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NZ Orca — New Zealand Orca are unique in that they specialise in hunting for sting rays and sharks of which NZ orca have been seen taking 6 different species but can also be seen hunting down dolphins and fish. We have experienced first-hand a pods of orca in hunting mode, hunting the likes of dolphins, to sharks, to penguins and even trying to take on a sperm whale.

Orcas hunt co-operatively and are even known to intentionally strand themselves on beaches temporarily, in order to catch seals. Orca behaviour — Often referred to as wolves of the sea, orcas live and hunt together in cooperative pods, or family groups, much like a pack of wolves.

Meanwhile in New Zealand • Live Sail Die

In the mids, for the first time, an orca was taken into captivity. People have come to realise they are not the man-eaters they have been portrayed as. While orca have not been hunted as extensively as other whales, many have still been taken. For instance, between and , Norway took orca from around its shores. Their oil was used for paint and lubrication and their meat fed to foxes farmed for their fur and pets until cheaper foods were found.

In one infamous event, the US Navy destroyed hundreds of orca off Iceland with machine guns, rockets and depth charges, citing the need to protect fishing nets and fish stocks. Orca are still targeted in the seas around Indonesia, Japan, Iceland, Norway and, primarily by Russians and Japanese, Antarctica, and even recently their meat, which resembles bull beef, and blubber have been sold in supermarkets in Japan. On the other hand, some other aboriginal peoples have strong links with orca.

Orcas playing with swimmer at Hahei Beach, New Zealand (Original)

In North America, many First Nations peoples revere them and hold them to be spiritual lords of the sea. One story tells of a time before whales, when a brave became lost a long way from his village. To get back home he carved an orca out of a log, and, knowing the way, the animal bore him there. Thus was the orca created. There was a widespread belief that an orca could drag a boatload of fishermen to the bottom of the sea, where the victims would be transformed into orca.

One myth tells of an orca called Namu meaning whirlwind , who carried a princess on his back from the mainland to see her mother, marooned on an island. Stylised images of orca, with high dorsal fin and multi-toothed mouth, appear on everyday items as well as totem poles. Inuit believed orca could turn themselves into wolves, and vice versa. Both species were revered.

The answer is to do with being inconspicuous.

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When viewed from above, therefore, they blend with the darkness of the deep ocean. Viewed from below, they blend with the light from the sky. For a frontal attack, the animals in a group line up abreast by using the near-side eye patch of their neighbour to left and right as a marker. White flanks could also be used to coordinate hunting manoeuvres or to spook prey into tight groups. Behind the dorsal fin is an area of light-grey pigmentation called the saddle patch, which glows brighter than any other part of an orca when viewed with infrared imaging, meaning it is warmer.

The bold black-and-white pigmentation of orca is unique in the cetacean world, and each animal has its own subtle variations on the basic theme.

Watch: Stunning video of swimmer in New Zealand getting a pod of orcas for company

They can be photographically catalogued and used as a means of identification. In turn, this allows detailed study of orca lives. For example, how much time does a particular individual spend travelling, hunting or sleeping? Whom does he or she mate with? Whom do they share their lunch with?

Killing It in Antarctica: Orcas, aka Killer Whales, of the Ross Sea

Accurate identification of individuals enables us to recognise behavioural differences between orca—personality if you will. Some like to hunt close inshore where there are rocks, others regularly patrol the water near beaches. Yet others prefer to hang back and cut off prey as it tries to escape. Rocky is an exponent of the first of these techniques, while Stealth, a female, leads a group that ambushes dolphins. Some orca seem to love baby-sitting. Orca eyes are on the side of the head, and directed slightly downwards, the better to spot prey swimming below.

Others revel in the jet from fishing-boat hoses, rolling from side to side to get a full water massage. Occasionally, one will even lay its head on the back of a boat and allow people to pat it. It is possible that this high degree of interaction with humans has arisen from another unique feature of New Zealand orca: their specific hunting culture. Culture can be defined as traditions transmitted and reinforced by members of a group.

Orca culture is often unique to a small geographic location, not unlike human tribal culture. New Zealand orca employ several different hunting methods, but most are aimed at catching the same kind of prey—elasmobranchs, i. New Zealand orca were the first to be recognised as specialising in hunting this type of prey, and they remain the only orca that use these particular methods. As my research developed, it became apparent that most of the close-to-shore activity was hunting.


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Prior to these observations, it was thought that orca hunted in the water column—that is, between the surface and the ocean floor but not on the floor itself. However, shallow-bottom foraging for various species of ray proved to be normal for New Zealand orca. When hunting in estuarine areas, the orca dig in the mud to extract the rays, surfacing on occasion for a breath with dirt coating their faces like a beauty face-pack.

They are sometimes successful: a young orca was found in with stingray barbs lodged in her back, chin and throat, and she died from an allergic reaction to the poison in them. Foraging for rays is a risky occupation, and I have seen as many as seven orca attempting to catch a single large animal. Often young, inexperienced orca will float nearby and watch the action; such lessons help build the distinctive New Zealand orca culture.


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Once a ray has been immobilised, youngsters are given the opportunity to participate, although this may entail simply sharing the spoils of a kill. Elasmobranchs are relatively primitive vertebrates and their nervous system can be reduced to insensibility. Orca have learnt this, and will often turn a ray or shark over, allowing them to come in safely for the kill.

To escape, rays will often make for extremely shallow water, even coming in so close that they end up flopping about on the beach.

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It is this evasive behaviour which draws the orca into the shallows, where they sometimes become stranded. Once back in the water, they are perhaps sufficiently curious to continue the interaction. To date, every recorded orca stranding around New Zealand has occurred on a gently sloping sandy beach or in a harbour known to be a place where orca hunt for rays—hardly a coincidence given their foraging strategies. Yet despite the occasional blunder onto land, these skilful predators make a meal of many a ray.

The techniques for taking sharks differ from those for taking rays. Given that sharks are themselves intelligent, agile and successful predators, it takes co-ordination and alert manoeuvring to capture them. Wild Pages Press. Dan Wakeman. Marianne Taylor. Dieter Braun.

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