A Terrifying Fascination

Game 7 of the world series has ended and I lay on the couch listening to the wind outside, contemplating going to bed. Another strong gust hits and the windows begin to tremble, the town run we have planned for tomorrow isn’t looking very promising. I stretch and yawn, glancing across the room at our rabbit, Penny. She’s already curled up on her bed, 12 hours of sleep clearly wasn’t enough for her. I’m ready to do the same when the speaker on the shelf above the sink changes everything.

Usually when orcas start calling it’s distant, subtle, a mere whisper as they enter the range of the hydrophone. That first call makes you pause, stop, and listen, unsure whether you really heard something or just imagined it. This time of year there’s always the debate of whether it’s a humpback or an orca calling, especially at night when the humpbacks do the majority of their singing. Tonight there was no debate, no passive listening, no questioning whether I had actually heard something or not. Calls erupt through the speaker, loud and excited, overlapping one another. It’s definitely not a humpback, and I’ve never had a residents call make my blood run cold. It’s transients, the phantoms, masters of stealth, who never utter a sound and yet concoct elaborate and ingenious methods of tracking and hunting down their prey; seals, sea lions, dolphins, and porpoise. But for once they’re aren’t quiet, whatever they’ve just eaten must have been delicious and they’re calling just as loud as their resident counterparts do.

By the time I reach the lab and punch the record button the calls have reached a fevered pitch, maybe it’s knowing what these creatures are capable of, what I’d seen them do in the past that made them sound so eerie. But to me, their happy calls will always remind me of the laughter of some villain in a movie. Sadistic, high pitched, the type of joy you can take no pleasure in, that nothing good could come out of them being so happy. I’m sure the sea lions and harbor seals would agree with me. But their calls, were not altogether unfamiliar to me. I’d heard this before.

I was supposed to be studying the humpbacks of Glacier Bay, but my orca obsessed reputation had long ago preceded me. So when the orca whale biologist, Dena Matkin recorded and documented the first known sea otter fatality by a transient in southeast Alaska, she graciously shared the recording with me. As she hit play and the calls begin to reverberate off the walls of the office, everyone froze, maybe its because we knew what the whales had just done, maybe it was something else, but it gave us all goosebumps. Now, four years later they elicited the same response from me. Fear, horror, and fascination, everything, after all, must eat I reminded myself the same way I had gently told my passengers that day on the whale watching boat.

The sky is blue, the ocean of Icy Strait incredibly flat. Two hours out from Juneau, our 33-foot whale watching boat, the Islander, cuts a slow and methodical path east towards home. Off our port are six orcas, calm and relaxed they too, make their way east. I stand at the bow relieved, ten excited passengers on the boat with me. But right now I’ve transformed from tour guide to burgeoning nature photographer. A splash right below the bow pulls my attention away from the pod. A group of Dall’s porpoise materialize right below the surface, riding our wake. The resident or transient debate ended. Surely, if they were transients over there, the porpoise would not be so willing to ride the waves. I glance back at the orcas, staring intently at the dorsal, trying to decide if they were pointed enough to possibly be transients. I look to check on the porpoises, they’re gone, and a scream comes from behind me.

The orcas had closed the distance to the boat in two heartbeats and rocketed out of the water on the other side of us. The porpoise were already gone, streaking away from the hard charging orcas. With no hesitation, our boat captain throws the boat in gear, trying to keep pace with this daily dance of the food chain playing out right in front of us. The boat barely bounces on the calm seas and I hold the camera to my eye, trying to follow the action. The Islander’s going 32 knots, and both species are outrunning us. The whales bear down on the fleeing porpoise, spreading out, trying to flank them and cut off their escape.

On the boat there’s chaos, the engine roaring, passengers screaming, the voice of my friend and boat captain, T, screaming at me, “get the shot, David! You better get that shot!” Without warning, the two orcas in the middle of the chase leap high into the air, their white bellies reflecting in the high summer sun. They jump again and again, trying to pin the porpoise beneath their massive bodies. The strength, power, and speed with which they reacted was amazing, awe inspiring. As quickly as it began, it’s over, the orcas suddenly milling, flashing back and forth over the same spot, the surviving porpoise still swimming as fast as they can. We come to a stop and bob at the surface again. Adrenaline pounds through my body and my fingers shake as I scroll through the photos, a few of them showing one of the whales frozen in time forever above the surface of the ocean.

“The sheer power of the scene amazed me….. I had until now, never realized the true power of the killer whale. I sat there feeling amazed and blessed that the orcas never loosed this power on humans.” – Alexandra Morton521617_10152100638914852_1036290620_n

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