Plucky orca whales stealing from fishermen
Jean Le May
30th October 2004
Killer whales in the rich fishing grounds of the Southern Ocean have discovered a gourmet take-away: instead of hunting the high-value Patagonian toothfish themselves, they snatch them off the hooks on the long lines laid by fishing vessels.
And there is speculation among whale experts that other whale species are picking up skills from the killers, which are not whales at all but orcas, a species of dolphin.
The crew of South Princess, a boat owned by an American company in which a number of South African quota-holders have an interest, have personal experience of the orcas' depredations.
The ship returned to Cape Town recently with an almost empty hold after fishing for toothfish in South African waters surrounding Prince Edward and Marion Islands.
"The ship came back with just enough toothfish to cover the cost of fuel," said Tim Reddell of South Princess Fishing, which operates the ship on behalf of the quota holders.
Normally, the trip would have yielded several million rands: the hard-to-get sub-Antarctic fish is a valuable catch, selling in the United States for up to R72 a kilogram or R72 000 a ton.
Tor-Helge Swensen, an experienced skipper who was mate on the South Princess, said pods of between 50 and 70 killer whales followed the boat.
"Wherever we looked, there were whales. There were even sperm whales stealing the fish."