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Western Australia: Orca hotspot

Malc, our Aussie skipper — with forearms as golden as barbecued chicken — is going through the boat’s safety briefing: “There’s a whistle on your life jacket if you need another gin and tonic, and a light for reading.”

Western Australia: Orca hotspot
Orca mother and calf. Image: Jason Edwards / Getty.

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He catches sight of my suspiciously pale face out the corner of his eye and, with a grin, adds: “Don’t yak in the sack and leave it in the cabin, or deckhand ‘Super Decky Luke’ will hunt you down.”

I try to stifle the rising knot of nausea in my throat as we power out of Bremer Bay, a tiny coastal town around 310 miles south-east of Perth. I’d come to see orcas in the wild and I’d be damned if my nonexistent sea legs — which wobbled beneath me like a sailor on his 10th shot of rum — were going to stop me.

It’s only recently that killer whales were first spotted off the Australian coast —and it was a chance discovery. Between 2005 and 2012, filmmaker David Riggs was participating in a bluefin tuna survey and was surprised to see not only dense congregations of sharks and giant squid but also huge pods of orcas — the largest aggregation in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s claimed — congregating 30 miles from shore. He alerted Naturaliste Charters, a local boat operator already running whale-watching tours to see sperm whales, and together they set up a research project to find out why the whales were turning up here. To fund it, they started running trips and we were among the very first tourists to visit this new marine hotspot.

An hour-and-a-half and three ‘yak sacks’ later, I hear Malc’s voice boom from the top deck: “Whales at one o’clock!” We scarper to the bow of the boat and scan the choppy waters for signs of life. A wandering albatross glides across our line of sight, its vast wings outstretched. Suddenly, a poker-straight black fin spears the surface 40 metres away and we get the briefest glimpse of that distinctive ivory eye patch. Other, smaller, fins follow and we strain against the boat railings to get a closer look.

Two marine biology students are on board and they start to rig up the hydrophone equipment to see if we can listen in on their communicative clicks. I’m leaning overboard, gulping fresh air, when a flash of white barrels from beneath the boat and disappears into the deep blue. “Did you see that!” shrieks one of the biologists. “It was a female swimming on her side.”

This is what makes the encounter so unique. They’ve a 99% success rate at finding the pods and, when they do, they often come very close to the boat. “We’ve had them surface right next to us,” boasts Malc. They’re also encouraging ‘citizen science’, whereby tourist photos are collected to help ID individuals within the pod.

The seasickness has been relentless, but totally worth it. Still buzzing from my close encounter, I walk to the back of the boat to deposit my bag of sick in the bin, but the seam rips and a stream of lumpy vomit lands at the feet of lucky ‘Super Decky Luke’. I grin apologetically at him like a friendly pale-green ghost and he bursts out laughing.