Copyright: Jared Towers

29 Mar An encounter with Type D orca

In January 2019 Jared Towers from WCA Partner North Island Marine Mammals Stewardship Association in Canada was part of an expert team that headed down to the Southern Ocean in search of the mysterious ‘Type D’ or ‘Subantarctic’ orca.

First recorded in 1955 when a strange pod washed up on a beach north of Wellington in New Zealand, Type D orca look distinctly different to other orca. Their heads are much more rounded, their fins are narrow and pointy and in particular the white patch above the eye is tiny.

50 years later and a team of French scientists confirmed seeing orca with similar characteristics off the Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean.

Now in 2019, and following reports from Chilean Toothfish fishermen that unusual looking orca were stealing fish from their long lines, Jared joined a team led by Robert Pitman from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association which headed down to this remote location to see if they could find them.

But the Southern Ocean is a notoriously treacherous and inhospitable place, with strong winds and frequent storms in the ‘roaring 40s’ and ‘furious 50s’. For 8 days the team was holed up in Cape Horn sheltering from a storm as ferocious winds and rain pounded the area.

Then a break. A 3-hour weather window and a chance to return to the site the fishermen had suggested.

In a script that could have been written for Hollywood, no sooner had the team arrived at the location then the orca appeared. “I walked up to the wheelhouse at 5:50am, looked out the window and they were right off the bow which was very lucky because the seas were so rough that we could only see about 300 metres” says Jared. 25 to 30 orca with blunt heads, narrow fins and small white eye patches. Here were those mysterious Type D orca. The whales seemed interested in the scientists equipment, swimming in close for a good look, perhaps expecting fish to be present.

The team spent the next couple of hours before the weather closed in again documenting the encounter, taking video, photos and importantly skin samples using a crossbow and dart – the first samples of Type D orca ever taken.

As well as the physical differences Type D orca appear to be slightly smaller and appear to prefer the comparatively warmer offshore waters of the sub-Antarctic rather than the near-frozen waters further south where three other Antarctic Type orca are found.

With all these differences, it could well be that these are in fact a different species of orca and if so would be the largest undescribed animal left on the planet.

Type D orca showing distinctive rounded head and small white eye patch. Photo: Jared Towers
Type D orca showing distinctive rounded head and small white eye patch. Photo: Jared Towers
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