The Killer Whale

Wednesday 31 January: 19.15–20.00

Continuing this evening is the gripping series of wildlife documentaries in which daredevil explorer Monty Halls investigates rare and magnificent beasts of the deep. In tonight’s programme he seeks out a creature that has suffered from 500 years of bad press – the killer whale, or orca.

Monty’s first stop is Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada. Thought of by many as the killer-whale capital of the world, the island has become a draw for tourists in recent years, but Monty is impressed by the fact that the waters here are heavily protected by local legislation. And while these regulations mean he won’t be able to dive with the orca, there is no better place to find out about their remarkable behaviour.

To this end, he meets local orca specialist Dr Paul Spong, who tells him a bit about the creatures’ lifestyle. “Orcas live in very close family groups for their entire lives,” he says, explaining that each family group has its own dialect and that each orca uses its own family’s particular sound to identify which group it belongs to. Monty also finds out that, despite the killer whale’s reputation as a fierce predator, it is primarily salmon that they feed on here.

There are three distinct types of orca that use these waters: the resident family groups that stay here all year; the ‘offshores’, which generally hunt in the open ocean; and the ‘transients’, which move through the area hunting mammals. Voyaging out to sea, Monty gets a tantalising glimpse of some transients, but only from a distance of around 100 metres away.

In order to get closer to the animal he is seeking, Monty travels 10,000 miles to the Lofoton Islands in the cold northern waters around Norway. This is one of the few places where it is possible to dive with these impressive beasts. The orcas arrive in winter to feed on the huge numbers of herrings here, so Monty need not worry about becoming prey himself. Unlike at Vancouver Island, there are few guidelines protecting these waters – which might be liberating, but it is also a cause for concern. Local orca researcher Heike Vester explains how the recent boom in whale-watching tourism appears to have affected the whales’ behaviour, with males uncharacteristically venturing out alone away from the rest of their family groups. It is not clear what is causing this potentially worrying trend although it could be that the males are scouting the seas to check for possible danger in the form of whale-watching parties.

Having talked to Heike, Monty realises that, at worst, dives such as his could be making life hard for the very creatures that fascinate him. “This sort of tourism can be a force for good,” he concedes, “but only when it’s properly regulated – and only when it puts first and foremost the welfare of the animals themselves.” Will he attempt a dive – and even if he does, will it prove fruitful?

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