Recent sightings of a pod of killer whales off the coast of the Cayman Islands mark only the eighth occasion the elusive mammals have been officially recorded in these waters.
Anecdotally, there are suggestions of more frequent sightings, but the range and habits of orcas, both around Cayman and in the Caribbean at large, is a mystery that researchers are only just beginning to unlock.
Fishermen Chris Briggs recorded stunning drone footage after sighting the pod off East End last week.
And a group of scuba divers from Ocean Frontiers, en route to Little Cayman, spotted them again last Sunday, around five miles off Grand Cayman.
Jaime Bolaños-Jiménez, one of the leading researchers on orcas in Caribbean waters, told the Cayman Compass there was very little known about the presence, range and family associations of the creatures in the region.
Unlike in the Pacific, where there is a vast bank of data on different pods based on decades of research, he said Caribbean orcas were relatively unstudied.
His paper in 2014 was one of the first to examine the habits and distribution of the species, revealing for the first time that killer whales were present year-round in the area.
As coordinator of the Caribbean-Wide Orca Project and senior researcher at Asociación Civil Sea Vida in Venezuela, Bolaños-Jiménez keeps a database of all orca sightings in the Caribbean. He constantly monitors social media for new sightings.
On a single day this week he was alerted to separate sightings in Cayman and in the Dutch Antilles.
“They are more common in the Caribbean Sea than people realised,” he said. “Before, people thought the orcas came to our waters only during winter, but we have sightings recorded all year round.”
When he published his paper in 2014 there were 176 Caribbean orca sightings on record. Since that time, the number has swelled to more than 300.
Those include eight confirmed sightings around the Cayman Islands, spanning from 1986 to the latest recordings, which he entered into his database last week.
Rare and unpredictable
Interactions with killer whales in the region are rare and unpredictable and it has not proved possible for scientists to either electronically tag individuals or even create a reliable photo database that can distinguish different family groups.
That’s part of what Bolaños-Jiménez’s research is about and the latest Cayman sightings will help him achieve that. He will cross-reference the video and pictures from Cayman with other sightings to see if any features can be distinguished.
Currently, research relies on uploads to social media.
“Whenever anyone uploads a video to YouTube or to Facebook, I hear about it almost instantly and I follow up to get the coordinates and other information for our database,” he said. “I heard about the Cayman video within two days of the Department of Environment posting.”
He said citizen scientists with digital cameras and smartphones were helping to cast new light on the presence of orcas in the region.
Bolaños-Jiménez said it was already clear that there were multiple pods that passed through Caribbean waters at all times of year.
The timings and locations of the sightings, along with the photo evidence, suggest a large number of different orcas rather than multiple sightings of the same pods.
Much to learn
There are still many unknown factors. It is not yet clear if families of killer whales are ‘resident’ in the Caribbean or if they are transient orcas that pass through the region.
“This is a new field of study,” he said. “Before, fisherman would say they saw killer whales and nobody would believe them. Now, they can take a picture and everyone can see.”
He said he was in constant contact with other researchers in Africa and Spain, as well as in the Arctic and Antarctica, to compare photographs and sightings in an effort to better understand the movements of killer whales in the Atlantic in general, and where the Caribbean sightings fit into that mix.
“The value of our programme is to try to find answers to all these questions,” he said.
Rare treat for dive group
Steve Broadbelt of Ocean Frontiers said it had been incredible for the dive group to witness killer whales in Cayman’s waters on Sunday.
“I have heard from fishermen over the years of the odd sighting, so these recent encounters are not the first, but certainly rare,” he said. “To [our] knowledge they are seen roughly once every 10 years – but that is only the ones we see, so there must be a lot more.
“The probability of being in the right place at the right time is pretty slim, even if there were over 100 of them that passed by Cayman every year.”
Marilyn Conolly, the Department of Environment’s public-education and outreach officer, said orca sightings were unpredictable and heavily dependent on various factors, including weather conditions.
“What made this sighting particularly noteworthy is the calm weather for good photography, the drone imagery, and that the pod seems to have stuck around,” she said.