April 21st 2019:
“There is no way this is actually happening,” I told myself as I kept trying to focus on the large dorsal fins that emerged ever so often only a few meters away from us. My logic was telling me it just wasn’t possible but the size and shape of those fins were very particular. I couldn’t fully wrap my head around what was going on, much less prepare myself emotionally for what we were about to see.
It was a gray Sunday morning, a rare one for our little Caribbean island, and all of this month’s WSORC interns were set to go out on an Ocean Safari with 5 customers on board.
I’d woken up that morning feeling a little hesitant about the weather. Nearly perfect conditions are necessary to spot the boils, the usual telltale sign that a whale shark is feeding close to the surface, but the previous day it had drizzled non-stop and that morning promised to be no different. The wind forecast was reassuring so at least it wasn’t going to be a choppy ride. Despite the less than ideal weather conditions we had before us that morning, our hopes to find the elusive and almost mythical creatures were still very high. I guess a little rain wasn’t going to stop us from seeing them if they were actually out there.
The Neptune, our charming and reliable boat that had been on many Ocean Safaris with us, was loaded. Drinking water, fresh fruit and snacks were on board. Snorkeling gear, binoculars and other necessary items were stored under the seats, waiting to be used. Customers were hopping on, sunscreen was being methodically applied and interns were as charming as ever, welcoming everyone aboard and making sure everything was ready. Final details, roll call, boat briefing, we were good to go. My watch hit 8:10 am. Captain Austin gave interns the okay to untie the ropes, they pushed the boat off the dock and off we were. The energy was electric and we sailed out not really knowing what to expect.
We started the trip by heading east and sailing towards Pumpkin Hill and Turtle Harbour. Going to the north side of the island is always a treat. It’s a scenic ride and it is quite nice to take in the view under such different weather conditions than what we are used to. Gray skies contrasted magically with the green of the highest point of the island. It sure was a great view but to actually be able to see some whale sharks, we were going to have to venture out farther from the shore. After communicating with the Captain, direction was changed and we ventured out towards deeper water and into the open ocean.
Not 10 minutes after we’d decided to move farther from the shore, we saw something.
Someone pointed towards the front of the boat and got everyone’s attention. Captain slowed down and we all looked intently to where he was pointing out. I couldn’t see any boils on the surface or birds flying around. What were they pointing at? Soon it became clear. What appeared to be a large, black dorsal fin materialized shortly before disappearing back into the sea. The size, shape and color of that fin was definitely not that of a whale shark. Also, whale sharks don’t go out of the water like that. What is it? No! There was no way. A black and very large dorsal fin surfaced again. I couldn’t even fathom the possibility of what was going on in my head. It couldn’t be.
“Pilot whales,” is what I told myself and everyone else on the boat. We’d seen them out on Ocean Safaris before and we’d even gotten in the water with them. Surely their presence in our ocean made far more sense than whatever else I was thinking those fins were. It just wouldn’t make any sense because we were in the middle of the Caribbean, after all. Dorsal fin surfaced again. Someone else said it, “THEY’RE ORCAS!” No, there’s no way. I laughed at the thought. “We’re in the middle of the Caribbean. Those are pilot whales,” is what I responded, still incredulous. Everyone seemed to think I was right for a second there… until I wasn’t.
We saw the large black fin surface a few more times as we got closer. Nicks and indentations on the fin were easily identifiable now and size from up close was overwhelmingly huge. There was no way this was a pilot whale. What else could it be? I was still scratching my head, figuratively speaking, when we saw it. Large, black dorsal fin popped up on the surface again. Large, black dorsal fin came with white patches behind the eyes and under the rostrum. Large, black dorsal fin broke the surface of the water frequently and gracefully. Large, black dorsal fin was an orca!!! It was undeniable now.
Orcas in the Caribbean. I muttered those words under my breath a few times before repeating them out loud over and over. It was kind of like a mantra at the time, kept me from losing my cool. I couldn’t fully believe it but it was a reality now, a rare and wonderful one. Once we came to the realization of what our eyes had just seen, we saw more and more fins pop up all over the place. It wasn’t just one orca, it was a pod of orcas!!! Cool wasn’t going to be kept much longer. The dorsal fins were all different shapes and sizes and now we could hear their blows. Someone on the boat compared the sound of their blows to the sound horses make sometimes, like a little snort. I wouldn’t be able to describe it to you if I tried but hearing that sound meant we were close, close to the wonderful creatures that I had only been mesmerized by through documentaries before, and that brought a sense of connection and belonging that I had never experienced.
