New Zealand Orca

Unique New Zealand Orca

by Ingrid Visser

A rose by any other name is still as sweet smelling, or so Shakespeare wrote. The same is true for the orca, who are known by many different names, including killer whale, fat chopper, black fish and demon dolphin. However the orca that I have come to know over the last eight years are incredible animals, known more for their curiosity than for their fearsome reputations.

When I became interested in studying orca I was told that it wouldn’t be feasible, as the New Zealand coastline was too long, too rugged and sightings of orca would be too unreliable. So, with the tenacity that seems to thrive with Kiwis, I set off (in 1992) to do it, and to prove all the sceptics wrong!

I started out by travelling to Kaikoura and ended up waiting two months before I even saw an orca! But it was an encounter that was worth seeing… orca travelling along at high speed with the spectacular snowy mountains in the background. Contrary to what most people might think, the elusiveness of the animals only made me more determined.

I decided the only way I could find the animals was with help from the public, so I started putting up ‘wanted’ posters explaining that I was endeavouring to research these animals, and if folks saw them they should call me.

And, as they say, the rest is history. I have now spent more time with New Zealand orca than any other person on earth. I know some of them better than I know some of my friends, in fact, come to think of it, they are my friends. When I haven’t seen certain orca for a while, they rush over to my boat to greet me and it is a special sight to see them riding the waves around my little red boat (New Zealand appears to be the only place in the world where orca bow ride on a regular basis).

There are many things I have found that make the New Zealand orca unique. For starters they have that good old ‘kiwi-twang’ to their calls, and their calls are only made by New Zealand orca. What they eat, and how they eat it, has become the talk of orca researchers around the world. Nowhere else have orca been recorded eating so many different types of rays and sharks (eight species so far) and the fact that they feed in shallow waters has raised a lot of eyebrows. Only here do they spend the whole day in water so shallow that they can’t completely submerge (as I have seen the New Zealand orca do in the Kaipara and Whangarei Harbours). They are constantly on the look out for rays, and I have even seen them eating torpedo rays (also known as electric rays), which can’t be fun!

Associated with all of this hunting for food in shallow waters is the risk of stranding. New Zealand has one of the highest orca stranding rates in the world (currently we average one stranding every two years, and have had over 70 orca strand – which doesn’t sound like much, but consider Australia, where they have only had a total of 12 orca strand). New Zealand also has a very high success rate of refloating and rescuing stranded orca. One example was a young adult male called Ben, who stranded near Mangawhai in Northland. Ben ended up spending the whole night on the beach and the next day was put back in the water by a dedicated team of volunteers. He then met up again with his family, who had been in Whangarei Harbour all night, feeding on rays. Since the stranding Ben has been sighted a number of times.

However, Ben isn’t the only one that has been saved; Miracle (who stranded in 1993) is alive and doing well after her ordeal. She is very interactive since her stranding and will approach my boat and let me touch her. Another orca who does this is Digit, named after a wild gorilla who would reach out and touch the researcher, Dian Fossey (of Gorillas in the Mist, fame). Digit is very trusting, and will let me put my hand inside her mouth and touch her tongue. I don’t feed her, she just does this without any rewards.

Unfortunately, life is not all a bed of roses for the New Zealand orca, they do have threats. The two main ones appear to be boats and pollution. Boat strikes, where the animals get hurt by boat propellers, are highly visible. Ben was hit by a boat 16 months after his stranding. He was so badly hurt that I didn’t expect him to survive. Thank goodness he proved me wrong! Photos of him clearly show the marks from the propeller, as it struck him at least three times. Many people who have seen these photos have commented that ‘it must have been a big boat’, but that isn’t the case. Ben was most likely hit by a ‘fizz’ boat with a standard outboard motor. If he had been hit by a bigger boat, he would have died. I have records of at least three other orca being hit by boats, and during one of those events the orca died. So, if you are out watching orca please don’t harass them, as you can see here what can happen!

The other threat to orca of pollution comes about in many forms, and includes things like fishing line (it can cut off the top of fins – like the orca ‘A1’ who has the whole top of her fin missing), plastic bags (many dolphins that die are found with plastic bags in their airways, or in their stomachs) and the more hidden, but no less threatening, toxic chemicals and heavy metals that are a direct result of mans’ industrialised world. These chemicals enter the water via the air, run-off from cities and farms and direct pumping into the oceans from factories and effluent plants. How could these chemicals affect orca, you might wonder? Well, in a study in Canada scientists found that orca have ‘bioaccumulated’ (built up stores of contaminants, mostly through their food), to such high levels of toxic chemicals, that when they die their carcasses should be disposed of as if they were nuclear waste! At this stage we just aren’t sure how heavily loaded the New Zealand orca are, and looking at this will be part of the ongoing research.

This research project is on going. If you are interested in helping orca, you could Adopt an Orca, which directly supports orca research. For more information write to Adopt an Orca, PO Box 1233, Whangarei. And could you please report any orca sightings to 0800 SEE ORCA. Your help is appreciated.

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