A Ghostly Killer Whale in the Drake Passage

January 5, 2018. 

We had relatively favorable weather for the Drake, a body of water infamous for conjuring up the types of legendary storms that cripple ships and (exceedingly rarely, these days) claim lives. We were riding over long, 4-6’ swells when an announcement came over our little handheld radios that the watchman had spotted a group of killer whales. I remember running up to the bridge with only my binoculars in hand, and watching these strange, swept back dorsal fins in the distance, maybe a mile off, rising and falling with the waves. I couldn't really make out the conspicuous white marking that most orca display fairly prominently above their eye, but I attributed it to the swell and we kept watching.

It’s often surprising to learn that killer whales are currently broken up into roughly a dozen distinct forms that scientists term 'ecotypes'. Each group (they really are cultures, just like in humans) has a preference for certain kinds of food, communicates in a specific language, and all are generally found within a well-defined range. The majority of killer whale photos you see come from the West Coast of the United States, where three distinct ecotypes have been described so far. In other parts of the world, we know a little less. To those of us who study whales, the 'Type D Antarctic Form' of the killer whale is about as rare as a whale can get. Described scientifically from only a single mass-stranding event, these animals remain virtually unknown to us despite their large size and active behavior. Everyone who studies wildlife in the Antarctic knows they're out there, but to nearly everyone, they remain ghosts. It's the kind of thing you read about but know you'll never get to see.

Two ‘Antarctic Type D’ killer whales. Photo  © Russ Manning.

Two ‘Antarctic Type D’ killer whales. Photo © Russ Manning.

So when these three animals popped up less than 20’ off the ship, I couldn't believe my eyes. They rode along with us for almost 20 minutes, in over 10,000’ of water. I can only guess as to what they were doing, but it seems likely that this particular group of whales has developed a strong dependence upon the Antarctic convergence, an oceanic mixing zone that separates the frigid Antarctic weather systems from warmer climes to the North. Rarely, in the dozen-or-so times these animals have been documented, have they been seen far from this zone.

An adult male ‘Antarctic Type D’ Killer Whale. Photo  © Russ Manning.

An adult male ‘Antarctic Type D’ Killer Whale. Photo © Russ Manning.

A more classic orca. This is an adult male ‘Northern Resident’ killer whale near Seward, Alaska. See if you can spot the differences!

A more classic orca. This is an adult male ‘Northern Resident’ killer whale near Seward, Alaska. See if you can spot the differences!

If you pay attention, you can see the unique features of this animal that have scientists wondering if they may in fact be a different species entirely. The dorsal fin, particularly on the male (the closest, largest one) is dramatically swept back, like a big hook. The white 'eye patch', normally large and round on orcas, is almost nonexistent in these guys. The head is so blunt it's nearly squared off at the front. There are a couple of other differences that aren't super evident in the video, and (to my knowledge) have never before been recorded by observers — I’m hoping to reveal them in an upcoming illustration or two.

It’s so great to relive that day through the videos and photos. Luckily, my friend and colleague Russ Manning was able to capture some incredible close-up shots, seen here. His photos will be used to help identify these animals as individuals, should they ever be encountered in the future. The video (shot with my iPhone, seen above) is one of the first times they have ever been captured on film!


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