Orcas of the Western Atlantic

"A Mysterious History"

by Dave Snow

A jumping orca.The orcas in the western Atlantic have a mysterious history. We know they were common enough to serve as a prominent subject for the art and rituals of the people who lived in Newfoundland and Labrador three thousand years ago. The most famous artifacts taken from the Port aux Choix National Historic Site on the West Coast of Newfoundland were orca effigies carved in bone. Today orcas are a very rare sight in the West Atlantic.

Helping the Hunt

With more modern whaling practices in the 19th century, orcas became partners with whalers. They sometimes waited outside Newfoundland ports and other North American ports such as Gloucester, Provincetown, and New Bedford joining whaling boats as they left port on their hunts.

Once at sea the orcas chased larger whales towards the waiting harpoons of the whalers. The orcas attacked the panicked whales from below while the harpoons rained down from above. After World War One the iron boats of the whalers turned their harpoons on the orcas, now viewed as competitors, and soon the orcas learned to avoid humans.

The orcas continued to be ignored, or just occasionally hunted, until after World War Two. Commercial fishermen and whalers began to consider them a competitor for the ever dwindling number of large whales and began to hunt them more intensely. In Iceland, the government encouraged the American Navy to use orcas as living targets for anti-submarine warfare exercises.

In April, 1954 Time Magazine reported, "...Killer whales...savage sea cannibals with teeth like bayonets...one was caught with 14 seals and 13 porpoises in its belly... have destroyed thousands of dollars worth of fishing tackle... Icelandic Government appealed to the U.S., which has thousands of men stationed at a lonely NATO airbase. The bored G.I.s responded with enthusiasm...one posse of Americans...in one morning wiped out a pack of 100 killers..." It seems likely these orcas followed the Atlantic salmon migration between Newfoundland and Greenland.

The whalers of Newfoundland also contributed to what must have been a major decline in orca numbers. Captain Henry Mahle of Dildo was the province's last whaling captain and reports occasionally shooting orcas off Newfoundland waters until 1972, when Canada banned commercial whaling.

Fleeting Guests

In 1979 Memorial University's Whale Research Group began to systematically catalogue the whales around Newfoundland. About the same time, other academic organizations along the Atlantic coast began looking at the various types of whales and the size of their various populations. Orcas were occasionally seen around Newfoundland and Labrador by lighthouse keepers, Wildland Tours holiday groups, and other interested observers, but they were never reported to stay in a given area for more than a day or two.

Our detailed trip lists showed orcas making brief appearances around the Newfoundland coast throughout the summers of 1994 to 2003. Every summer observers would report orcas from places such as the Bay of Islands, Twillingate, Bay Bulls, Ferryland, and Quidi Vidi. The sighting would typically last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but the next day the whales would be gone.
The year 2002 provided some of our company's most dramatic orca watching adventures. On July 19, Mary Hughes of Connecticut watched a group of orcas from the Labrador ferry as she participated in our Viking Trail Experience tour. On July 25 she was in St. John's participating in our Whale Study Week program when the thirty humpbacks in the area all started making loud flippering, lobtailing, and breaching displays.

Dramatic Orca Watching Adventures

A whale watching expedition.
A whale watching expedition.

The horizon was filled with humpbacks doing acrobatics. Minutes later Mary's group spotted 6 orcas. The photographic target switched from individual humpback tails and markings to individual orca dorsal fins and Mary's group was able to get useful identification shots of all six animals, including one large male.

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Mary and the rest of our party spent over two hours with this group of six, and added some wonderful new images to our small but growing provincial orca catalogue. This catalogue is the first attempt to systematically study this region's orcas. This particular group appeared to stay off our portion of eastern Newfoundland from June to October. However, we believe there are at least four orca families found along the province's 17,000 kilometers of coastline.

Throughout the 1990s the holiday leaders of Wildland Tours received occasional reports from government officials and travelers about orca sightings off southern Labrador. Passengers on the Labrador coastal supply boats seemed particularly likely to give anecdotal reports of orcas along the southern Labrador coast. A check with Memorial University researchers revealed that a dead orca had been found in the Battle Harbor area around 1995.

Increased Sightings of Orcas

Reports of orcas from other southern Labrador coastal communities were also relatively frequent. And despite a very low number of knowledgeable whale watchers visiting the more remote portions of southern Labrador over the past few summers, many travelers have reported seeing orcas. Over the years orca reports have been far more common off southern Labrador, which received very few visitors, than off St. John's or Bay Bulls, where there are numerous, daily whale watching trips.

It seems possible we had found the western Atlantic's first semi-resident orca population and during 1998 we offered a special trip to southern Labrador for the historical sights and especially to begin a preliminary attempt to count the orcas in the area.

