A tour operator in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, unwittingly stumbled into the history books this weekend when he, his boat captain, and four tourists were in the right place at the right time to make the first recording ever of Orca whales hunting dolphins.
Ranier Schimpf was leading a group of divers when they noticed that one dolphin had been separated from a pod by five of the killer whales then repeatedly rammed. The dolphin was sent flying through the air by the force of impact from whales that were several times its size. With the smaller creature finally left laying unconscious on the surface, the whales pulled it below.
The two 7m male, two 5m female, and a 3m calf whales were clearly working as a team against the dolphin, and it appeared it was also a hunting lesson for the calf. More than that, they exhibited very protective behavior after the hunt. Becoming aware of the boat, they slowed, and began to circle the craft, investigating it. At that point the divers, making a decision I’ll only characterize as daring here, got into the water with the whales and kept filming them. This paid off, however. The whales, recognizing the humans as non-threatening, began to interact in a friendly way. The mother even presented the calf to one of the tourists, shielding it carefully, but allowing it to take a look at the strange visitors.
Capturing the hunting process of orcas, and their behavior immediately after, gives man access to a previously un-captured behavior that’s key to understanding the group dynamics within the pod. Conservation efforts are traditionally most successful when animals are the most thoroughly understood, and we are now, thanks to a group of tourists that were in the right place at the right time, a great leap closer to understanding both the hunting and social behaviors of killer whales.