Orcas in Hawaii

Photos by Marilyn Plum, Text by John Ballou

The following is an eyewitness account of the sighting of Orcas (Killer Whales) near Ni'ihau, Hawaii on March 20, 2001. The boat was the Holoholo out of Kauai'i, run by Holoholo Charters. Marilyn Plum took the excellent pictures that are posted on this web site.

First, we saw the humpbacks on the way back from Ni'ihau to Kauai. They were doing their normal thing, spouting
from time to time, with only their backs breaking the surface. This was the same behavior that we saw throughout
the day. Then, as we continued our return trip, there were four of us on the south rail that made the first sighting of the orcas. It was when two tails came up out of the water, one larger than the other. The shape was clearly different from what we had seen of the humpback tails - more of a crescent shape. The captain saw them also, and steered the boat to that area. When we arrived at the area, the orcas began to surface, moving toward the boat, and then we could see their triangular dorsal fins, the light patches in front of their eyes, and their light colored bellies. They were grouped together, with the small ones staying pretty close to the larger ones. In a way, it seemed as if they were swimming in a synchronized fashion, one large one with one small one. It was pretty clear that there were 6 of them, a very large one, two medium sized ones, and three youngsters. As I mentioned, one of the medium ones had a severely bent dorsal fin. They came quite close to the boat, say about 30 feet, so we had a very good look at them. After about a minute or two, they disappeared, and we scanned the water around us for signs of them. We did not see them at all for 3-5 minutes.

At that point, the captain said that he was seeing some unusual spouting going on to the west of us, back toward Niihau, and steered his boat in that direction. When we reached that area, the spouting ceased. However, when we looked around, we saw the humpbacks under the ocean swells - a large turquoise mass, oblong shaped - just under the surface of the water. We did not see any spouting from these whales at all, and it was not clear how many of them there were. I would speculate that they may have been aware of the orcas in the vicinity, and were perhaps "playing dead", or trying to be difficult for them to echolocate. After 5-8 minutes, the captain turned the boat around, and went back to where we had earlier been with the orcas.

When we arrived there, the orcas came close to the boat again, and stayed around for a short time. Then, they disappeared again, and when they did, we noticed the turquoise shapes on the water on the opposite side of the boat from where we sighted the orcas. The humpbacks were doing the same thing - staying under the swells, perhaps hiding.

After about another 5 minutes, we noticed a patch of water in front of the boat that was a different color - and the captain said that it was probably blood in the water. The slick kept getting bigger and bigger, eventually covering an area about 10 X 50 meters. When this area reached its maximum, the orcas appeared on the surface, coming at the slick from all directions, surfacing at the perimeter, and diving toward the middle. There was a lot of debris collecting on the surface, which was being scooped out by some birds that were flying around. Two of the smaller orcas did some leaps out of the water, falling on their backs in the middle of the
slick.

While the slick could have been caused by any number of things, I am very certain that the orcas killed a small humpback because of what we all saw toward the end of the incident. The largest orca surfaced right in front of the boat, with about 8 feet of his head protruding from the water, holding about a 4-5 foot section of vertebrae, with raw meat still hanging from it. I know it was a backbone, because the parts of it that were out of his mouth flopped around somewhat.

While I am not sure that this description, along with the pictures posted on the web site above, still qualify as only an "anecdotal" account of an orca sighting, I hope that this information will help to increase our understanding of the behavior of these magnificent creatures - both the orcas and the humpbacks.