Amazing Orca

Sometimes in this profession, which I am lucky enough to undertake, there are times where things are most definitely about the experience as much as the images.  I always knew that my latest trip was going to be full of learning experiences, simply by the very nature of the fact that I was staying with the Punta Norte Orca Research team and the venue (and therefore photographic opportunity) was the only beach in the world where at the right time of the year these magnificent animals will deliberately strand themselves on the shore to hunt young Sealion pups: if you’re a regular wildlife watcher on television you’re bound to have seen some of the footage.  I was hungry for insights into their behaviour, hunting strategies and simply how this seldom seen species behaves from the team here led by Juan Copello, one of the world’s leading Orca experts.  What I hadn’t expected though was an additional learning experience (well more of a reminder really) of the need for patience – and most extraordinarily this too came from the Orcas. Staying with the research team the pattern for the day was pretty fixed – out at 7am prompt with lunch pack and camera gear in tow (along with plenty of warm clothing as the wind here can be particularly penetrating) to head to the light house from where the whole of the north facing beaches, to which we had access by dint of the fact that Juan’s family own them all, were in view to look out for the telltale dorsal fin or blown waterspouts to announce the presence of Orca.  With radio contact to the ranger at small public viewing area round the corner (setup to overlook the beach rather than access it) we had full insight as to whether there were any signs of life.

Here was lesson number one in the art of patience.  It has been a more challenging year for Orca activity than many – still plenty of activity but more sporadic and with long periods of nothing (I think it was over 20 consecutive days in the normally busiest month of March).  But there is much more to this experience and opportunity than simply the mere presence of Orca.  Tides need to be right (3 hours either side of high tide) there need to be Sealions and pups obviously but in key locations where the shape of the reef around the shoreline allows access for the Orcas, and the pups need to be actually in the water.  In fact the ideal location is where 2 distinct groups are in close proximity meaning that when they are swimming they are crossing the beach as they move between them.  And then there’s the wind.  If it’s too strong, and particularly from the north, then the amount of wave noise reduces the effectiveness of the Orca’s echo location capabilities as well as reducing the amount of pups in the water too.  Add in the photographers desire for perfect lighting and sun direction and you’ll see that a huge number of elements need to slot into place – and thus the need for patience! Once Orca were in the area (and we achieved this statistic every day) it was a question of choosing which area of beach to drive frantically down to and get carefully in position near to the appropriate Sealion group without disturbing them, and then waiting to see if we’d made the right call, and whether all the other elements necessary were going to fall in our favour.

These spells with the Sealions gave great photographic opportunities with the pups either busy and playful or joining the juveniles and mothers in learning the finer arts of sleeping.  Their natural curiosity (and the benefit of the careful approach) meant that they would often wander up very close indeed occasionally boot sniffing to really suss us out!

For the first couple of days this was as good as it got photographically – Orca have an amazing ability to be both incredibly hard to find in the first place and lose in an instant it seems – although the arrival of the occasional Guanaco to our waiting location at the lighthouse, the regularly gliding Turkey Vultures, the last lingering Magellinic Penguin young from the huge 100,000+ colony here, the occasional scuttling by of a Hairy Armadillo and this rather cute family of tuco tuco’s  certainly did there bit to ensure that a Patagonian portfolio was beginning to develop.

But while wind and tide were in our favour it remained a waiting game for the Orca and half way through the trip the first close-up opportunity came.  Conditions were tricky for Saul and the yet to be named sub-adult male (a new arrival this season) as there was a fair bit of strong wave activity to hinder, and the light was incredibly difficult photographically, but the experience of sitting on the beach seeing their dorsal fins occasionally appear in the small bay between the reefs and their awareness of the opportunities that the pups were or weren’t offering them as potential prey was exhilarating.  One successful hunt achieved (and shared with the 2 others waiting further offshore) and one unsuccessful as the conditions worsened and they were gone: breathless stuff, an amazing privilege to be so involved in but little to show photographically.

A perfect day followed in terms of the weather but only a distant Orca sighting, the wind went in completely the wrong direction the next during which a pair patrolled the entire coastline in front of us looking for an impromptu chance but decided the odds were clearly against them and moved on elsewhere – sealion pups are after all just one of their supermarket shelves to choose from! The last day came (with the worst weather forecast too as we retired the night before) but the signs were that anticipated storm was taking longer to arrive as we once again headed to the lighthouse for our 7am rendezvous.  Conditions were indeed looking good, the diffused sun gradually moving into a better angle as the morning progressed and then a sighting!  A well-drilled dash in the landrovers, a sprint then careful approach past the Sealions into position on the beach and then the undoubtedly high point of the week over the subsequent hour.  3 attacks from the female Antu, ironically though none successful as the pup escaped her clutches as she turned to get off the beach in this first sequence.

The following video footage, shot on a camera phone is the same attack as the still images and really adds to give a sense of just what is going on, how close and involved our location was, as well as just how everything unfolds in an instant.

Watching her patience as she waited as out of sight as her frame and need for air allowed for pups to be in an approachable spot to hunt was indeed the salutary reminder that this is the only approach necessary in the natural world as a participant or an observer.  Are they the best images of this extraordinary behaviour – no way; that takes years to achieve with luck and all the other factors required falling into place.  Am I pleased with them professionally and personally – absolutely.  Will I be back – most definitely. And was this a trip where the experience and learning were as important as anything else – well for this photographer most definitely too.

My thanks too to Juan and the team – you have an amazing place which you know and are managing in the most appropriate and sustainable way and don’t let that change. Also thanks to Peter, Cliff, Dave, Mark and Tom who joined me on our trip – I hope (although I’m pretty certain of it) that your enjoyment of the experience and your resultant images matches mine.

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6 Responses to Amazing Orca

  1. jason curtis says:

    Great post as always look forward to hearing more about it.

  2. Mark, great to see some of your pictures – and yes it was an absolutely amazing trip, some great images, a great group of inspirational people and lots to practice for the next trip…

  3. Dom Kavanagh says:

    A great blog to accompany some interesting images of the Orcas etc.. Sounds like it was a great, challenging experience.

  4. Mark, this was an incredible trip, thank you so much. And yes, as well as a diverse set of images and meeting an inspirational, fun group of people, there were also lots of lessons on field-craft, dealing with challenging environments and ‘seeing’ that great shot… oh yes, I forgot… and witnessing one of the most breathtaking natural phenomena in the world…..

  5. Mark says:

    Thanks all – was a hard trip in many ways but really enjoyable and a great reminder of the importance of patience in this game: the ‘perfect’ shot only comes to he or she who waits!

  6. So beautiful. Especially love the picture of the seal sleeping / soaking up the sun. :) Thanks for sharing!

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