Return to Wild Patagonia: Orcas!
When I had the good fortune to meet conservationist, and orca researcher Juan Manuel Capello in South Africa four years ago and learned about his story, I knew that I had to get to his part of the world in southern Argentina to experience the natural environment of the Peninsula Valdes. It took a couple of years of planning but in 2016, on my way to Antarctica, I managed to spend 8 days at Punta Norte.Â My specific goal had been to witness (and hopefully photograph) the highly specialized and unique orca hunting behavior of the population that seasonally visit the area to prey on the young of the year Patagonian sea lion pups. After 8 full days of dedicated observation from before dawn til dark we saw orca only on the very last day and then only briefly as one small orca family group made an exploratory approach to one colony and then moved off.
I knew I would have to return and be prepared to spend more time to increase my chances of recording a sighting and possibly attack behavior so in March 2017 I set aside two weeks still recognizing that the risk of Not getting a window of hunting behavior was high. In the past, film makers and photographers have spent as much as 4 weeks waiting and watching at Punta Norte and been disappointed. But I was hoping from some luck!
Juan and his small team of dedicated researchers have been observing these orca for more than 20 years and have documented their family lineages and their unique hunting behavior. The hunting involves stranding themselves on the gravel beaches near sea lion colonies to snatch 6-8 week old pups right out of the surface's edge as they are beginning swimming lessons from adult females. It is thought the orca can hear the vibrations of the flailing pups in the water and then approach under stealth to accomplish attacks. Not all of the orca will strand but those that do learn the behavior from their mothers, brothers and sisters. They even have been see practicing stranding on beaches that do do not have seal lions present. The behavior is extremely risky for the orca in that in certain circumstances with large waves and on falling tides they can be marooned on a beach or reef for hours waiting for the tide to rise and lift them off. The areas pebble beaches also give the orca an easier chance to wriggle back into the sea after an attack. Though not as agile on land the sea lions can maneuver well and with speed once away from the water's edge. Adult sea lions in the water however, are very difficult for orca to catch. After five days of patient watching from predawn until dusk on the sixth day we were finally rewarded with visits from Jjenn's group of four orca and the incomparable hunter Maga with her band of seven orca who over the course of several days performed more than 30 attacks on the sea lion colonies we were observing. Almost 50% were successful kills. Their behavior was a marvel to behold.
The hunts were conducted with military precision and often included more than one orca making the approach. Some attacks were conducted by an older animal with a juvenile alongside to see how it is done. After each successful kill the orca would move offshore and share the kill with other family members before returning to pursue the next pup. On at least two occasions we witnessed a series of attacks that lasted more than two hours before the orca group broke off and began periods of rest or play.
For more information about the orcas of Peninsula Valdes check out Punta Norte Orca Research on Facebook. They keep observations current especially during the months of February - May