Wild Orcas and the Bremer Canyon Feeding Frenzy
Each year, nearly 200 killer whales are drawn to the pristine ocean off Western Australia’s rugged south coast. Join a marine expedition to watch these and many other creatures in their most natural habitat.
Swirl likes to eyeball passengers while coasting on her beautifully marked side. Bruce is known to throw his eight tonne form up and out of the water in an eye-popping breach. Meanwhile, A380 – so-named for his size – sports a dorsal fin spiking nearly two metres high.
These are the killer whales that turn up in Bremer Canyon each January, making the little-known dot on the map home to the largest-known congregation of orca in the Southern Hemisphere.
Skipper Paul Cross knows them all by name. The owner of Naturaliste Charters has been leading science-partnered expeditions to the region since 2014, bringing curious nature lovers along to witness the raw power of the king of the ocean. “Every day, we don’t know what we’re going to see or find,” he says. “Once you see one in the flesh, up close, nothing can replace that – it’s a sensational feeling. Being able to say I’ve seen a killer whale in its natural environment is just… words can’t describe it.”
WA’s orca hot spot
When Cross first started his full-day tours to the area, it was thought there were between 50 and 100 orca frequenting the area. Now, the number is pegged at nearly 200, with 150 individuals scientifically identified and recorded, and more being analysed.
Curtin University marine mammal scientist, Rebecca Wellard has joined the expeditions for the past five years, studying their sounds and cataloguing each individual from tens of thousands of photographs taken each season. As well as hooking up a hydrophone so everyone on the boat can hear whale chatter, she shares the catalogue with visitors so they can pick out Swirl and her mates as they interact with the boat.
Wellard says the thrill of being around killer whales never stops. “Every single day you go out, you never know what you’re going to see in the ocean, whether it’s social activity in the pods, or a new predation event. I think that’s what makes it so special,” she says.
Why do they come?
While the orca’s reliable appearance between early January and mid-April is somewhat of a mystery, it’s believed that the 5000-metre-deep Bremer Canyon becomes a feeding smorgasbord for the ‘pandas of the sea’ at this time of year. “In the Southern Ocean, food is hard to find but when you find it there are massive volumes of it, and that’s what makes this location so special,” says Cross.
He says watching the orcas hunt prey is up there with one of life’s most suspenseful, and exhilarating activities. “When they’re hunting, you know what’s going to happen, you just don’t know when, or where,” he says. “They will be in stealth mode for up to one hour, and you might only be watching four animals. Then, within a second, you see up to 100 orcas racing to the prey at a speed of 30 knots. They come from every direction, and we can’t keep up with them with the vessel.”
How to spot an orca
As the boat ploughs out to the canyon, all eyes are usually on the water, searching for a puff of whale vapour – but they should be on the skies. “We find the birds, we find the killer whales,” says Cross.
It sounds unlikely, but after an orca feeding frenzy, dozens of birds take over, eagerly cleaning up the debris. They circle and dive, signalling where killer whales might be lurking. Cross says there are so many feathered species in the area, the expeditions are beginning to attract their fair share of birdwatchers. “We get shearwaters, giant petrels and wandering albatross, which is the bird with the biggest wingspan on the planet,” he says.
There’s also an abundance of marine life adding to the experience. “We see sperm whales, false killer whales, massive ocean sunfish, dolphins, and a vast variety of different shark species from great whites to hammerheads, and there’s also the southern bluefin migration.” A dedicated marine biologist is on all Naturaliste Charter tours, on hand to talk about the diversity under the ocean surface.
So where are they, exactly?
The Bremer Canyon is a deep-sea cleft that lies about 65 kilometres out from the remote southern coastline of WA. It’s opposite the tiny hamlet of Bremer Bay, a friendly, one-pub town overlooking the water, where people are so laid-back they leave the keys in their cars with the windows down. It’s a 500-kilometre drive south-east of Perth, or 185 kilometres east of the coastal city of Albany (a bus transfer departs Albany).
Killer whale watchers tend to stay overnight at Bremer Bay Resort so they can join the 8:30am departure across the seas. It can be a rough ride that more than earns you your sea legs by the time the vessel reaches the orca-spotting site. Yet the rougher it is, the more vigorous the killer whale activity is likely to be.