When to see orca whales in Australia: Best oceanic wildlife encounter

It’s a bloody thrill to encounter orcas at their WA marine buffet.

Death is in the air. You can sense it. The seabirds can smell it. The ocean draws a complicitous pall over the evidence – blood, oil, flesh – but it’s here.

Great-winged petrels arc and dive like ninja stars, scavenging the remains of the dead. But there’s little trace of either predator or prey. Then we see them – a turquoise shimmer of white flesh diffused beneath the ocean’s roiling veil. A long, black dorsal fin slices open the sea, and through the slit, a killer whale emerges.

With a rounded nose, black-and-white patchwork coloring, and a body like a lacquered torpedo, the orca looks more like a playful panda of the sea than the ocean’s greatest predator.

I’m on an expedition with Naturaliste Charters off the coast of Bremer Bay, in southwest Western Australia, and this is what we’ve come for. Every year between January and April, the deep, nutrient-rich waters off this pinprick fishing village, 200km east of Albany, play host to the largest aggregation of orcas in the southern hemisphere.

Killer whales come here to feed and mate. Up to 180 have been cataloged, but they could number as many as 300, and scientists are still learning about their behavior and what makes this patch of the Southern Ocean so special. For visitors, an orca expedition is a ticket to experience one of Australia’s most thrilling oceanic wildlife encounters, while also helping further the research effort. 

Also known as the wolves of the sea, they use their teeth not for chewing, but to rip and tear their prey
Also known as the wolves of the sea, they use their teeth not for chewing, but to rip and tear their prey

Tourist expeditions started in 2015, two years after documentary filmmaker Dave Riggs discovered a so-called orca “hotspot” while searching for an ocean “super-predator”. What he found was an explosion of marine life within a colossal 4km-deep system of undersea canyons. Here, Antarctic waters collide with the warm Leeuwin Current. Add a methane gas seep and you’ve got the perfect storm for an orca buffet.

But to see these fierce apex predators, we’ll have to enter their domain, voyaging across the continental shelf into the Southern Ocean on a sometimes gut-expelling journey. When we board the 20m catamaran Alison Maree the skies are cloudless and the sea is flat. But the joy that I might retain my breakfast is tempered by the disclosure that the orcas like it rough. Ninety minutes later we’re 24 nautical miles offshore (about 44km), a white speck bobbing in a galaxy of blue.

Right on cue, a swarm of seabirds signals the aftermath of a kill. But the ocean is quiet. Watching. Waiting. Then the sea betrays their presence and the assassins raise their heads in confession.

The orcas roll beside the boat, staring at the paparazzi humans, mouths open in a maniacal grin, revealing fleshy pastel-pink tongues and conical teeth.

We’re at the bow of the boat, following the pod east into the breeze. For the Southern Ocean, the conditions are as calm as they get, yet I’m clinging to the handrail as the boat pitches like a rollercoaster, dispensing the occasional face full of ocean spray.

The passengers – there’s only a handful as it’s the last week of the season – oscillate between muted awe and whooping excitement. I wonder if the mood would change should the orcas resume hunting. Marine biologist Pia Markovic explains that this pod is quite relaxed and sleepy, suggesting they have just filled their bellies.

Orcas at Bremer Bay, Western Australia
Orcas at Bremer Bay, Western Australia. Credit: Nic Duncan

Orcas are the largest of the dolphin family and grow up to 9m long. Weighing as much as nine tonnes, they consume on average 250kg of meat a day, gorging on a preferred diet of beaked whales and squid. Earlier this year, Pia witnessed the predation (a euphemism for an animal being hunted and torn to shreds) of a blue whale – the largest creature in the animal kingdom.

More than 70 orcas from different family groups preyed on the whale, slowly working it to exhaustion before going in for the kill and sharing the bounty.

Orcas – dubbed whale killers by ancient sailors – are fast and ferocious pack hunters. Also known as the wolves of the sea, they use their teeth, not for chewing, but to rip and tear their prey. It can make for pretty gruesome viewing.

“It’s pretty intense. You’re basically watching an animal get ripped apart,” Pia says.

Despite their fearsome reputation, orcas are not a threat to humans. In fact, they’re inquisitive and playful like dolphins. Our orca encounter – we see 11 in total – lasts about an hour. But the procession of marine life has only just begun. By day’s end we see a pod of pilot whales, a humpback, fur seal, sea lion, osprey, wandering albatross, and myriad other seabirds.

At one point we stop to retrieve a drifting polystyrene buoy with a skirt of goose barnacles as thick as a space helmet, wriggling with crabs and sea lice.

Too soon, we’re homeward bound. The boat is motoring north back towards Bremer Bay when the crew hollers from the upper deck: “Blue whale!” We shuffle quickly portside and there she is. The biggest creature to ever roam the Earth silhouetted in the late-afternoon sun. For the first time today, I’m pleased there are no killer whales to be seen.

Escape route

  • Bremer Bay is a five-to six-hour drive southeast of Perth. Naturaliste Charters offers daily orca expeditions from January to April, departing from Bremer Bay.
  • Adults cost $385; children are $300 (10 to 17 years).

whales-australia.com.au

The writer was a guest of Tourism Western Australia. This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com

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