The weeks slip by under a hot tropical sun. We visit various islands and dive beautiful reefs. Late in the expedition, we anchor at Wuvulu Island, the last and one of the most isolated islands of the Bismarck Archipelago.
The next morning, we encounter three orcas hunting amongst the reefs. It is rare to encounter orcas in the tropics. To find them in clear tropical waters is incredible.
For eight hours, the Cousteau crew splits into two teams taking two-hour shifts to dive with the killer whales. My team is just exiting the water as Jean-Michel’s team takes over for the last dive rotation of the day. The sun will go down soon, so my team decides to stay in our rubber boat and drift with Jean-Michel’s empty Zodiac. I am relaxing, leaning comfortably against the inflatable’s warm rubber pontoon, when Jean-Michel, surfaces and yells, “The orcas, they are eating sharks!”
Three sets of hands lunge for dive masks as we rush to peer over the side. Beneath us, a 28-foot-long orca swims toward the other team with an eight-foot long reef shark in its jaws. The divers closest to the orca hear cartilage crunching as the killer whale consumes most of the shark in three gigantic bites. Afterward all that remains is the shark’s tail and head. I watch them slowly drift down into the depths.
As the surrounding water grows darker with the sunset, the orcas become more active. We do not see them catching the sharks. The killer whales hang vertically suspended just under the surface. Facing downward, they wait patiently, almost without movement. It is the classic posture of a hunter waiting in ambush. They are echolocating to sense where the sharks are then without warning, they torpedo downwards. Soon they ascend with a shark draped lifelessly in their powerful jaws.
Surprisingly, the whales purposefully return to us to eat their prey. Watching small clouds of shark blood and guts drifting in the wake of the feeding killer whales, ‘I wonder why these super predators do not eat people.’
Earlier in the day, I found myself alone in the water with a large Orca cow. She was resting just beneath the surface slowly drifting. I shoot my last picture then quietly hang suspended a dozen feet beneath the surface and stare at this magnificent creature. She is at an angle to me when I notice she is turning in my direction. Her eyes look at me with such raw primal intelligence—suddenly, I feel distinctly like prey!
My heartbeat surges. I know that she is aware of my rapidly thumping heart. Orcas are sensitive to the slightest sound vibrations, and they can see acoustically. My heart is beating out a cadence of fear. For a marine predator, this has to be like ringing the chow bell.
From a head-on perspective, I see her tail go up and then down. The killer whale comes slowly toward me, and I am not sure what to do. I glance about, but there is no Zodiac or diver in sight from my limited underwater perspective. There is nowhere to flee. The surface beckons; I am becoming desperate for air, but cannot tear my eyes from the approaching predator. I watch the head growing rapidly in size as she closes on me. I am aware of her predatory attributes, the huge mouth filled with sturdy teeth, her broad girth, and the muscled hump of her massive back. My heart is jackhammering as she looms only eight-feet away—but then she does something startling as the massive predator slowly turns sideways.
For long seconds, I stare at this magnificent hunter, and then I look back to her head and our eyes lock. It is an instant of intensity that seems to last an eternity. I do not know what she is thinking or what the moment might mean to her. I stare into the wild intelligence lurking behind her eye. Intrinsically I feel she purposefully turned sideways to appear less threatening. Unable to resist the overpowering demand for air, I shoot to the surface in a wash of fluttering fins. When I look back under water, she is gone.
I am surprised an animal of such size and mass could move so quickly in absolute silence. I spin in a rapid circle looking all about and for a heart-stopping moment stare beneath me, but the water below is suspiciously empty. Unnerved, I quickly swim over to the Zodiac, which is floating empty 50 feet away, and climb aboard. I peer back over the side, but the water below is still empty. Floating alone beneath the hot tropical sun, I ponder the whale’s actions. Was she just curious or did her lingering look imply more?
It is an amazing thing that orcas in the wild do not eat people. They occasionally have harmed and killed their trainers in ocean parks. However, those orcas are inmates, confined in small tanks where every sound they voice echoes back at them. Confine any intelligent creature for too long and they drift towards insanity.
Now, back in the water floating next to the Zodiac, I see the whales descending after consuming their prey. As the sun slowly drops behind the cloudless horizon, the light fades, casting the depths into shadowed darkness. Thirty feet down, I see Jean-Michel signal the team to return to the surface. They cannot film in the submarine twilight, and maybe there is a hint of fear for what lurks below that helps propel the divers back to the Zodiac.
With dusk turning to night, we drift under the evening sky as it fills with stars. Eager hands hold the twin Zodiacs together as we relive the incredible experience. Everyone bubbles with excitement as we share the wonder of seeing the killer whales hunting sharks. Twenty yards away there is a froth of bubbles as a black orca fin rises almost five feet out of the dark water. Starlight glistens on the wet black fin as it cuts through the glassy surface, then the whale disappears downward with a powerful flick of its tail.
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