Our Experience with Orcas

The sky was blanketed with thick wooly clouds, it was raining as we launched our boat from the dock that morning. We ignored the rain and got offshore where we ran into a proper storm. The ocean pitched our little boat, tossing it left and right with ease. Over the radio, we heard a crackling Coast Guard transmission warning of a Small Craft Advisory for the day. About 3 miles offshore, I turned to Jim and the grimace etched on his face conveyed the thoughts racing through my own mind; conditions were less than ideal and we could either attempt to push through the squall that was pummeling us, or turn back now. Shouting over the wind and the crashing noises of our hull colliding with choppy waves, I said, “I’m keen to stay out and slowly putt along if you are.” Jim nodded and we continued on. Any other day and we likely would've turned around, but this day was different. We were determined. Half an hour later, our perseverance paid off, the rain let up and the swell calmed after we entered the Kealakekua area. The mountain range offered us a welcome expanse of protection from the day’s unusual winds and the rain moved closer to land.

Our motor throttled down. “Wait a second,” Jim said. “Wait a second.” It’s the phrase my husband and I use when we’re hesitant yet hopeful that we have spotted wildlife in the distance. I glanced back to the helm of our boat and saw Jim  scanning West. I returned my eyes to the slate sea and searched this new direction for signs of life; waiting, willing, wanting desperately … and then there it was. 

200 yards away, a sleek black dorsal fin emerged from the vast swath of ocean, followed by a rounded rostrum and the tell-tale white eyepatch that confirmed what we’d been hoping for: we found the pod of Orcas we’d set out to locate that morning. I was perched on the bow when the whale emerged and I cheered, “You did it! You did it!” 

“I’m not sure,” Jim said, “It could be a Pilot Whale.” His self doubt stemmed from a previous moment, last year, when we searched the sea for 8 grueling hours. When we spotted a large black dorsal arise from the ocean in the distance we prematurely believed it to be an Orca; we celebrated, turned on cameras and rejoiced, only to approach and find that the individual was actually a large bull Short Finned Pilot Whale. While Pilot Whales are extraordinary animals, they’re quite common around Kona waters and we’d had our hearts set on finding the apex predator of the sea that day, the “Killer whale”, to no avail.

“That’s no Pilot Whale!” I exclaimed, and we rerouted our minuscule zodiac further offshore. The Orca had dipped below the surface and so we traveled about 50 yards in its direction then turned the boat off and paused to see where it would reappear. Jim joined me on the bow and we waited with baited breath. A forceful exhale, alerted us to the whale's position. It had resurfaced and was rapidly advancing towards our drifting vessel when it slipped under the water again, gliding just below the barrier between its world and ours. Through the ocean’s mercurial reflection of the sky, a dark figure approached our boat. As the Orca came upon our port side, it turned upwards and peered at us, exposing it’s white belly which glowed teal through the dark water. It surfaced next to us and dove again, continuing on towards land. 

It took a moment to grasp what we had just witnessed. In other areas of the world, killer whales are a common sight, but in Hawai’i, they’re one of the rarest cetaceans to come upon. These individuals are transient animals, they travel immense distances and make periodic “visits” to places like the Hawaiian Islands, presumably to hunt where there is abundant prey. In 2013, Cascadia Research Collective tagged 3 wild Orcas and tracked their movements from Kailua-Kona into international waters. The whales travelled approximately 2,000km (1,242 miles) and were about halfway to the Marshall Islands when the tags stopped transmitting. Research has also reflected that these whales appear to be opportunistic feeders; reports of killer whales near the Hawaiian islands hunting toothed whales, baleen whales, sharks, fish and octopods all lend the idea that they don’t have any one specific prey or diet. They are essentially the unpredictable wolves of the sea, collectively hunting and seizing any opportunity they can.

After a minute of gathering our wits about us and recovering from the excitement of the moment, we cast our gaze in the direction where the whale last sounded and scanned the water again for signs of life. In the distance, further South, I spotted multiple dorsal fins on the surface. We made our way in that direction and realized we’d come upon a nursery pod of three calves and three adults. The whales took a breath and dove deep, reappearing about 200 yards North approximately 8 minutes later. They were now near the whale we initially spotted and repeated the diving behavior again: they sounded and resurfaced, this time slightly offshore. 

