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Valentines day massacre -14th Feb 2010

This morning at breakfast the talk was, for once, not about Killer whales. Rather, it was about who had remembered (or not) to send messages, flowers, chocolates…. to their partners back home. But by 7:30am we had whales. They were Type A’s – the big black and white whale killers. There were about 20 together in a tight social group, shallow breathing in the flat calm golden morning water. They were super aware of our boat. Tom and I got a few shots and then we backed the boat right off and waited.

They stayed tight and social untill about 11am. Then they turned north and sped up.  At about midday they fanned out over what looked like about 5 miles and continued north.  Something was afoot. Everything felt right but no one on board the Fleece breathed a word of how right it felt. It’s pretty easy to jinx these situations with too much chat I have found. At about 1.30 Bob shouted up a big splash about 2 miles to the west. I got my binoculars on it. It was a Minke whale porpoising with Killers in hot pursuit and, thank the sweet lord, they were coming straight for us. Dion took the helm and with a huge cloud of blue smoke opened up the throttle on the Golden Fleece’s diesels and turned to intercept. The pursuit was much faster than I imagined, a sustained 9-10 knots. The Minke was fully porpoising – throwing it’s 10 metre, 5 ton body mostly out the water just like a dolphin. Only the female Killers could keep up, the males and Juveniles lagged way behind. The females flanked the Minke keeping close to it’s head. On board everything was running well. Tom and I were well coordinated by producer Liz. Dion’s skill at the helm kept us close but not too close. John and Bob the scientists worked furiously covering the event in stills. Everyone was ready for the kill. Honestly, I expected it to last twenty minutes tops. The Killer whales chased that Minke whale for two and a half hours. They ran it down over 25 miles. In the end they tore a massive section of blubber off it’s back just below the dorsal fin. The Minke whale slowed which allowed the big male Killer whales to catch up . Once they were there they killed it. I think they were ramming blows underwater. The Minke Whale shuddered a couple of times. And then a male came along side, put it’s chin on the top of the Minke’s head, pushed it underwater and drowned it. I usually have no trouble staying dispassionate and disconnected at these events. I see my job as the recorder. I didn’t feel that today. In the moments after death, as I watched the Storm Petrols pick tiny droplets fat from the surface of the water, I felt the loss of the life of the Minke whale in my heart with an ache of true sadness.