Newfoundland currently boasts the world's largest gathering of humpback whales. If Labrador can be proven to host a resident pod of orcas it would be scientifically important and could form the basis for an incredibly exciting holiday!

New Expeditions and Many New Discoveries

Our 1998 expedition was hampered by weather, but our guests and leader found two separate family groups, one group of 4 orcas and one of 5 orcas, south of Battle Harbor. Poor weather or poor viewing locations prevented all attempts at scientifically useful photography.

In 1999 we started our registry of provincial orca sightings and sent a group of adventurous Canadian businessmen to southern Labrador by helicopter. Three orcas were seen off the Gray Islands and a small group, of at least three, was seen just south of Battle Harbor.The orcas were in the company of at least 4 other species of whale including humpback, fin, sei, and white-beaked dolphins. This represents a unique feeding behavior for orcas, although it is not surprising given the ecology of the region.

The year 2000 brought more orca sightings around Newfoundland and Labrador than ever before. In addition to occasional sightings around the province's coast, we continued to receive regular reports of sightings from southern Labrador and also from a portion of northern Newfoundland in an area almost within view of the Labrador coast.

A local biologist reported 120 orca sightings over the summer. By early July 2001, Wildland Tours groups were again viewing orcas off the Labrador coast, including one large male that pursued a minke whale around Red Bay Harbor for over an hour.

Given the strong anecdotal evidence for reliable orca viewing and the success of our past three in-house orca expeditions, we offered eastern North America's first commercial orca watching holiday in mid-August 2002.

That expedition searched the rich coastline off Labrador and northern Newfoundland encountering six species of whale together with caribou, moose, several seal species, and a black bear. Orcas were reported in the region, but we never found them. The staff at this area has reported sighting large groups of orcas during the early fall for the past three years.

Southern Labrador Area

The southern Labrador area boasts of whales, icebergs, great walking, beautiful scenery, subarctic wildflowers, abundant black bears, eider duck colonies, varied seabirds, and a rich, historic atmosphere. Here beautifully restored fishing homes and merchant warehouses offer a glimpse back into the last century. There is no electricity in Battle Harbor, and in 1998 we became the first and only organization to set up boat trips in an attempt to document the whales off the coast systematically.

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Wildland Tours plans to continue working with area residents, including the people who have turned the area's restored buildings into basic accommodations, as part of our new research project to identify and count the region's whales. Our Northern Whale Study program will attempt to catalogue orca dorsal fins photographically and also attempt to record underwater vocalizations to compare the orcas of Iceland, western Canada, and Norway.

There are no guarantees of orca sightings since we still have no systematic, scientific data about whale residency. There is, however, strong aboriginal knowledge suggesting a high probability of orca sightings; and all but one of our preliminary surveys and expeditions have proven to be successful with respect to finding orcas.

The worst-case scenario is that Northern Whale Study participants will have a wonderful whale-filled holiday without orcas, but all the evidence suggests we will find orcas over the course of the expedition.

The area is typically rich with humpbacks, and we will be working to photograph as many humpback tail flukes as possible. According to the researchers working with Dr. Sean Todd at Allied Whale in Maine, these humpbacks are the least known feeding population in the world; and scientists continue to be especially interested in our tail photographs from this area.

Wildland Tours Provides

At Battle Harbor we provide basic accommodations in restored and refurbished historical buildings together with great food. The second half of our expedition focuses on the coast of northern Newfoundland where we venture out into the areas that have provided over half a dozen orca sightings a year since 2000. Here we have more modern local accommodations and food in place so we can enjoy wild, whale-filled days and comfortable nights.

We believe this trip is one of the greatest adventures available on Earth. The western and northern Newfoundland travel routes include two UNESCO world heritage sites, the northern edge of the Appalachian Mountains, and the New World's only Viking site. Our southern Labrador route features the 1550 world whaling capital at Red Bay and the New World's oldest burial mound.

The dramatic coastal settings and the wildlife populations hold the promise of transforming our itinerary into the learning and research vacation of a lifetime. If you are interested in exploring these little-known parts of the world as part of our quest to document the whales along the east coast of North America, we invite you to review the itinerary and hop aboard!

Dave Snow
Wildland Tours
P.O. Box 383, 124 Water Street
St. John's, NF
Canada A1C 5J9

phone: (709) 722-3123 fax: (709) 722-3335
e-mail: wildtour@nfld.com

Dave Snow has written numerous articles and special publications on seabirds, whales, and marine ecology. Wildland Tours promotes participation in the Newfoundland and Labrador portion of the world-wide humpback whale census. This population has been found to be the world's largest gathering of feeding humpbacks. This whale research provides an important indicator of oceanic health.


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