Chapter 7 - Meeting Tilikum's free cousins (orcas!)
*** Remember remember the 7th of November! ***
Early on in the trip, the Wicked crew tell us that there are sometimes orcas in the area, which surprises me as I always thought of them being in colder waters, and the water here is at least 26 degrees.
My fascination for orcas has been growing over the past few months as I've been following the progress of "Blackfish - the movie" and all the hype around it and its mission to reduce the demand for captive killer whale shows. You learn what intelligent creatures they are, how they travel huge distances every day, live in groups in a matriarchal society (yes, sistas!), and each pod has its own language. If you haven't seen the film, please track it down and watch it! It focuses on Tilikum, an orca who was captured in Iceland when he was about 2 years old, and, possibly as a result of becoming psychotic due to the traumas he has experienced, has been involved in the deaths of 3 people - the most recent being an experienced trainer in Orlando Seaworld.
Back to my story... Steve, our dive guide, tells us it is his dream to swim with wild orcas. We sail past the area where they had seen them the previous year, with not an orca in view, and I stop thinking about it.
And a couple of days later, we are now on our longest stretch in the big blue, a rather impressive 36 hour voyage between Wakatobi and Ambon. We're all just hanging about on the deck, reading, chatting, playing the infernal iPad "join the dots" game (which I'm proud to say I have not downloaded), and sometimes scanning the water for signs of the life beneath the surface.
Suddenly, Barb, who has stood up to fetch her book, stops in her tracks and stares into the distance on the starboard side of the boat. A veritable marine pointer dog.
She has spotted a freakishly large fin. Phil tells the captain so that we can slow down and investigate. Grabbing cameras and binoculars, we scramble to the front of the boat and look for fins. Is it pilot whales? Is it orcas? A flash of a black and white belly confirms... it's orcas.
We count... 2, 3, 4, a minimum of 7 orcas, some say 9, including babies. Happily swimming along the surface, and sometimes coming up belly first and slapping the water with their tails and fins, maybe to greet us?
Steve, not normally very emotional, gazes lovingly at them, saying "I'm just waiting for Ricky to say the word: then I'm going in!".
For Ricky, the pressure is on. He must be weighing up the health & safety aspects, and after 5 minutes deep responsible thought, the divemasters get the nod and in they go. Martyn tries to pretend he's not scared, and Prue, petrified, clings on to the ladder trying not to squeal in terror, bravely overcoming childhood demons relating to a whale incident. But no sooner are the guys in the water, the orcas have disappeared again. They are following their own path, and we are scrambling around on the surface of the water in our boat trying to figure out where they are.
Circling around, scanning the surface, we find them a second time, take lots of photos (thank you Howard for supplying one of yours for this blog), and then lose them again. When we find them a third time, more people start getting their masks and fins on.
I think about it and figure... I HAVE to do this! The sensible part of my brain remembers the Blackfish-related videos and interviews. I hear myself saying "There are no documented cases of attacks on humans by orcas in the wild. So far. And, hey, if this is the first case, then, with all these cameras, it will be extremely well documented! We can contribute to science!"
So, hearts beating fast, in we slip. The orcas are behind the boat, heading towards us, slightly to our left as we swim. Someone on our boat points to a fin and Steve heads off, so I follow Orca man. A minute later, I see him raise an arm whilst keeping his head in the water so I assume that means he can see one already. Excited, I fin like crazy to catch up and look in the same direction. I stop, to see a mother and her calf gently swimming past. They are huge, fast and powerful. Then another, and another. They are maybe 3 or 4 metres away. So big and graceful. I don't feel remotely afraid.
Even now, weeks later, I still have the image engrained in my brain and I get butterflies in my stomach. It almost feels unreal, as though it is just a scene from a David Attenborough programme replaying in my head. But I was there!
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a large orca swims at a different angle to the others, straight towards Steve and Dymphna. Some of the group think their number is up. But, come on! Wild orcas aren't going to attack Orca man and Kitty Doctor!
I like to think that this is one of the young males. He is either curious or just gently and firmly warning us to keep our distance from the babies (which, incidentally, are bigger than us).
Whatever he's doing, it's fine. They all continue on their path, leaving behind them a bunch of ecstatically happy people who can't quite believe their luck.
Update: A couple of weeks later, someone challenges me about the whole attack thing, so I google it. Well, it turns out that there are no documented FATAL attacks by orcas on humans in the wild. Subtle difference.
Oh well, I have NO regrets :-).
It was mesmerising and I will treasure the memory for the rest of my days.
Interview with the director: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LK6rs1QmfMM&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DLK6rs1QmfMM