In search of the Killer Whale - Part Two
Updated: Apr 26, 2018
About 45 minutes after our eagle encounter, we were driving along a coastal road when Richard spotted a work up of feeding gannets far out to sea. We stopped the car on an ice-covered car park and got the field scope out of the boot. The gannets were so far out that mine and Calum’s binoculars didn’t help that much when trying to see if there were any cetaceans feeding underneath them. For about five minutes Richard didn’t move, his eyes were pressed firmly against the eye piece of the scope and I think for a short period he even stopped breathing, he was that still. Then, all of a sudden, he fell backwards with a beaming smile shouting “ORCA ORCA ORCA!”.
My entire body started to shake with excitement. “Get your eyes on that” exclaimed Rich. I did my best but I was shaking so much that I couldn’t focus the scope. Calum steadied the scope for me as I pressed my eyes against the eye piece for a second time. I could see the gannets diving into the choppy sea but no fins. My heart then stopped as an enormous bull orca surfaced amongst the gannets, his enormous sail-like dorsal fin wobbling as he took a breath. Then there was another fin, this time a female, then another and then another. I, too, fell on my back not quite able to comprehend what I’d just seen. Calum took a look and we all hugged and danced on the frozen mountain side. God only knows what the people in the passing Land Rover thought as they drove past us. We got back in the car and for the next half hour, I could barely speak, I was in shock. We continued our drive around the peninsula before we undertook the two and half hour drive back to Reykjavik. After dinner, we logged onto Facebook and saw that Láki tours had had an encounter with a pod of killer whales that very afternoon. We were so close, but yet so far. We had to go back and try again. We phoned up and booked ourselves onto the afternoon trip the very next day, hoping that the killer whales would be following a similar tidal movement. I didn’t sleep that night.
The following afternoon we were back at the bridge that crosses Kolgrafafjörður. The water was glossy, there were harbour seals hauled out on the rocks and there was a mass of gulls circling far up the inlet. I lifted my binoculars and scanned the water beneath the distant gulls. A series of black triangles broke the surface and my heart stopped like it did the day before. There was a pod of killer whales feeding on herring. “ORCAS!” I shouted. We ran across the bridge to get the trusty field scope set up to get a closer view. A huge male surfaced spraying a plume of water from its single blow hole. I was in heaven, but we now faced a dilemma: the killer whales would have to pass under the bridge with the falling tide. Should we wait for them to pass underneath us? Or head out with Láki and hope to meet them on the other side of the bridge? We decided to gamble and we set back off to the harbour to board the ‘Láki II’ for the second time.
We suited up once again and the boat headed straight for Kolgrafafjörður. I was nervous. It would take us over an hour to get around the coast back to the bridge and we could miss the killer whales as they swam back out to deeper water. That hour passed very slowly. As we reached the bridge, I was convinced that the pod would have gone. I was wrong. They were still feeding and were still at the top end of the inlet. The ‘Láki II’ is too tall to pass under the bridge and we would have to wait for the pod to swim back out, so we waited, and waited. The tide was falling and the sun would soon start dropping below the horizon. The killer whales however, were still gorging themselves on herring.
Half an hour passed and the people stood on the bridge were getting excited. The pod had finally stopped feeding and were heading back towards us. I was now minutes away from a close encounter with the largest member of the dolphin family and within arm’s reach of fulfilling my childhood dream. I was shaking. The blows of the killer whales were audible as they passed under the bridge, as were the excitable screams of the people watching them from above. Then, it finally happened.
A pod of seven killer whales were now 100 yards away swimming parallel to the boat. Their dorsal fins cut effortlessly through the icy water and their blows resonated around the windless inlet. There was a matriarch with another female which had a new born calf which was so young that its white markings were still stained brown, several adolescent individuals and a huge bull, known as Thunderstorm. I raised my camera to snap some pictures, and to also cover my face as the tears of joy started to well up in my eyes. I snuck to the back of the boat to get a ‘better look’. I took a few minutes to compose myself and then returned to my previous position as Thunderstorm surfaced just 10 metres from the boat.
After 20 minutes, we left the pod and started to head back to the harbour. The sun was beginning to go down and a pod of white beaked dolphins escorted us back into Grundarfjörður. I slept very well that night.
If you'd like to see more of our fantastic orca-filled adventure, check out our film about our time in Iceland!
Billy Heaney is a naturalist and wildlife presenter who has just completed his MSc by research studying grey seals at the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus! Check out his website https://www.billyheaney.co.uk/ and follow him on Instagram @billyheaneynature .