Malaysia: Sipadan orca sighting unusual, but not unheard-of occurrence

AVILA GERALDINE New Straits Times 21 Jan 17;

KOTA KINABALU: The sighting of a pod of orcas by a group of divers in Sipadan waters last Sunday was not a first, as the marine mammals have been spotted in Sabah waters several times before.

This was shared by other divers following New Straits Times’ online report on the recent encounter near the world-renowned island.

Downbelow Marine and Wildlife Adventures managing director Richard Swann told the NST that there had been several sightings in the past, wherein orcas were seen passing through waters off Sipadan and Layang-Layang islands.

"Although I have yet to encounter them, I know others who have. They spotted a pod of orcas in Sipadan waters a few years back.

"The killer whales were seen chasing dolphins, but I am not sure if (the divers) were able to document the event, because the boat… could not catch up (with the mammals)," Swann said.

He added that another group of divers spotted killer whales near Layang-Layang in March last year.

Swann, who is a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Platinum course director, has been diving in Sabah for over 10 years.

During his dives in the state, he has encountered whale sharks and dolphins.

"I (saw) melon-headed whales (often referred to as 'blackfish' or 'false killer whales') in 2005 in Sipadan waters, but I missed the killer whales.

"At that time, there could have been hundreds of dolphins... probably more than a thousand (different) species. As for melon-headed whales, it is hard to say (how many of them there were), as they seemed to be very cautious and kept their distance.

"Every now and again, there is a huge number of dolphins passing through and predators naturally follow, on occasion.
"It can be breath-taking, (it’s) like some kind of marine convention, and they socialise when they come together, unless being hunted – then they are just on full speed," said Swann.

Last Sunday, 32-year-old diver Faridzul Adzli Mad Adim encountered about eight orcas and took videos of them swimming and jumping out of the water.

His videos, which he posted on his Facebook page, have garnered more than 8,000 views.

Meanwhile, Sabah Fisheries Director Ahemad Sade said presence of killer whale in Sabah waters was not common but noted they have been spotted in waters off Semporna.

"As for now we can tentatively identify it as killer whale by looking at the white spot under the dorsal fin (based on Faridzul's video).

"The orcas could have used our waters as part of their migratory route since waters off Sipadan is quiet deep.

"The area is also a migratory route for yellow fin and big eye tuna," he said.

While it carries the name ‘whale’, this marine mammal belongs to the dolphin family and is its largest member.

Although killer whales tend to inhabit cold oceans, they can be found in all of the world's major seas, from the Arctic and Antarctica, to various tropical regions located in and around the equator.

They usually prey on squid, octopus, seal, sea lion, sea otter, ray, dolphin, shark, baleen whale and of course, bony fishes. Occasionally, turtles and seabirds, including penguins, are added to their diet.

Sipadan divers spot orcas in Malaysian waters, awestruck by encounter
AVILA GERALDINE New Straits Times 21 Jan 17;

KOTA KINABALU: In what was supposed to be another typical fun dive, a group of 14 divers were treated to an experience of a lifetime when they spotted a pod of orcas in the tropical waters off the east coast of Sabah.

The presence of killer whales near the world-renowed Sipadan Island took them by surprise last Sunday while they were completing their first leisure dive at the South Point diving site.

Faridzul Adzli Mad Adim, 32, said it was about 11am when they resurfaced and the boatman told them to get on the boat.

He was with a Swedish, four Hungarians and four Chinese divers together with three dive masters.

"The boatman signalled us to get out off the water, saying we had to move to the open sea. He sounded excited.

"We were wondering what had happened when he told us that he just saw an orca jumped out of the water," he told New Straits Times when contacted.

The group kept their eyes peeled as the boatman took them further out to the open sea, about 10 minutes away from South Point.

"And then we saw the killer whales and they were jumping out of the water about five metres away from us. Everyone shouted excitedly and we were in awe," added Faridzul.

