by Shilpa Shah
A couple of recent trips out to sea were very rough. When we did find orcas, I glimpsed them in moments between trying not to fall over. Other days, the sea was so calm it looked like silk sheets and I would lean back against the cabin and enjoy the warmth of the sun on my face.
The changing conditions out on the water feel like a metaphor for life – sometimes tranquil, sometimes stormy… always changing. The orcas are at ease, whatever the weather. Most of the time they are slowly travelling. Sometimes they dive under one side of the boat and surface on the other side. In one group we meet, the big male is wriggling in a funny zig-zag, possibly as part of a hunting strategy.
Orca Guardians says ‘We value killer whales as individuals with unique character traits, and promote respectful and mindful encounters with them’.
When I’m focussed on watching orcas, time stops. It’s easy to forget how hard Orca Guardians’ partner Láki Tours are working to manage the boat behind the scenes. Of course they are trying to give their passengers the best experience possible. However, the first priority is the whales – to put their safety first and respect their sensitivity to noise from the boat. Captain Gísli, in the wheelhouse, is taking into account the currents, swell and the wind and simultaneously keeping a tab on exactly where the whales are. A certain distance is maintained and the whales are never approached head-on, but from a side angle. The boat propeller and sometimes the engine is stopped.
Láki Tours adheres strictly to a Code of Conduct for whale-watching developed and promoted by Orca Guardians’ partner IceWhale. Unfortunately, principles like these are not followed by all boat operators around the world. You can see the impact – injury scars on orca dorsal fins are the most obvious. Some orcas are thought to be deaf, their hearing impaired by the engine noise of all the boats around them.
If you go whale-watching, please make sure you use a responsible operator. In some places where there are lots of boats on the water, it might even be better for the whales to watch from land.
Láki’s reputation for being best practice leaders in the field appears to have reached the orcas too – they seem to trust the boat and come closer of their own accord. They will swim alongside the boat, popping up to take a curious look. Sometimes I wonder what’s going on, is it whale-watching or people-watching? That’s the best thing – if approached with gentleness and respect, of course it can be both.