Along the coast of Argentina’s Peninsula Valdés, there is a family of orca who have perfected the dangerous art of beaching themselves to capture sea lion pups. These event only happen at a small group of beaches at the northeastern point, known as Punta Norte. These particular beaches have been shaped by natural forces in just the right way to allow the orca to strand themselves and return to the water safely. Rather than sand, like the beaches further to the west and to the south, these beaches are covered in small pebbles that act like a carpet of ball bearings preventing the heavy orca bodies from being trapped, as they would be in sand. Orca partly strand themselves, though deeper in the water, in the Crozet Islands, a French protectorate in the subantarctic, and the Salish Sea in Washington State. But, there is nowhere else in the world that orca perform such a daring maneuver, to fully strand in pursuit of prey.
This practice is carefully taught to young orca by their mothers and other older relatives. In this way, it is a cultural tradition that is passed from one generation to the next. When did it all begin? No one really knows. Orca have been observed stranding to capture seal pups at Punta Norte for decades and have likely hunted this way much longer. The behaviour was initially documented and studied by the park rangers. The rangers were joined in the study by a young Juan Manuel Copello, whose family have owned the property where the events occur for over 100 years.
In the early years of observations, two iconic male orca, Mel and Bernardo, hunted together. Their hunting exploits were featured in prominent, early documentary films. Mel continued to hunt as late as 2011, following the death of his brother. He was a powerful and talented hunter having mastered the techniques of hiding his massive dorsal fin and launching powerful, missile-like attacks to capture seal pups from the beach. His ability to detect and stalk pups is legendary. He showed a deep understanding of fur seal behaviours and tendencies and demonstrated a hunting prowess which remains unrivalled. He was patient and methodical in his technique, willing to wait at length for an opportunity that suited him. He was even able to recognize and benefit from human behaviour on the beach to take advantage of distractions that took the attention of his prey.
Prior to his disappearance in 2011, Mel demonstrated a predictable and calculated pattern when hunting the beaches of Punta Norte. He would work his way through the seal colonies as dictated by the opportunities presented by the tides. During those years, the remaining orca hunted together as a group, with five stranders in total. Orca who did not or could not strand, shared the spoils of the hunters who had mastered the dangerous technique.
Following the disappearance and presumed death of Mel in 2011, the other orca continued to hunt at Punta Norte. In the same year of Mel’s disappearance, an adult female orca named Ishtar also disappeared. Her offspring appeared that year in splintered groups, some bearing wounds, suggesting that Ishtar met a sudden and violent end. Following the disappearance of Ishtar, the family groups stabilized into three groups under the leadership of Maga, Llen, and Jazmin. These groups remain stable until the present time.
Maga is a skillful and decisive hunter. Like Mel, Maga is a master at detecting a vulnerable seal pup from distance, hiding her massive bulk until the last moment and launching a missile-like attack. Before the growth of her family group, attacks were well coordinated and strictly according to rank. Maga would attack first, followed by Valen, then Mica; All according to age, and hence experience and skill. At times these attacks would be simultaneous with Maga and Valen capturing neighbouring pups. Today, this family group is composed of Maga, her five living offspring, which include two adult daughters Valen and Micah, who in turn have three surviving offspring each. The family group totals 12 orca and is frequently joined by a mature male named Jaluel, whose relation to the rest of the group is unknown.
With the growth of this family group, things have become more chaotic. Youthful enthusiasm from younger orca breaks down the once strict hierarchy. Pups are chased and missed by the young orca, not infrequently interfering with what would have been a well orchestrated attack from Maga or one of the other elder orca. However, with age, these undisciplined younger orca are also becoming masterful hunters under Maga’s tutelage.
The size of Maga’s group has also affected hunting strategies. Whereas Llen and Jazmin’s groups tend to hunt together at a single beach, Maga’s kin often spread out over several neighbouring sea lion colonies. As a result, hunting visits from Llen and Jazmin’s groups can be rather surgical. But, the arrival of Maga’s group portends a comparative massacre for the colonies.
It will be interesting to see if the group continues to hold together under Maga’s guidance or whether the group will split as it grows in size with the addition of multiple new babies over the past few years. At around 40 years of age, Maga may have 5-10 years left during which she might have new calves. On average, orca have 5 calves with 2-14 years between each. After this, she will reach menopause but can continue to provide leadership to the family. Female orca may live 80 years or more. In her later years, as she slows and her young mature, she might go off on her own, rather than slow the group of younger hunters.
Jazmin is the oldest offspring of Ishtar, born in 1991. She was first observed that same year as a young calf. She is the matriarch of Ishtar’s remaining kin and the leader of one of the groups which formed following the unexplained, and likely violent disappearance of her mother prior to the 2011 season. She was joined by her younger sister Lea, who is not currently a consistent member of the group. She has lost three calves. She has two surviving offspring who complete the family group.
Jazmin’s group is the most difficult to follow and anticipate. She does not obey the rules and patterns which seem second nature for the other orca groups. She will arrive at unpredictable times and from an unusual direction. She is stealthy and her arrival is often sudden and surprising. She will also leave as quickly and unexpectedly, neglecting seemingly ideal hunting opportunities after little observed hunting effort.