Although he was unsure, the executive officer with the Sultan of Selangor's Office, said there could have been eight orcas at that time.

He said the group tried to get closer to the pod but each time they did, the orcas moved away.

"Probably they were afraid of the engine's sound so one of the dive masters told the boatman to turn it off.

"We stayed for 30 minutes to enjoy the sight. It was everyone's first encounter with orcas and we were suprised that it appeared in our waters since they are known to live in cold waters," he said, adding that the sea temperature was about 25 degrees Celsius.

This sighting of killer whales or Orcinus orca is believed to be the first in Malaysian waters.

While it carries the name whale, this marine mammal belongs to the dolphin family and it is its largest member.

Although killer whales are often found living in cold ocean waters they can also be found in all of the world's major oceans from the Arctic and Antarctic to various tropical regions located in and around the equator.

Hard for sea poachers to go after killer whales in Sabah, assures animal expert
AVILA GERALDINE New Straits Times 25 Jan 17;

KOTA KINABALU: Tight maritime security in Sabah’s east coast and strict regulation on international trade of marine mammals will make it difficult for outsiders to hunt killer whales in the state waters.

Marine mammals expert Dr Lindsay Porter, when contacted, told the New Straits Times that it was impossible for hunters to escape with a large marine mammal without being noticed.

Porter, who works with the World Wide Fund for Nature, deals with dolphins, whales, porpoises, and dugongs. She also works on issues of marine mammal harvesting and hunting for food, bait or traditional uses.

On Jan 21, the NST reported on the sightings of a pod of orcas – the largest species of dolphin – near Sipadan Island. The killer whales were spotted by a group of divers.

Following the report, readers expressed concern that publicising such report would attract sea poachers or marine mammal hunters into the area.

“Perhaps this is a risk but I am somewhat baffled as to who would have a vessel large enough and explosive harpoons available to kill a killer whale?

“They are not small. Small rifle fire unlikely to do much damage and quite frankly, what market would there be for dead killer whales? And live ones, it would be extremely difficult to catch one on the east coast of Sabah,” responded Porter.

“There is a strict regulation on international trade of marine mammals, even if someone could catch and hold a killer whale…there are also regular patrols by security forces as well as Fisheries and Wildlife agencies.

“Sabah’s east coast is heavily patrolled by maritime security (possibly) making it very difficult for outsiders to try and come into our waters for such purposes,” she said, stressing killer whales are large and fast predators.

With respect to concerns that some people may exploit killer whales in Sabah waters, Porter said it was unlikely that anyone from the state could or would opportunistically hunt or kill orcas.

While pointing there was some evidence that traditional hunts for small dolphins occurred in the past, she said this was different as it was easier than hunting a killer whale.

“I do this work for the International Whaling Commission that is interested in all aspects of humans using marine mammals for food or any other purpose.

“We have done extensive work on where and who in Asia would or has exploited marine mammals (including hunting them or killing them if they get tangle in fishing nets).

“Sabah has a very low reporting rate of any consumption or bait use. Only some of the coastal people may use dolphin teeth as currency or dowry but this is poorly documented.

“This was why I find it unlikely that Sabahans would hunt the killer whales as they neither have the skills nor equipment to do so and there is no traditional demand or market.”

She however noted that In Indonesia, the people of Lamellera are famous for their daring attempts to harpoon sperm whales by using traditional spears.

For experienced hunters like these people, Porter said they might be capable of successfully harpooning a killer whale.

On presence of orcas in Sabah waters, she noted there had been several sightings of in Sabah waters but none of encounters were in the news.

“It is great to see marine mammals and the oceans being featured in news.

“I don’t think that reporting the sighting of these amazing oceanic predators increases the risk of anyone trying to harm or hunt these animals.

“I think instead that reporting this species, highlighting Sabah’s rich and diverse marine wildlife and reminding everyone that the oceans are ours to look after is a great privilege that the many means of news media broadcasting can provide.”

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