Now known predominately as Orcas, they are most possibly the most recognisable of any marine mammal in the world, and a favourite among many. They frequent our coast about twice a month and can be seen in groups of 2 up to 15 + individuals.
Despite their names they are actually the world’s largest dolphin. Males have distinct large dorsal fins that can reach up to 2m high and they can grow up to 9m in length, females are slightly smaller and have a curved dorsal fin that resembles that of a typical dolphin.
It’s hard to miss their distinctive black and white markings, but you may be wondering why they look the way they do. It is a clever camouflage trick called countershading. When viewed from below an orca’s white belly blends into the light colour of the ocean’s surface. When viewed from above their black backs help them hide against dark depths- perfect for being inconspicuous when sneaking up on their prey!
The New Zealand Orca are known as transient which means they are constantly moving around – infact they can travel up to 170 km a day! However, within the New Zealand population which is estimated to be made up of around 200 individuals there are three main groups. A north island group, a South Island group and a group that will travel around both the islands.
Over time the operators in Kaikoura have come to know individual orcas quite well. Being able to identify individuals by their unique eye patches, saddle patches and dorsal fins we can report any sightings back to researchers. This information is invaluable, building a greater picture of where they travel, whom they travel with and even what they are feeding on.
One very recognisable orca that visits Kaikoura from time to time is a male known as Ben. Ben belongs to the sub group of orcas which travel around both islands and is arguably one of the most famous orca in NZ. He first made global news in 1997 when he stranded on a beach in Northland and was beached for 21 hours before successfully being refloated. Unfortunately, a year later he was run over by a boat which sliced his dorsal fin in half. Remarkably he is still thriving to this day and was last seen here in January of this year.
Ben in Kaikoura, 2019 with his very recognisable damaged dorsal fin
New Zealand Orca employ several different hunting methods but most are aimed at catching the same kind of prey – rays and sharks! This is a unique diet compared to the other orca around the world and unfortunately it is why the orca in New Zealand have one of the highest stranding rates of orca populations in the world, following the stingrays into the shallows which will purposely beach themselves to flee from the orcas hungry mouths!
A few individual Orca are also known to hunt dolphins and whales which has been observed several times in Kaikoura. What is surprising to many is that they seem to be uninterested in the seals and there’s never been any documented evidence that they are part of the New Zealand’s populations diet!
Orca are one of our favourite species to watch from the helicopters. Watching them from a birds eye view gives you a unique insight into their behaviour which you just can’t get from a boat, whether it be a young orca swimming underwater upside down or sharing a shark for lunch between the pod just below the surface!
We just never know when or what we are going to see when these top predators are in town and that’s what makes their appearances so exciting! Keep an eye out on our social media pages for our most recent sightings!