I have been thinking a lot about writing the post and talking about my time on my second killer whale field season in 2015. It was not the season I had hoped for but it was a season where I learnt a lot about how I would proceed next and what I would do differently and that has to count for something during a period when I am lucky enough to have the time to use to learn and grow as a researcher.
As a preliminary fieldwork season I had more freedom but minimal funds compared to my time in the Bremer Canyon. Due to this I was not able to conduct and complete research in an order and manner to which I have become accustomed to. We were very lucky to have many generous people supporting our research in non-monetary ways such as providing accommodation and boat time which made the limited funds less of a pressing issue. It especially was nice to have a roof over my head after a day on the water. I guess this is all a factor of doing science research at a time when funds for research are minimal and reducing rather than increasing for many areas in particular environmental and conservation research.
I will forever call this a reconnaissance field season. I now know the region and the local community a lot better, I have a feel for the research site, and through conversations have built up a better network, I have some idea of how the animals like to move in and out of the area from talking to other researchers and I also know that the end of July and beginning of August is much too late in the season to be looking for killer whales in order to collect consistent and robust sightings data.
We were lucky to have one spectacular encounter where we observed a pod of killer whales attempt to predate on a humpback calf in a mum/calf pair over close an hour period. The pod were inquisitive and milling around before hand with several whale shark boats watching from a respectable distance and then there was an almost instant perceptible shift in the animal’s behaviour as (can only be assumed) the pod detected the humpback whale duo and shifted their focus to “predation mode” and went off in pursuit of their prey.
Across the encounter the pod of four killer whales attempted to separate the calf from its mother, and we were lucky to see the known young male killer whale – Augie – in the pod breach during the action. After 40 minutes though the action came to an abrupt end, from its intensity we were sure the killer whales had been successful in their predation attempt and that the mother humpback would be continuing north alone however, from further investigation by another small vessel it was found that this time the mother humpback had won the “Mum Of The Day” award and was escorting her calf north without any major physical injuries to be seen. The killer whale pod then headed south after this in search of other prey.
It was interesting to note that most people on the boats fell into either Team Orca or Team Humpback in regards to who they were “routing for” in the outcome. Maybe next year we will all have t-shirts. It was fascinating to get to see the killer whales involved in this behaviour as predations events were a much rarer occurrence in the Bremer Canyon.
I am excited to see what next year hold when I can have a longer field season in Exmouth and really get to discover more of the secrets of this killer whale population.