Whales Need To Eat, Just Like The Rest Of Us

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The Guardian‘s Environment section gets us thinking, today, about the unfortunate qualifier–killer–to the name of this amazing animal. All of us non-vegetarians are killers, right? We just hide that fact as conveniently as we can. The spectacular fashion in which this particular marine mammal satisfies its appetites is something to behold:

Even before our boat left the shelter of Bremer Bay boat harbour, in south-west Western Australia, shortly after dawn on the first day of the region’s 2015 killer whale season, it felt like we were already at the edge of the world.

I was there to see a tiny place, far out to sea, that marine scientists and environmentalists regard as one of the most special ocean ecosystems anywhere in Australia’s commonwealth waters.

We would motor more than 65km offshore to a location not much bigger than a few football fields, where the ocean is 4.5km deep and weather conditions are almost always treacherous. Where we were going there was a not a single distinguishing feature or landmark – just a GPS point.

More than anything, though, no one yet knows for sure why each year, during February and March, life from around the Southern Ocean converges on that relatively minute speck in the ocean wilderness.

What is known is that there is a sudden, annual explosion of life that leads to feasting by an array of animals, attracting every level of the marine food chain – from bacteria and jellyfish through to killer whales, large pelagic sharks and wandering albatross.

As I stood waiting to board, it was easy to see why this area has a negligible national profile. Bremer Bay is a lonely, isolated spot, 500km south of Perth. It was so remote that I only just made the drive from Perth airport without running out of petrol, because I could not find a service station open after dark.

The coastal village is dominated by a 45m-tall wind generator on a hill above it, testament to the fact that this is also one of the windiest of coastlines. Beyond the rocky breakwater and the tiny cove where we gathered for our departure, the ocean looked choppy and vast. The crew told us, ominously, to brace ourselves because today was rougher than usual.

As we clambered on board all 11 of us looked with grimaces at the wild sea just beyond the tiny anchorage. The organiser of the trip, the tour operator Naturaliste Charters, had warned there were two things that those making the voyage would need to consider: seasickness and sea spray.

Out in the open ocean, pounding into the 3.5m seas, it didn’t take long for about half of those on board to be so sick that the boat’s deckhand was soon retrieving an alarming number of seasickness bags. For the next two hours his main job was tending to several people who were so ill that they lay on the floor inside the cabin groaning with misery.

One woman sat at the stern, sick to the point that she didn’t care that the spray from the crashing waves was leaving her drenched. No one could convince her to leave her exposed spot.

With us that day was a film-maker, David Riggs, whose 2013 film, The Search for the Ocean’s Super Predator, featured a story about the mystery of what ate a tagged three-metre white shark. As part of the research for that documentary Riggs discovered the annual killer whale aggregation off Bremer Bay. He now spends every February and March filming and studying the event…

Read the whole article here.

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