Regi Popelier Nature Photography

Regis Eye on Nature

The bravery of men and Leo the Killer Whale It is difficult to write down in a few words this tragic story, which happened one afternoon whilst I was in the Falklands , at Sea Lion Island. On 12/11 at 4.0 a.m. I left the lodge to try to spot the killer whales at the eastern upper side of the beach but at about 6.30 a.m heavy rain and storms made me return. Then at 2.0 p.m, Micky, the lodge manager was so kind to lend me a car, and since this was my last day on this island, I drove to the lower eastern cliff side of the beach, to photograph king cormorants and rock hoppers penguins. After returning the car, I went off to photograph the gento penguins jumping out of the surf along the sand beach. (The best time for this is between 4- 6 p.m.) A couple of hundred meters away from the coastline my attention was suddenly drawn to a tall dark dorsal fin at the very edge of the ocean. I ran to the shore where I was alone, and could see this magnificent huge killer whale had been stranded on the sandy slopes of the beach at low tide. The scenery took my breath away and I started taking photographs as initially it did not occur to me that the whale was beached and unable to return to the open sea. He most probably had been hunting elephant seal pups who at this time of year were still, be it in small numbers, present around the island. I watched whilst the killer whale attempted many surf rolls as he tried to turn his body and head in the direction of the open water, but all failed, and instead, he was just being sucked deeper into the sand. Meanwhile an Italian research team led by Filippo Gamberi and Simona Sanvito his wife, along with Giulia Ercoletti , Maria Chiara Cinesi ,Laura Redaelli, Anna Agostini , Francesca Ceuamare, students, all finalizing their theses, arrived on the beach by car. After taking some photos, Filippo followed by the rest of the team, jumped into the freezing cold water to try to move the killer whale's head towards the sea. Alerted, Mickey the lodge manager arrived with guests and their children and all went spontaneously in the sea, challenging the big surf and ice cold water. During this period of at least 2 hours when everybody stayed in the water, the killer whale regurgitated several nearly digested elephant seals, probably due to the weight of his body causing pressure on his stomach. As if on signal, hundreds of birds then appeared out of nowhere and started feeding on the remains of the seals. Not succeeding in pushing the whale we then tried to tie a rope around his tail in an attempt to turn him in the right direction, but with little success. The weight of nearly 7 ton, and the decreasing water level made it impossible. Most of us later left the water, some with the first signs of hypothermia , other students crying as we all started to realise and accept we where not going to be able to help to liberate this magnificent animal from this life threatening situation. Later that evening around 8.30p.m. a helicopter landed and after checking the situation they left us an inflatable mat. Sadly, we did not manage to get the mat under the body of the weakened whale, knowing then that his destiny was sealed. A last throw up of another nearly intact elephant seal was accompanied by his last breath at 11.0 p.m. I will never forget the distinctive voice of the crying killer whale and his eyes seemingly filled with tears . His pain and distress was something I was really able to empathise with. Later on I heard his age was around 10years and he was registered under the name of Leo. I left the isle in the morning the next day and the pilot kindly flew over the area, where I had one last view of this once magnificent creature. It also made me think of the bravery and courage shown by mankind in situations like this, which makes me happy. I would like to thank all of you having this helping hand and thus showing respect of and for life.