Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia is the only place on the planet where Killer Whales / Orcas will intentionally strand or beach themselves in order to catch their prey of Sea Lions and Elephant Seals
Visit our first blog about our Photo Expedition to Peninsula Valdes: http://billklipp.zenfolio.com/blog/2016/5/Patagonia_Wanderings_Peninsula_Valdes
Are Killer Whales Really Whales?
Orcas or “Killer Whales” (Orcinus orca) are in fact not whales at all but the largest member of the Dolphin family. They can be found in every ocean on the planet even the very cold waters of the Arctic and Antarctica. They are among the smartest animals on earth and live together with their families their whole life in matrilineal family groups. Some Orcas live their entire life in one place while others are known as transients which means they like to travel. Orcas can live to be 30-50 years old in the wild but when in kept in animal parks like Sea World they die much younger. Orcas have been known to be friendly to humans and have never hurt humans in the wild (only when abused in captivity).
Setting up on the beach close to the Sea Lions at sunrise, now we just need some Orcas
Orcas are sexually dimorphic, meaning adult males and females differ in body shape and size. Adult males weigh almost twice as much as females. More striking though is the 3 foot size of the dorsal fin of females vs adult male’s which can be up to 6 feet tall. Size seems to vary by population with the Southern Hemisphere animals being slightly larger than those in the Northern Hemisphere. Offshore animals might be slightly smaller than Coastal populations due to higher productivity waters. Adult Orcas may be between 20 and 32 feet long and weigh between 12,000 and 20,000 pounds. Their size and strength make them among the fastest marine mammals able to reach speeds of 30-35mph and able to dive to 1,500 feet to catch their prey.
All set up and scanning the coast looking for blows or dorsal fins, the tell tale signs of Killer Whales on the move.
Two adult Orcas with a baby trailing coming in on some Sea Lions. Orcas are cooperative hunters who teach and train their young about these unique hunting strategies.
Two Sea Lions pups escape a close call. The Orca hung just off the beach waiting for another pup to enter the water.
Very Close call
Why are Orcas called Killer Whales?
Orcas are sometimes called Killer Whales because a long time ago some Spanish sailors saw them catching and eating whales so they named them “Whale Killers”. Over time that was changed to “Killer Whale”. But they are really just very large Dolphins. While most Dolphins are fish eaters, Killer Whales are the top apex predators of the ocean and have developed specialized hunting skills depending on their habitat. While most Orcas dine on fish and squid some have a mammalian specialization, feeding on; seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins and even birds and penguins. Unique among animals is their highly coordinated cooperative hunting behaviors which they teach their young through repetitive practice. While some Orca pods have learned how to catch Seals and Sea Lions in open water, those along Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia have a developed a unique skill only found here. Due to the steep smooth pebble beach topography of Peninsula Valdes the Orcas have learned to intentionally strand or beach themselves to catch Sea Lion and Elephant Seal pups along the shoreline. This behavior is most prevalent in the Feb to May time frame when the young Sea Lions pups are still being weaned and are just learning how to swim. It is an amazing site and our most recent trip was to focus on this unique hunting skill.
The moment has arrived
Sometimes they would just patrol back and forth in front of us.
Orcas sometimes use their flukes to toss their prey in the air to stun them so the young Orcas can have an easier encounter. We watched one toss a Sea Lion pup over 60 feet in the air.
Two Orcas rushing towards the beach
Depending on wind speed and direction we might set up on a cliff overlooking a Sea Lion colony.
We would sometimes stay in a spot all day waiting for some action. While some of the group was spotting others might take a nap. Linda in right foreground.
The cliff lookout gave us a unique perspective to watch the cooperative strategy of a hunt and an attack unfold. Adult Sea Lions have learned to be more alert and quickly get out of the way of incoming Killer Whales.
The waters were churning with unsuspecting Sea Lions and this Orca attacked several times
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala had this to say about my Orca stranding photo
"Bill captured a great moment here. The massive Orca is struggling to get into the shallows to capture a Sea Lion, creating chaos around her, while all the other sea lions on the beach are watching. It gives a sense of a wild place. Great composition"
This one little guy was not so lucky, but his playmates got away
Orcas are known for their long dorsal fin and black-and-white coloring. Sea Lions pups are known as a tasty meal.
It takes a lot of Sea Lions to feed a dozen Orcas that can weigh up to 20,000 lbs each and 23-32 feet long
Orcas use echolocation to communicate and to locate prey from great distances.
A pod of 8 Orcas moving in on a Southern Right Whale and it's calf. Notice the baby Orca on the left
The Orcas take turns harassing the two Whales, trying to tire them and separate the calf from the mom.
The adult Whale responds with a constant series of violent tail throws hoping to hit an Orca. If hit an Orca could be severely hurt or even killed impacting the entire pod's ability to hunt.
This attack went on for well over an hour mostly right in front of us, within 20 meters of the beach. As the Whale passed by us the sounds of its heavy breathing engulfed us.
Finally the Orcas backed off and swam away as the Right Whale and it's calf headed off into the sunset to live another day.
When on the beach we lined up strategically along a diagonal line down to water's edge to ensure nobody blocked another’s shot
After the Whale attack this guy treated us to an awesome breach
After catching a Sea Lions the Orcas would move to deeper water and line up head to head to food share as not all of the pod's members have learned this unique hunting technique.
