod of common dolphins near Seal Island in the False Bay area
Finding it difficult to keep track of the speedy and stealthy Orcas (which, according to Hurwitz, are able to cross the bay in just two to three hours); he decided instead to follow a school of dolphins with the hope of Orcas finding and hunting them. Hurwitz had been tracking the dolphins since the crack of dawn on the 15th of May 2012. At around 09:30 he was approximately one kilometre off St.
James beach when he noticed a change in the pod’s behaviour. “They were leaping, splashing and rapidly changing direction, and I knew that their panic could only mean one thing – the Orcas had arrived!” “With one hand pushing the accelerator levers down firmly and the other holding my camera against my face, I sped towards the fleeing dolphins. With my heart racing and body trembling with excitement, 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 metres clear as it ambushed one very terrified dolphin, it’s powerful jaws driven home by eight tons of body mass.” According to Hurwitz the dolphin’s life came to a swift and abrupt end and the enormous splash resulting from the kill resonated for many metres and sounded like an explosion. Capturing the feeding frenzy, he saw the Orcas breaching through the middle of the school of dolphins several times, “sending them flying in all directions like sardines”. The images that Hurwitz managed to capture are very rarely witnessed in nature and to see these mammoth animals breach in such spectacular fashion is truly remarkable.
Killer Whales have been known to hunt dolphins, whales and even Great Whites! A Pygmy Sperm whale washed up on the beach at Muizenberg not too long ago.
Judging by its injuries, it is thought it might have met its demise in a run-in with Killer Whales. An Orca attack on a Great White Shark was documented in 1997 by a group of tourists and a biologist near San Francisco. Reportedly, the White Sharks then left the area for the remainder of the season. Although there haven’t been any South African recorded incidents that we are aware of, the large population of Great White Sharks in False Bay might even fall prey to these effective hunters! White Sharks, and more specifically the ‘chumming’ for White Sharks by shark cage operators and shark researches have recently sparked controversy in South Africa after the fatal shark attack on local bodyboarder David Lilienfeld, and should the Orcas in False Bay drive off the dense shark population, it is certain that not many surfers will be pining after their deadly finned friends for too long.
But will the Orcas prove to be even more of a danger to humans than sharks? Only time will tell. There haven’t been any recorded attacks outside of captivity and therefore no immediate threat is posed. But, if I were a surfer or bodyboarder, and even as a fisherman, I would certainly be cautious and constantly aware of these mammals and pay them the necessary respect that all wild animals, and especially apex predators of their stature, deserve.