Saturday 18 October 2014

Svalbard Orca Sighting With ORCA

By Elfyn Pugh (guest blogger)

On the 2nd September 2014, a team of ORCA (Organisation Cetacea) surveyors consisting of myself, Lisle Gwynn and David Cunniffe, conducted a cetacean survey on the bridge of the expedition ship ‘Ortelius’ operated by ‘Oceanwide Expeditions’.

The ship was sailing the Greenland Sea between Svalbard and Greenland. At 7.10am, still within sight of the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Svalbard Archipelago, one of the ORCA team members spotted tall blows and large dorsal fins emanating at a distance well ahead of the ship. After alerting the others, the team were extremely excited to encounter a large pod of orcas. The animals were very active and at about the same time, a large adult fin whale was seen in the same vicinity. 

Orca in the Greenland Sea, in front of the peaks of the Svalbard Archipelgo (Photo © Elfyn Pugh)

The ORCA team, together with the on-board expedition team expert guide Jordi Plana, thought it possible that the orcas were actively targeting the lone fin whale. No attack was witnessed and the whale did not appear unduly stressed, although it was speculated that it may have been using the ship to gain protection.

A large pod of orcas working cooperatively is a formidable force to be reckoned with and they have been witnessed attacking many species of cetacean, even up to the size of the mighty blue whale. I have seen this happen in the Sea of Cortez, where a pod of orcas were harassing a lone Bryde’s whale. During that encounter, the lone baleen whale displayed behaviour that indicated it was stressed. In the case of our high Arctic orca encounter we believe that the actions of the ship in slowing down and changing course to monitor the orcas split up the pod. In this instance, the actions of the ship would therefore have affected the behaviour of the animals, both the orcas and fin whale.

The pod consisted of 10+ individuals (Photo © Elfyn Pugh)

We recorded the pod size as 10+ individuals, with a maximum of 20. We think they were mixed sexes with some young animals.

The expedition team informed us that orcas were a rare sight in this area. However, we know that orcas are extremely cosmopolitan, adaptable and opportunistic, and can simply turn up anywhere in our oceans.

I have seen orcas in many parts of the world and this sighting was a particularly unforgettable encounter!

Three members of the pod in the Greenland Sea (Photo © Elfyn Pugh)

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