by Nicholas McIndoe
Many threats face the feared and misunderstood orca, including boat strikes, entanglement in nets and even deliberate killing. As Nicholas McIndoe explains, Dr Ingrid Visser is determined to change this, even if it means getting a five tonne stranded animal off the beach and back into the water.
Dr Ingrid Visser has loved the sea and animals in it for as long as she can remember. In 1992 she began a Phd study of the New Zealand orca and in doing so formed the Orca Research Trust, still the only research project dedicated to orca in the South Pacific.
Despite being the top ocean predator, orca have not enjoyed an easy life. While some indigenous peoples of North America have long revered them as spiritual lords of the sea, other non-indigenous people fear them and refer to them as killer whales.
It is thought that 18th century whalers called them âwhale killers,â and over the years, after seeing them attack and kill all manner of sea creatures, the words have been reversed. This attitude has continued into more recent times, the United States Navy (USN) declaring during the 1970s that âKiller Whales attack human beings at every opportunity.â
It is true that some animals have killed their trainers, but in a captive environment.There has never been a fatal attack on a human being by an orca in the wild.
There is no clear definition of what constitutes a stranding, however it is now widely accepted that there are four general types of stranding: 1. a single animal, 2. a pair of animals, 3. a mass stranding of three or more individuals and 4. called a âBeach cast,â when an animal has died at sea and the carcass washes up on the beach.
Although there are numerous theories as to why an orca might strand including sickness and navigational errors, as far as the New Zealand orca are concerned, Dr Visser is adamant that most orca strandings are a direct result of the risk â based foraging method orca use while hunting for stingrays and are not âsuicideâ.
Strandings in New Zealand cannot be compared to the deliberate strandings of orcas in Patagonia to take sealions off the beach; New Zealand orca simply get over-excited or make a mistake while hunting stingrays in shallow, sandy harbours such as Whangarei.
Changing peopleâs attitudes towards orca has been a long fight for Dr Visser because many still believe such a large animal cannot be successfully rescued as the pressure of sitting on the beach crushes their internal organs causing death, or the stress of lying in the sun for hours kills the animal even if it is put back in the water.Theories such as this have the support of a book published in the United States on stranded marine mammals, stating that an animal as large as an orca should be shot to put it out of its misery. However, Dr Visser disagrees and names several orca that have been successfully refloated and have gone on to live normal lives. One of Dr Visserâs favourites, Ben, who she helped rescue, is growing despite been struck by a boat a couple of years after being rescued. Mircale has a calf and Rudie continues to soldier on.
While understandable that some animals are beyond help and euthanasia may be the best option, there are cases where the orca was about to be euthanased but Dr Visser was able to stop it. She wants to continue this fight until beliefs change. âIt is impossible to describe what itâs like looking into an orcaâs eyes but I am always optimistic that a stranded animal can be refloated,â says Dr Visser.
In New Zealand it seems the message is finally getting through and there are many ways in which a member of the general public can help if they come across a stranded orca, however the first priority should always be to contact Dr Visser on her 0800âSeeâOrca number and then notify the appropriate authorities in your area. Stranding is a major threat facing the New Zealand orca today. While the orca is still misunderstood and feared, it is clear that thanks to the tireless work of experienced people such as Dr Ingrid Visser, the public attitude is changing and the future looks brighter for orca.
Although the fight is still ongoing the hope is that one day, within reason, all stranded orca will be rescued. Although Dr Visser has often been criticised for her use of âanthropomorphism,â that is giving the orca human attributes, she believes it allows the public to relate to the orca and âgain access to them.â As Dr Visser says, âPeople are not stupid, they just like to be able to relate to what the animals are doing. Besides, people relate better to Ben or Miracle than NZ101 or NZ26 the animals catalogue numbers.