• Nathan Litjens

An encounter with the "cheetah of the sea"

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

Up ahead we saw a splash, but weren't sure what it was. A loner tuna? A marlin? Either could be expected as Jason Bettles of Wildside Sportfishing had taken me out to the edge of the continental shelf directly east of South West Rocks in New South Wales, Australia. We were actively looking for blue marlin and I was keen to get in the water with any interesting creature that happened by. As we approached we could see that there were many of these things bobbing in the swell, heads poking up and glistening black backs rolling on the surface.

It became quickly apparent that these were pilot whales and there was a very large number of them - over a hundred. I was quick to jump in with the camera and allowed them to approach. Jason backed off in the boat as the pod came closer. A bit shy, they kept their distance at first, diving under me and turning to look, squealing to each other and investigating me with constantly clicking sonar.

The pilot whale pod dives under me. The water in this area was not as clear for some reason.

It wasn't long before the pod went from cautious to plainly disinterested and allowed me to come much closer.

A small family group within the pod hung around and the male was sure to observe me as he placed himself between me and the female with a calf.

Diving time. The pod is likely getting ready to go deep and hunt squid.

I had seen pilot whales before. One time off Darwin I had around 200 of them pass under the boat, the sonar and squealing easily heard through the hull. I had no underwater camera gear nor the time to do anything about it as they came up so fast without any warning. The species here is the short finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and they are apparently a type of dolphin - not a toothed whale. They have been called the "cheetah of the sea" as they apparently chase squid in bursts of very high speeds, not that their slow swimming and "logging" at the surface gives even a hint of any kind of hurry.

It was a real pleasure to have a look at these with the mask and snorkel and something I look forward to doing again.

See Wildside Sportfishing's page at

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