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Diving with Orca

By Steve Hathaway
Diving-With-OrcaSomething that fires me up more than anything is spending time in the water with large animals. So when Dr Ingrid Visser (NZ’s Orca researcher) asked me three years ago to film orca underwater for her research, this was something that I had only ever dreamed of doing!

Since then I’ve been involved with a handful of international documentaries featuring Ingrid and her work. Two years ago a Discovery Channel documentary called Killer Whales was filmed around the world. It included footage following Ingrid from her research bases in New Zealand and Patagonia. The US production team was only in New Zealand for 10 days, which is a very ambitious and risky time frame when filming an elusive animal like the orca, as there are fewer than 200 orca around our extensive coastline; effectively it’s like looking for needles in a haystack! Unbelievably however, we struck gold and got to film the same pod of orca as they circumnavigated their way around the top of the North Island, starting from Kaipara Harbour on the West Coast all the way down to Auckland Harbour.

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Early on the last day, Ingrid’s 0800 SEE ORCA hotline rang, and from the moment the call was received, it was all systems go. Ingrid always runs a very well-oiled machine, and by this stage we were like a crack fire-station, with eight of us getting out the door within about two or three minutes! Each of us had our assigned tasks, and with both cars and boats already packed, we were smoking-hot – it was all the fun of a fire-station, but without the pole to slide down! We’d been told they were on the northern side of Whangaparaoa Peninsula, so it was then a mad dash across the countryside (within the speed limits, of course) to launch the boats and begin our search for this pod of TV stars.

Unfortunately it would be three hours at least before we could even start looking for them on the water. But again we were in luck, as within a few brief minutes of setting out we found them (with our thanks to the many people who rang Ingrid with updates on the location of the pod). Now all we needed was great underwater action. On this front it didn’t start well for me. The visibility wasn’t great, and also the handful of times I was in the water I was just out of range. Hey, on the upside, I had some great footage of tails swimming away from me into the murk!

orca3It was proving to be really hard work. Add to that the fact someone accidentally left a vital piece of equipment behind for the first time during this shoot, so once my pony bottle was out of air it couldn’t be used again (the pony bottle is a small dive tank that holds about 10 minutes of air when I’m exerting myself, giving me the freedom of free diving, but with the opportunity to breathe). We didn’t have any other option but to strap a cumbersome full-size scuba bottle to my back, which makes it incredibly hard for quick exits and entries into the boat, as well as being less streamlined and so much harder to swim fast with!

Just as I put on this new tank the excitement mounted, as there were three orca right next to us that seemed to be up to something. In I went, quickly following them down to the murky sea floor eight metres below, but despite the vis I could see one of the orca picking up an eagle ray right in front of me. It swam just a couple of metres before releasing the ray, allowing it to settle on the bottom again, before disappearing into the gloom. “This is weird,” I thought, but it was still the best footage I had shot all day, so I wasn’t complaining.

Then suddenly the trio were back again and one of them was carefully picking up the ray. Making sure the little red ‘record’ light was on in my monitor, I carefully hovered just off the bottom, feeling relaxed, as I knew I was definitely capturing the exhibition before me. With deft accuracy, the orca had picked the ray up in the corner of its mouth, and then gave it a quick flick, sending the ray into a spiralling descent right in front of the underwater camera. If hooting and hollering was possible underwater, that’s what I would have been doing! Wow! Over the next four or five minutes, this behaviour was repeated a number of times. A thought came to me: “I think they’re showing off for me!” I knelt on the seabed close to the tormented ray, expecting the orca to return any second. Gazing around into the hazy green water, trying to anticipate what direction they would return from, I saw the huge outlines of these apex predators gracefully swooping in. One was upside down now, pushing its nose along the sea floor with easy kicks of its powerful tail. Then, just as gracefully, it stopped right next to the ray, but now it was in a near-vertical position with its tail raised towards the surface while carefully positioning the ray so it could pick it up without receiving a deadly barb in its face.
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Now it was starting to feel like I was watching the sports ‘plays of the week,’ as each release and capture seemed to be a better looking version of the last one, with the ray sent spiralling past the camera again and again. I couldn’t believe my luck – this is like a nature cameraman’s dream scenario. I constantly made sure the record button light was showing before relaxing to capture the show. This time something was different though: the orca coming in as expected, but with one of them taking more time to pick it up than before and seemingly doing something that required the greatest care. The orca gently raised the ray off the bottom, but instead of holding it in the side of its mouth by its wing, it held the ray by the tip of its tail, lifting it just above my camera before releasing it to glide past my lens… WOW, this was incredible! I’d never seen anything like it! This huge mouth, capable of taking large chunks out of a full-grown whale, was now displaying incredible tactile skills to pick up something about a third the diameter of my pinky.

If this was showing off, great job, because I was impressed! All up this experience lasted about 17 minutes, and was finally over with one, last, swooping pick-up of the ray. I slowly swam to the surface pinching myself, making sure I wasn’t in the most incredible dream. When my head broke through, all my emotions escaped – I screamed and hollered with excitement. I was in absolute awe and appreciation of these magnificent animals, which had allowed me to glimpse a tiny fragment of their abilities! I re-live this memory regularly, and still shake my head at what I filmed that day. I’ve spent many incredible days with orca, but this one topped them all! You can view the recent BBC trailer from the documentary about Ingrid and New Zealand orca, which screens next year on TV3 (I shot all the underwater footage, including some you’ve just read about).

orca4We’re so fortunate to have these animals around our coastline and because they are in such critically low numbers in New Zealand, they need our utmost protection. When you see orca and whales on the water, take the utmost care – make sure you slow your boat down to five knots and drive a predictable course and speed, because they can’t read your mind and stainless steel props win out over blubber every time. Marine mammals struck by boats is a significant issue in New Zealand, and there’s a good number of orca and dolphins around that bear prop marks to prove it!

This is part of the reason why marine mammals protection regulations restrict how we act around marine mammals. These laws include: no boats within 50m of whales and orca, and a no-wake speed within 300m of them (including dolphins). Also, no people are allowed in the water within 100m of whales and orca. These rules apply to everyone – unless you have the appropriate permits stating otherwise.

If you spot orca, please call Ingrid on 0800 SEE ORCA. Also check out her website for lots more about New Zealand’s unique orca population.

Courtesy of New Zealand Fishing News 
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