Swimming with Killer Whales
Trip Start Aug 20, 1996
1Trip End Dec 15, 2002
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I lead a dive one morning about 2 weeks into my course, it's a good dive, we see loads and everyone comes up happy. I go back to the dive shop and am just thinking of getting a good old Aussie meat pie for lunch when this woman runs into the shop and says in a panic like tone
"We have been called and told there are some beached whales down the coast, can anyone come and help?"
"Yes of course I can" I say. I have no dives until tonight so I am free and if we can help these whales I am up for it.
We jump in the back of her pickup & head to the small harbour where we jump into a fast boat that speeds us Baywatch style down the coast. The woman introduces herself as being from CALM, Conservation And Land Management here in Exmouth, she knows no information other than that there are beached whales and they need help. There is also the boat driver and one other guy who was in the dive shop.
We approach, and there before us are three whales, two females and a baby.
Half an hour later we see something in the water, we take a closer look. What I see is both beautiful and devastating at the same time, it is a 6-7m long Killer Whale, sadly lying belly up, dead in the water. We look at each other, with no words to say and continue a little slower. We pass another dead whale in the water and then see two small boats up ahead. As we approach we see they are 'shepherding' out a female and a baby whale. Then we see what we assume is another whale. We approach, and there before us are three whales, two females and a baby. The CALM woman who is also a Marine Biologist is looking at them deciding what to do. They are obviously drying out in the sun. They are motionless and we can see big scratches in their sides where they have scraped themselves on the bottom.
"Jump in, Jump in, lets get these whales wet and cool again"
OK, err, now just a minute, these are magnificent creatures, beautiful, powerful, enormous, and have great big pointy teeth in those huge mouths - I know, I have been to the aquariums! She jumps in at the front of them. I decide quickly, I have to help these amazing beasts, that is why I am here, what the hell, I jump in, but at least towards the rear of them, and yes, I'm scared - very scared!
There is no reaction at all from the whales, they remain motionless and we begin to splash water on their backs which we hope will cool them down a bit. After half an hour or so they begin to show signs of life, they begin to move slowly, very slowly, yes, but they are moving. Have we succeeded?
I am not quite as afraid of these animals now, for the last half an hour I have been touching them stroking them, splashing them, I have time to think where I am. I am in the ocean with three Killer Whales. Orcas, the biggest, is about 7 meters long, followed by 6 meters or so and then the baby is a good two and a half - still pretty big! I look at these animals, mammals, they breath air, they are related to me, they have brains, they are intelligent. Their skin is kind of rubbery but smooth, the black contrasting with the white in perfectly drawn curves.
I move to the back, I have on my snorkel, mask and fins so I dive down behind and below them. I look up and see a sight that will never leave my memory; three huge tails moving slowly up and down, in unison. It really is an amazing sight and I am looking at it in awe. I can not think, just stare. The first thought in my head is that I'm looking through the glass window into the pool at Seaworld, then I think, 'No this is real!' At that I take a huge breath in astonishment. That is unfortunately when I remember I am still underwater and I have just tried to inhale the ocean. I make my way back to the surface, coughing and spluttering!
She sees me looking at her and the eye stops moving, staring directly into my eyes.
The whales continue to swim slowly, but now they are starting to head back towards the beach. The water we are in right now is only about 4-5m deep, if they go in too far they will beach themselves once again. The plan then, I am told, is to push them away from the shore - or at least try to make them change course towards the open sea. These are big creatures, the chance of me pushing them is pretty slim! Still, I am told that the best way to achieve this is to put one hand above, and one hand below their mouth and push. Umm, why am I feeling a touch nervous about this? I position myself, swimming along slowly at the side of one of them, stroke it gently and put my hands in position and push. Not much is happening. It doesn't seem to be moving much, but at least the mouth is still closed and I have the same number of appendages I've always had! I push again. How am I supposed to push anything that weighs a few tonnes! I am surprised after a short time to see that what we are doing is working, these whales are responding to our actions and do alter their course slightly when pushed.
