Environment – Calm after the storm

Where I live, in Arkles Bay, the beach had the storm surge from Cyclone Gabrielle going into The Strand and into resident’s yards and homes. As they did everywhere else in NZ, the community pitched in and were up throughout the midnight high tide, sweeping out the debris and clearing the drains to minimise the damage. In the morning, the banks of the beach had eroded away, and the road was inundated with driftwood.

After the storm passed and the sky cleared, the ocean was remarkably calm. On that gorgeous morning a pod of four orcas came into Arkles Bay. They lingered there long enough for everyone to come out and watch in astonishment.

What an amazing sight to see these massive and intelligent creatures, while a crowd of weary onlookers watched. A lone paddle boarder, who remained amazingly calm, had an unforgettable encounter as the orcas approached her and then moved on. 

There are only about 150 to 200 individual orcas in the waters around NZ. But they wander widely and so we are blessed with regular visits from them. Different orca populations around the world specialise in eating different types of prey. It depends on what’s abundant in the area and to a certain extent the different cultures of orcas: specific hunting skills passed on from parents and relatives. 

The orcas in NZ are the only populations in the world known to specialise in catching stingrays and eagle rays. And that is exactly what the orcas visiting Arkles Bay beach were up to that morning after the storm. This hunting behaviour often brings them close to the shore as they try and startle rays off the ocean floor. 

They hunt collaboratively, scaring rays off the floor as a group and immobilising them with a fierce tail slap. Sometimes one orca will bite down on a ray and allow another one to come and eat it.

Hunting stingrays is not without risk, however. In 1998 a NZ orca was found in the Hauraki Gulf with multiple stingray spines deeply penetrating her body and post-mortem analysis indicated the orca died from either blood loss or acute reactions to the toxins released by the spines. Nevertheless, given how stingray hunting is so prevalent in our local orcas, it is undoubtedly an overall successful foraging strategy.

But on that morning – after a summer of incredibly chaotic weather – what a beautiful sight to see up close. No matter how hard things get, there is always some solace to be found through frequent contact with nature.

Zoology professor, Massey University