In her younger years, Jazmin was fearless and a bit crazy. She would strand under dangerous conditions without caution. She has lost three calves and it seems likely that her incautious behaviour might have contributed to the demise of at least some of her young. She is seen at Punta Norte less often than the other two family groups. However, her stealthy nature and sometimes brief visits may mean that some her hunting might be missed by observers. She might also hunt more often at night. While Jazmin is unpredictable and harder to observe, she retains some of her crazy self and is capable of bold and spectacular attacks.
Llen (pronounced “Jen”) is the third oldest of Ishtar’s offspring, born in approximately 2000. She was first observed in 2004 as a calf with Ishtar’s family group. Llen was named for the distinctive “LL” shaped scars on her left saddle patch. She was first observed stranding at Punta Norte in March 2011 after the recent disappearance of her mother and the separation of the family group. Llen is the leader of one of the new family groups which formed when the family split. With her is her younger brother, her sister, and her only offspring.
When Llen appeared at Punta Norte, after the disappearance of Ishtar, she had not yet been observed stranding. However, with the loss of her mother, she and her brother Pao began stranding, seemingly teaching themselves to strand and capture sea lion pups. Despite the premature loss of her mother, Llen has become an admirable leader of her own family group. Llen leads a patient and tactical group. She appears to read the conditions very effectively, recognizing good hunting opportunities. She often arrives and departs from Punta Norte in a manner that appears rational and strategic.
Whereas, the integration of younger hunters in Maga’s group has seemed chaotic, such chaos has never been evident with Llen’s group. Her youngest sister Shekei has begun hunting with the same patience and organization as exemplified by Llen herself, even at a comparatively young age when one would expect impulsivity and lack of discipline.
Llen’s strategic acumen makes it appear that she is managing the prey resources and opportunities. Her group often does not attack the last available sea lion pup. Instead, they typically move on to the next colony to explore other opportunities, leaving the previous colony intact for another day. Her small group also never appears to split between beaches. They hunt together. Typically, one member of the group captures a pup and they all feed and socialize together before hunting another pup. Then, at a rational time in the tide schedule, they move together to another beach where new opportunities await.
Prior to Mel’s disappearance, his hunting was dependable during February and March of most years. There were years where he was absent, or not hunting. but when on the hunt, he had a predictable habit. The others, were always less predictable. During the era when Mel was hunting, orca were seen at Punta Norte around 58% of days during the hunting season. After his disappearance, the frequency of orca appearance has dropped to 43% and the remaining orcas have retained their prior unpredictability.
While orca appearance is now more variable, hunting for days in a row with occasionally prolonged absences. the number of hunters has skyrocketed. From five stranders in the early years, the skill has been passed along with diligent teaching and training. Currently, there are 15 stranders with younger orca accompanying the hunters and likely to join soon. The orca appear to enjoy the practice and practice diligently at empty beaches, away from the sea lion colonies.
The stranding events are some of the most spectacular sights in nature. The secret to photographing these attacks are the same as for all of nature photography: understand your subject and patience. The patience part is simple in concept but difficult in practice. The hunting season is mostly comprised of waiting for the photographer. The waits until orca first appear or between appearances can be long. In 2018, we waited 37 days before the orca first appeared. There was a similar wait in 2014 as well. Waits of 2-3 weeks are not uncommon. What makes the waiting particularly difficult is that these periods still require constant, intense attention. There is no way to know when the orca will arrive. There are times in the tide schedule when their arrival is more or less likely, but these intelligent creatures seem quite happy to break any rule. You must simply remain attentive and watch the sea. When the orca do appear, there is very little time before the attacks typically begin. So, any moment of inattention can cost you a long awaited chance to capture a spectacular event. Even once the orca arrive at Punta Norte, the wait and the need for patience is not over. There are multiple beaches with sea lion colonies at Punta Norte. You can’t be at more than one beach at once and you can’t move faster than the orca. So, the only practical approach is to choose the spot that best suits photography and then wait and hope.
However, there could be more than one beach with good conditions for photography. That is when the other fundamental tactic comes in. It is key to understand the strategies that the orca employ when planning their movements. A good understanding of orca strategy is essential but still does not guarantee success. The orca improve their predatory success by being unpredictable. Even when the answers seem obvious, they can make an unexpected decision.
Once the time arrives, and the orca choose the beach where you have set up, the need to understand the behaviour only intensifies. The events often happen quickly and the orca hide from the sea lions until the last possible second, staying below water, holding their breath and hiding their dorsal fins. In order to follow their movements, it is important to have a good count of the orca in the group and to know their locations. Next, you must identify vulnerable sea lion pups who the orca may target. Then, as an event nears, it is necessary to follow marks made at the water surface by the beats of their flukes as they propel themselves towards an attack. Some attacks are a bit easier. The orca often pause near the water’s edge for a very brief moment, with dorsal fins exposed, while they line up the sea lion pup for a final charge. Once the orca makes its final charge into a strand, one can only hope that the orca lifts its head and the spray flies in such a way as to not obscure the atavistic struggle between predator and prey.