Orca Beach Attack video by Bill & Linda Klipp. Click above to watch video
The Old Lighthouse at Punta Norte sits on a cliff overlooking the dunes and the Peninsula Valdes coastline
From up top of the Lighthouse one could survey miles of coastline in both directions.
The weather seemed to change 5 times a day, with mornings in the mid 40s climbing sometimes to the upper 60s. The one constant were the winds blowing 20-35 mph. Click above to watch short Time Lapse video
We called this the "Training Beach" as the Orcas would sometimes practice and train beaching themselves for hours. It was amazing to watch them do it over an over again, sometimes two or three simultaneously.
Searching for pretty colored pebbles. We sometimes had to find strange ways to amuse ourselves during the many hours of downtown on the beach.
The Orcas would sometimes get very playful with each other as this little guy leaped and slapped his tail repeatedly.
Notice the rake like marks on this Orca's body. Most likely from fighting with another Orca
Another one of the good Orca spots at low tide, no beach at high tide
We saw a couple of Orcas moving towards the beach, but then they disappeared in the sun streak, only to surprise us by lunging onto the beach within 10 meters of us. Orcas will often come into the beach hiding in the sun's glare to surprise their prey.
Bill fully armed: with a Nikon D4 and a Nikon 200-400 f4 lens on a tripod, along with a Nikon V1 on a gorilla pod shooting video and wearing Google Glass for photos and video. Not visible at his side is a Nikon D750 with a Nikon 70-200 f2.8
ORCA BOOT CAMP ----- What we did to get the shot.
A typical day in Orca boot camp at Estancia la Ernestina at Punta Norte on Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia Argentina.
Up at 5:45am put on 3 layers of pants, 4 layers of tops, grab a quick light breakfast bite, then in the dark pile into the Land Rovers headed to one of 7 beaches picked by Juan our host the Orca Whisperer. Which beach we start our day is based on wind speed, direction, tides and Juan's intuition. Once we arrive near the the morning's selected spot we spill out of the Land Rovers in the dark, gear up then hike up to a mile with 35-40 pounds of equipment climbing over barb wire fences to trudge across soft sand dunes to perch on the edge of a cliff overlooking a Sea Lion colony with 20 knot winds blowing fine sand and dust all over us while scanning the ocean with binoculars looking for Orcas. Or instead of hiking across soft sand dunes we might hike across seemingly endless fields of loose gravel covered with colorful smooth polished stones then almost slide down a steep gravel embankment and slowly walk single file often crouching along the loose pebble beach to sneak up on the Sea Lions. We sit down in a diagonal line, set up our cameras and wait all day till almost sunset for something to happen while periodically munching on some surprises we find in our lunch boxes or having a social session of mate sharing (a local tea type drink).
If the tides go against us or the Orcas are thought to have headed north or south we hustle back to the Land Rovers drive like a Mad Max movie across the Estancia bouncing and sliding on the gravel tracks hoping to get ahead of the Orcas then hike back down to another beach, set up again and wait, hoping they come our way while Sea Lion pups are in the water. By 6pm we are back in our room charging batteries, downloading images and showering before our 7:30pm group dinner with lots of wine then into bed by 9:30pm. Every day the only thing we can count on is the winds will howl and the weather will change 5 times during the day, we will freeze, sweat, get wet, sometimes even bask in the sun and strangely enjoy doing this every day for 14 days in a row. We were very lucky having 13 days out of 13 with 0rca sightings and even several whale encounters as its more common to see nothing. On the few days with really poor wind and sea conditions for Orcas we headed over to the Penguin colony to photograph penguins, foxes, armadillos, guanacos and birds or we head inland for Burrowing Owls or Great Horned Owls. No down time at all when visiting Estancia la Ernestina in Orca season, a truly unique and special place on Planet Earth.
See Peninsula Valdes Blog: http://billklipp.zenfolio.com/blog/2016/5/Patagonia_Wanderings_Peninsula_Valdes )
This is how we got the rare shot of Orcas intentionally stranding themselves to catch a Sea Lion or Elephant Seal pup. It was surely our most challenging and adrenaline filled photo expedition yet. There is nothing quite like watching these highly intelligent and social animals practice and train their young to strand themselves on the beach. Then to actually see them hunt and attack their prey only to share their catch with the group. This is Mother Nature at her finest.
If the tides go against us or the Orcas are thought to have headed north or south, Juan the “Orca Whisperer” will whisper ”Lets Go” we then quickly gather up our equipment and hustle back to the Land Rovers and drive like a Mad Max movie bouncing and sliding on the gravel tracks across the Estancia hoping to get ahead of the Orcas then hike back down to another beach, set up and wait, hoping they come our way while Sea Lion pups are in the water. Click above to watch video
Visit our blog about our Photo Expedition to Peninsula Valdes: http://billklipp.zenfolio.com/blog/2016/5/Patagonia_Wanderings_Peninsula_Valdes
For more photos visit Bill & Linda's photo website: http://www.wkimages.net
© Bill & Linda Klipp 2016
Check out our online Photo Website at: http://www.KeyWestPhotos.me or http://www.wkimages.net
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* Any use of these images requires the prior written permission of Bill and Linda Klipp the photographers, no other uses of any kind including print or electronic are permitted without the prior written permission of the photographer.
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