I try another tactic, I swim out in front of one of the whales and stop in the water right in front of one of them, just a fraction off to it's left. I watch breathlessly as it approaches, straight at me, what an incredible sight, such beauty, such grace. As the whale gets right up to me and my heart is beating just a little faster than normal, the whale turns slightly to the right and swims passed me, missing me by millimeters, what a rush! It seems to have worked too.
I vary between pushing and swimming out in front. When I am next to the head I put my head under and locate the huge black eye in front of the large white 'false eye' patch of white. The eye is moving, looking around. She sees me looking at her and the eye stops moving, staring directly into my eyes. The feeling I have in me is one of complete awe and wonder. I am making some kind of contact with the mind of this amazing and beautiful creature. We are locked in that contact for maybe twenty to thirty seconds, nothing else exists, time stops, it could have been minutes, or hours that we just locked eyes on each other. I feel so privileged to be where I am right now I cannot ever explain what that moment was like - magical is not nearly strong enough. The moment breaks and the orca starts to look around again. But I feel closer to the animal and I do not feel at all scared anymore. I start to talk to her as I push her, coaxing her, willing her to swim out to the ocean and not keep trying to get back to the shore.
I certainly made contact with one of the most incredible creatures on earth.
Minutes later I am pushing away when the mouth starts to open. I instinctively pull my hands away but I know this is no sign of aggression, the mouth continues to open, until it is as wide as it can be. I look inside the mouth, seeing the forty or fifty huge teeth, they are about 10cms long and about an inch thick at the base, tapering off and curving slightly inwards to sharp points. I have never seen anything like this before, I see the huge tongue and once again I am in a trance as the mouth slowly, slowly begins to close.
I am quite tired by now...I have been in the water for a couple of hours. I move round to the right hand side of my new 'friend' and hold on to her almost meter long dorsal fin that is flopped over, sticking out of the water. As I do this, the other large female moves in closer so I am between two of them. I reach out and up to the fin of the other and unbelievably I am now being pulled through the water by two killer whales. This has to be the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me! All that is in my head right now is
"Wow, Oh Wow, Wow, Oh my God, Wow".
This sort of thing just does not happen.
We have been in the water now for almost 3 hours, the Whales have picked up a little speed and do not seem to be veering towards the beach now. It is time to get back in the boat. We do this and the whales start to swim a bit faster, we can hear them talking to each other, whistles and squeaks of communication coming from their blowholes. We tell them to go, to swim away and live. After a few more minutes, this is exactly what they do. They swim out of the bay, diving underwater and breaching together as they make their way to whatever part of the ocean they want to visit next. As we watch them go, we are all exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
The reason that whales beach themselves is not clearly known. There are theories, one is that they get misdirected by ships sonar that disturbs their own. Another is that they get trapped in a bay and can't find their way out. Another is that the 'head' of the pod is sick and needs to kill himself. The only way this is possible is to beach himself. The others may follow in sympathy. Whatever the reason, I learnt so much today. These animals are intelligent, they are extremely powerful, they are beautiful, they have the capacity to live up to their name, easily and efficiently. Yet at the same time even though I was pushing them where they did not want to go, I was harassing them, I probably quite annoyed them at times, even through all of this, not once did they show the slightest sign of aggression. They had the ability to knock me away with a twitch of the tail, to bite me in half like I was made of straw, even to just swim and get away from us. At no time did this happen, I really believe that they knew we were there to help them and I hope we did. I know I certainly made contact with one of the most incredible creatures on earth.
As they disappear into the distance there is not a dry eye on the boat. This has been, and always will be the most incredible experience of my life. I feel so lucky, so honoured, so proud. What more can I say. I am emotionally wiped out, exhausted, but extremely happy and at peace. And I believe, I may even have made a new friend today!
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