The energy on the boat was amplified by 1000%. Some people grabbed their phones and cameras and recorded away. Some people wanted to get in the water with them, others wanted to follow them around on the boat. No one really knew what to do but I think all of us were basking in the greatness of the moment in our own way. The emotions ran wild. There was joy, there was confusion, there was excitement. There was laughter, there were tears, there was a lot of screaming and head clutching and hugging and jumping up and down. Adrenaline was running through everyone´s bloodstream. No one was cold anymore and there was an overwhelming sensation in all of us that can only come from having been truly blessed by nature.
I couldn’t think clearly at first. I saw them surfacing over and over again and I just couldn’t help but be completely hypnotized by their motions and their blows. I caught myself holding back tears. I couldn’t be bothered to grab my phone, initially. It was tucked away in my bag under the bow of the boat and I didn’t want to miss a second of the marvelous interaction trying to get it. Everyone was taking pictures and videos and I thought, “okay, we have the proof, just enjoy this moment.” And I did. I kept looking around at everyone’s faces, I wanted to see if everyone was feeling the same way I was feeling. Confusion slowly started to fade away and joy was setting in. At one point I could hear Captain Austin’s voice screaming to someone on the phone. He kept repeating the words “Orcas on the North Side, Orcas on the North Side” to whoever was on the other side of the line but I don’t think they believed him straight away. I wouldn’t have either.
The orcas got super close to our boat on several occasions. We’d see them coming up from the back of the boat, then swim under and then pop up unexpectedly on either side of the boat. They would often wave-ride or bow-ride alongside The Neptune to our utter delight. Different behaviors and movements were frequently displayed and we couldn’t help but be mesmerized by everything they did. I think they were as curious about us as we were about them. They would swim upside down or on their sides and follow us around, either by the front or the back of the boat. We continuously had to switch from port to starboard in an attempt to not miss out on anything they did. This magical madness lasted over an hour.
My heart couldn’t take it anymore and I finally managed to grab my phone. It seemed like they were putting on a show for us and I wanted to record at least a small bit for myself. They ended up being so generous with us that I managed to record over 10 minutes total of footage of them being absolutely stunning and perfect. I was happy, the happiest I’d been in a long time. A sense of completion washed over me. I was so grateful.
Sadly, after spending almost an hour and a half watching these unique creatures, we lost track of them. We hadn’t had enough of them but they’d probably had enough of us. We could no longer see their fins popping up all around and they were no longer chasing the boat or swimming under it. It was a little heartbreaking but, in the end, they are the ones that controlled the encounter. It was time to move on.
But how could we? We’d just experienced one of the most magical gifts from Mother Nature and on Easter Sunday, no less! How can one simply go on with their lives after such a remarkable interaction? Our hearts were left full from the encounter and I think it’s safe to say that we all were feeling at least a little bit more connected to the Ocean and the little Caribbean island that offered miracles of this kind.
Emotions aside, this brush with the “wolves of the ocean” has quite possibly been the most important wildlife interaction I’ve had in my life. It was not planned and completely spontaneous, yet so adequate. These creatures, although not necessarily unheard of, are not common in the Caribbean, much less in Utila. Spotting them on that gray Sunday morning was a lucky strike like no other. The sighting has sparked interest not just from the national public but also from international organizations, scientists and researchers, news outlets and reporters, film crews, cetacean specialists and many other entities. There are still many questions floating around: Why where they here? How long have they been here for and how much longer did they stay? Who are they? Are they a tagged pod? Should we be worried or excited? Is this a testament to climate change?
As we keep trying to find an answer to these questions, I can only hope that this is an experience I never forget. I hope I never forget how lucky and blessed I feel and how much still needs to be done to protect our oceans and all marine life. My mind, as well as those who were with me on the boat that day, will forever be flooded with the wonderful memory of being followed around the Caribbean by a pod of orcas on a gray Sunday morning and as I write this in the comfort of my bed, I can assure you that I will never get enough of all the magical wonders this place has to offer. I can’t wait to be out on a boat again.
Andrea Godoy, Research Assistant (at the time)