“I think they’re hunting,” I said to Jim and we watched as the whales continued to dive and surface with no one direction or predictability. At one moment, we’d moved our boat offshore and had just turned off the motor to sit and search when the pod appeared directly off our bow, heading in our direction. “Ali, get in,” Jim said, and I grabbed my camera and slipped quietly into the water. I hovered underneath the bow of our boat and scanned the endless cobalt blue around me. The sun was still hiding behind the clouds, reducing the water visibility and the ocean was eerily quiet. From the left, six ghostly figures approached, becoming larger and more distinct as they continued towards me. I switched my camera to video mode and held it out below my face, intent on watching the moment with my eyes unobstructed. The nursery pod swiftly and silently glided past me. The smallest calf was tucked up under the largest female with a slightly older calf between us. The small whale shifted from underneath the female and popped up on the other side of her dorsal fin, it rose above her to take a quick peek at me and then tucked back down again. Then they disappeared into the blue.

Still frame from video footage of Orcinus Orca (image resized)

To those who have witnessed truly spectacular displays of Orcas hunting or interacting, my experience would be nothing to write home about, but to me, it was everything. Some people dream of exploring outer space, some dream of summiting Everest, some dream of finding buried treasure. My childhood dream was to swim with Orcas in the wild. As I grew, I decided that I wanted to swim with Orcas specifically in Hawai’i. I know there are places in the world where you can take a tour and swim with wild Orcas and while I’m sure I’ll someday join one of those excursions, I wanted to see my first killer whale in Hawaiian waters because Hawai’i is where I learned to truly love the ocean; it’s my home. I spent hours, days, months, years, over a decade working on the sea and I knew that when the day came, where I got to witness my “white whale”, the gravity of the moment, and the appreciation I’d feel for it, would mean so much more because of the literal blood, sweat, tears and years I'd devoted to achieving this experience. 

After getting out of the water, I was surprised by my apparent inability to comprehend what had just happened. I momentarily questioned whether I was dreaming. I think the gravity of devoting 24 years to a single moment, and then experiencing it in a proverbial flash, was a bit more cumbersome than I expected it to be. I was overcome with joy, fascination and admiration for these beautiful animals and was overwhelmed with appreciation for my husband. He’s known since we met, 7 years ago, how important this moment was to me. His willingness to forgo getting in the water himself in order to allow me a moment alone with these whales demonstrated just how genuinely giving and selfless he is. He and I are cut from the same cloth when it comes to wildlife: we want to be in the water, in the action, viewing, experiencing and documenting as much as we can. It spoke volumes of his character and his love for me to have gifted me the first view in the water. I am immeasurably blessed to have him as my partner. 

We called Robin Baird, a biologist who studies Hawai'i's cetaceans, as well as a few of his associates and a couple of our friends. As the “coconut wireless” goes, word got out quickly that we’d found Orcas and soon multiple boats were out searching for them after Jim and I had lost track of their location. A few hours later, we spotted the whales again, this time they were clearly in transit and perhaps still hunting. Their contrasting bodies were cresting through the surface, throwing large sprays of whitewash as they hauled offshore. It was now 1pm and our little boat was low on gas. As we were preparing to head back to the harbor, one final opportunity presented itself; the whales had made a turn and were headed our direction. I encouraged Jim to get in the water and he did so just in time to see them rocketing past our bow, laughably dwarfing our small boat. We made our depart and headed back towards land, exhausted from the amount of excitement the day had presented us. 

The last boat to see the Orcas that day said they’d left them 20 miles offshore. A group of fishermen reported seeing the pod hunting Spotted Dolphins a day or two later but after that, there were no further sightings. The whales had moved on to their next location.

I still haven't discovered a word that properly encompasses our experience that day. It was something of a rollercoaster. We felt discouraged and challenged by the weather in the beginning, then relieved when the squall dissipated and the ocean calmed. We were overcome with emotions when sighting the first whale and were thrilled to see so many healthy looking calves in the pod. We became entirely drained of energy by the end of the excursion and after fully accepting that the day’s events had occurred, we were then faced with the monumental question, “What’s next?” What do you do when you’ve achieved your dream? What comes after that? 
The answer is you begin to dream again. Set new standards, create new goals and aim for them. So, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Who knows if we’ll ever achieve these new dreams. It may take 3 months, it may take 3 decades. What we know is that effort, hard work and devotion pays off. Even if we don’t ever find a Sperm Whale tangling with a Kraken (Jim’s new goal), we’ll surely have many adventures in the process of trying. 


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