San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Killer Experience: Looking into the Jaws of Orcas

Orcas are surely among the most magnificent creatures to roam the earth. The largest members of the dolphin family, these huge animals grow to about the size of a small bus.

They are among the most widely distributed of all mammals; you might find them in the Artic, the Antarctic or anywhere in between where there is ocean, and sometimes even in river mouths. Orcas have visited Costa Rica for many years, but have so far been seen only infrequently.

These fierce beasts are also known as killer whales because they sometimes eat other whales and dolphins. One was filmed off the coast of the U.S. state of California decapitating a gigantic great white shark with one torpedo-like blow, then swimming away with the sashimi. They may wolf-pack-attack a blue whale for hours just to eat the lips and tongue, and most people know what happens to those poor seals around killer whales.

Despite their taste for fatty delicacies, Orcas eat mostly fish. In Costa Rica, they seem to especially like rays of all sorts. Although they are perhaps the fiercest nonhuman predator on the planet, I know of no documented cases of wild orcas attacking humans, though they have killed people when enslaved by them.

Just as some guides know when you can safely be near bears, mountain gorillas, crocodiles, sharks, elk or big cats, you can sense when it seems okay to observe wild orcas. And just as many people choose to get out of their cars to see gorillas in the mist or lions in the veldt, some choose to leave the boat to see orcas in the blue. Throughout more than a decade of guiding blue-water safaris, only a few times have I felt ready to enter the water with killer whales that seemed in the mood, and each time the experience proved unforgettable.

My first time in the water with killer whales, the seas were big and rough with wind, rain and swell. We encountered an orca family off the southern Pacific coast’s Osa Peninsula, first spotting the massive dorsal fin of the big adult male as it slowly dropped below the surface. Orca dorsal fins are the biggest of all cetaceans’, and this male’s fin was about as tall as a man. The old male was traveling with a slightly smaller female, whose curved dorsal was not as erect, straight or tall as the male’s towering, pointy fin.

Next, the dorsals of three young orcas appeared, along with the little fin of a baby orca. We could see that at least the mother and baby had strange marks on their pectoral fins, but these fins did not leave the water with each breath for good viewing like the dorsal fins did. We matched their course and speed, and they surrounded the boat on their next breath.

The orcas cruised right alongside us, and we were thrilled to see their whole forms in the clear water. We could smell their bodies and their breath. The black-and-white leviathans’ powerful lungs sounded loud and clear as we slowly moved along, riding up and down over choppy seas, under a rainy, gray sky with misty Corcovado National Park in the distance. We laughed, whistled, shouted, sang and hummed as we headed south with the orcas.

After a while it was nearly time to head back north and home. Though the seas were rough, I really wanted to see orcas in their habitat and try to document the unusual markings for identification. I got my gear ready and prepared to dive as we stopped the boat. As usual, I slowly put my camera in and began to gently follow it head first off the side of the boat. With just my camera, arms and head in the water, the big female orca came directly to me and hovered a short distance away.

She looked huge. I stopped, bent over the side of the boat, my legs still aboard and my head, mask and arms down in the water, looking and filming. She came right to the camera with her huge body and I decided I needed to go no further.

When the enormous orca, bigger than our boat, finned over, she first placed her femaleness right in front of my face and the camera. This surprised me. She passed the rest of her white underside by me next, from her bellybutton to her chin.

She stopped with her giant head upside down, right in front of me and the camera, close enough to touch. She showed her entire bright-white underside to me the whole time, and stayed near, looking at me. My heart was pounding hard, booming in my head like rhythmic thunder. Someone in the boat screamed, “It’s gonna bite you, get out!” I looked at the biggest monster I had ever seen, with her looking keenly back at me. She was beautiful, and I stayed in the water.

The beast moved even closer to me and opened her massive jaws wide, her enormous white teeth shining around a full-size tongue. She looked me right in the eyes as she showed me her extremely fine chops, her brilliant white chin and belly still lighting up the water.

She turned her head a little from side to side, as if trying to impress me. She closed her mouth and slowly began to sink down tail first into the purple depths. Then she finned a few times, stopping her descent, and floated for a moment while cocking her head. Then she began to swim back toward me.

This time the giant dolphin came closer still, and we were once again face to face. Again, she kept her white bottom facing me so she appeared upside down, and opened her colossal jaws in my face, revealing her gleaming teeth. I noticed that her bottom lip was red with blood and bits of flesh. I hoped she had been eating tuna.

The orca panned her face to the side with her mouth wide open directly in front of me. I flinched and stayed in the water, filming and looking at one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen.

The orca closed her mouth and floated for a moment, slowly beginning to sink. Then she leisurely passed her dazzling underside in front of me as she began to move forward. She spun around right-side-up, taking a breath next to the boat, and then swam away south.

Reluctantly we turned around and headed north and home in the gathering chop and rain. We were all smiles.


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