Wednesday 24 September 2014

Strait to the Orca! My Encounter With Gibraltar Esparte

by Sam Lipman 

I have never seen so many species of dolphin in such a short amount of time as I did during my trip to southern Spain in August. Andalucia proved to be more than I could have hoped for; a stunning location, with fantastic weather and plenty of dolphins! The waters off this coastline are thriving with marine life and I must thank Alexander Sanchez of Equinac (the marine life rescue charity based in Almeria) for introducing me to it.

Common dolphin in the Alboran Sea (Photo © Sam Lipman)
My first encounter of the week was with members of the Equinac team, surveying dolphins in the Alboran Sea. We were privileged with a fascinating opportunity to observe a large group comprising approximately 200-300 short-beaked common dolphins over several hours in their natural environment. 

I have encountered common dolphins both in Spanish and South African waters and they really are a lot of fun to watch. They are an incredibly energetic species, with an inclination for bow riding. 

Despite such a fantastic experience, I still had my heart set on seeing orca. To fulfill this ambition, I travelled to the southernmost tip of Spain, to Tarifa. Within an hour of arriving in the beautiful seaside town, I was headed straight for the orca, joining Turmares Tarifa on a boat trip out into the Strait of Gibraltar. 

It didn't take us long to find a small pod of orca, or 'esparte' as they are known in the area. The group comprised several individuals, including the female designated as 011 and known as 'Toni'.

Orca 011 'Toni' (centre) recognised by her short, wide dorsal fin (Photo © Orca Aware)

The orca found in the Strait of Gibraltar feed on tuna, using two strategies to hunt their prey. One strategy involves exhausting the fish with a 30 minute chase and the other is a fisheries interaction, where the orca take the tuna from the fishing lines. Unfortunately, we did not see the orca foraging during this trip.

They were instead observed milling around, with short bouts of slow travel. One inquisitive individual, who appeared to want to get a good look at the human spectators, started venturing close to us as our boat sat still in the water. Twice, the orca passed right underneath the vessel, swimming sideways to perhaps gain a better view. 

Orca surfacing by the boat after swimming underneath (Photo © Orca Aware)

The following day, I went out again with Turmares in the hope of encountering orca. During the morning trip, we were fortunate enough to sight all four of the resident species of dolphin in the Strait: common, striped, bottlenose, as well as pilot whales (which, like orca, are a part of the dolphin family). 

Pilot whales logging by the boat
(Photo © Orca Aware)
Our time spent with the pilot whales in the Strait was very special for me, particularly in light of my first experience with this species being at a mass stranding in Scotland (where, thankfully, the majority of the stranded whales were saved). 

During this encounter off the coast of Tarifa, a small group of whales spent time logging quietly in waters not too far away from the boat. It afforded a rare chance to study these animals visually at close proximity.

It wasn't until the afternoon, (and the final trip of my short visit to Tarifa), that I saw orca again; the fifth species of dolphin we sighted that day. The group we encountered was travelling at high speed, porpoising through the Strait. This meant we didn't spend too long with them. As I watched the orca moving off into the distance, I spent time considering what life might be like for this population. 

One of the biggest conservation threats to orca in the Strait is a reduction in food source by the fisheries. The large tanker ships moving through the narrow channel also caught my attention. I couldn't help but wonder what the noise and chemical pollutant levels are like in the Strait and how these might impact the orca and other dolphins. 

Bottlenose dolphin bow riding in a wave created by the tanker ship (Photo © Orca Aware)

The good news is that, even as recently as this August, new calves have been sighted within this orca population! 

I had a brilliant trip and I highly recommend it to anyone who has an ambition to see orca in the wild. Not only will you have a great chance of seeing orca (between July and September), you are likely to encounter other dolphin species too - and maybe even five in one day... Happy orca watching! 

A big thank you to the Sanchez family for their hospitality, and to Equinac and Turmares Tarifa for fantastic trips to watch the dolphins off the coast of Spain. 

Orca in the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo © Orca Aware)

For more information about the Strait of Gibraltar orca and other populations, visit Orca of the World.

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