March 3, 2016
Is it Mere Murder?
The other day I was writing some prosaic blog post about how we were, at close of this part of the expedition, just beginning to weld ourselves into a team, the kind with which difficult things go smoothly and the boring chores are attended to without asking. Nature had gifted us with the carcass of a newly-dead baby whale, just as we were preparing to cross back over the treacherous Golfo de Penas. That may seem a little morbid, but that was what we were looking for as it slotted neatly into our search for usable DNA. It was raining softly, but the equipment had been laid out neatly for the job and, based on our past experience everyone had their place in the operation. Mine, as usual, was to act as point-man, running supplies across the gap between the boat and shore and seeing to the security of Saoirse. Nothing had been said, but the idea was that this necropsy alone could be the defining study which would begin to outline the story of the whale cemetery.
Again, nothing has been said, but our studies had been certainly slanted towards the theory that red tide is the villain of the piece here, linking this phenomena to El Niño and therefore global warming in general. This is logically reasonable, since the vast scope of the whale deaths point to a single toxic occurrence in the ecosphere. We could look forward to a nice, succinct solution to the puzzle. Then, Nature threw us a curve ball.
Cut to the present and I am standing in the pilothouse of Saoirse, securely anchored to various rotting tree trunks and preparing the boat for the return of the necropsy team from their sombre occupation some 200m away on the shore. Previously, in the quietly brooding gloom of Caleta Buena we had freed the body of the baby whale from the web of tree branches which fringed the cove at high tide and carefully towed her with the dinghy to a flat, stony beach where we could get a footing to conduct the operation at low tide. It was raining softly, but all had been proceeding smoothly. I had been monitoring the radio as the team had been exchanging the few terse sentences they needed to sharpen knives, organize samples, carry tools. Nothing wrong with the picture.
The first distortion of this placid mindscape was Katie’s voice edging in on the radio, “Do you see whales breaching out there in Puerto Slight?”. I grabbed the binoculars from their holster and focused them on what seemed to be a flurry of whale blows out in the main body of the sound some 2 miles away. “Looks like dolphins jumping or something” I chimed back, “not whales anyway.”
“They’re coming towards us into the bay!”, came the excited rejoinder. I looked again, and sure enough the splashing disturbance in the water was headed right in to the cove. Fast. Suddenly I could see the fins of Orca running fast and hard down the bay, jumping and churning the dark waters into a froth. Mingling in to the growing chaos emerged the much bigger blows and surface signature of a larger baleen whale. The whole thrashing mass was headed straight for the beach at the head of the cove where all of the other beached whales lay in their various states of decay.
It was happening just as the fishermen had described. The Orcas charging, jumping and slapping, delivering pile-driver blows to the body of their hapless prey. Its stricken flight took it closer and closer to the beach in an effort to escape its pernicious persecutors, but the whale was clearly doomed. Around and around the bay the orcas continued harrying the whale, driving their blunt noses into its flanks and slapping at it with their powerful tails until it took one final charge towards the exit of the cove and was lost to view.
The next morning the corpses of two newly dead sei whales lay glistening on the beach at the head of Caleta Buena. The fantastic power of Nature had come in one insane vision, blazed itself in front of us and vanished, leaving our carefully ordered scientific thoughts twisted and bleeding on the beach. So where does this leave us now?
Last year, if someone had suggested that the several hundred whale carcasses strewn across hundreds of square miles of the Patagonian coast could have been the work of a group of marauding orca, I too would have scorned the idea as being as farfetched as some of the other theories such as military sonar, radiation from Fukushima etc. which abounded on the internet at the time. Now, having heard the stories from the fishermen and locals, seen it happen in front of my own eyes, I have to conclude that that this is now not only a possibility, but also a probability. If what happened in Caleta Buena can account for all of the whale deaths in that locale, can we then construct a plausible scenario which includes all of the denizens of the whale cemetery? If we can, and this turns out to be the case, what can this tell us about predatory behaviour in Orcas, in ourselves?
Certainly it changes the game concerning about what information we are now required to collect. First, we must now listen to the stories, ancient and modern, that come from the mouths of the people who live here, then verify them with our own experience. The past experience of the wild is concentrated (imperfectly) in the stories of the people who have lived there.
If a chance meeting with the captain of a fishing boat can tell us the truth about what is happening in the here and now, then surely a parsing through of older stories may illuminate some of the pieces of the puzzle which have faded in time.
We are now in Puerto Eden, preparing Saoirse for the next part of the expedition in May, meantime I hope we can be passing some of these stories from the the source to you.