Nearly a year after researchers first spotted what’s believed to be a newly discovered type of orca in the wild, a B.C.-based scientist has become one of the few people to ever see one of the creatures.
The so-called “Type-D” orcas were recorded in January 2019 off the tip of southern Chile. Previous to that, they were only known from a beach stranding six decades ago and tourist photographs, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Now, marine mammal expert Josh McInnes, who works with California-based research organization Marine Life Studies, has joined the select few who’ve ever seen one in the flesh.
McInnes recently returned from a three-week trip to Antarctic waters aboard a National Geographic expedition.
In the Drake Passage, home to some of the world’s roughest waters, the crew struck pay dirt.
“We had just got into Antarctic waters, started seeing spouts,” McInnes told Global News.
“Big fin whales were actually what we saw first. Then all of a sudden one of the naturalists shouted ‘killer whales.'”
McInnes, who’s dedicated his life to researching orcas, immediately recognized the whales as Type-Ds, rather than their more common Type-A cousins.
“You can see the difference. The eye patch is very small, compared to the eye patch of every other killer whale type,” he said.
The crew did more than just check off a bucket list item, though.
They also observed behaviour — casual intermingling with other whales — that could help researchers understand more about the mysterious killer whales.
“There was no aggression between the two,” McInnes said. “In other cases marine mammals will show some kind of stress when killer whales are around, particularly if they’re the type of killer whales that forage on marine mammals.”
McInnes hypothesized that could mean the Type-Ds prefer to dine on fish, rather than mammals.
He added that this most recent sighting is the furthest south that killer whales have ever been spotted.
Scientists took genetic samples of the whales during that January 2019 expedition, and the NOAA says they are being analyzed to determine if the Type-Ds do truly represent a new species.
-With files from Brad MacLeod