Scientists Find Elusive Orcas off the Coast of Chile

Orcas, or "Killer Whales" as they are commonly known, are actually members of the dolphin family. Steve Halama. Public Use.

Orcas, or "Killer Whales" as they are commonly known, are actually members of the dolphin family. Steve Halama. Public Use.

The Earth is about 71 percent water, 95 percent of that water unexplored. Every few years, animals emerge from the depths that force the scientific community to rewrite its rhetoric on oceanic life. With climate change upsetting the environmental landscape these occurrences may become more common. In January scientists found what could be a new species of orca off the coast of Cape Horn in Chile. The animals are said to share a common ancestor with the Orcinus orca that we often see in movies and documentaries, and the two have coexisted for thousands of years, a testament to how little we know about the deep.

Orcas, commonly called killer whales, are not whales at all, but the largest species of dolphin. They are found in virtually all of the world's oceans and seas and are widely considered to be apex predators, surpassing even the great white shark. For years, captive orcas have performed at water parks for the amusement of spectators, a practice that has become increasingly unpopular with the release of the documentary Blackfish. Now their wild counterparts facing their own challenges the form of climate change, which alters the weather patterns in an area and redistributes the animals that live there.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were drawn to Cape Horn by reports from the local fishermen who were allegedly losing their catches to the orcas. Upon arrival, they found a group of 30 individuals who spent three hours investigating the scientists while they themselves were being filmed. These “Type D” orcas were first documented in 1955 when a pod washed up on a beach in New Zealand. The animals live in the subantarctic region, home to some of the stormiest waters on the planet, which makes them near impossible to study. Thanks to climate change, however, these waters are warming at an alarming rate, and it could have an effect on the orcas themselves or the food they eat.  In addition to physical analysis, NOAA scientists were able to collect skin and blood samples. Type D orcas have rounder heads and narrower fins than their more commonly known cousins. At around 25 feet, they are also a bit smaller, and their white eyepatches, a defining characteristic of orcas, are almost non-existent. The animals’ blood is still being analyzed, but experts believe that when the test results come back the Type D Orca will be the largest undescribed animal left in the world—at least, for now.

JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself. 

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