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June 1, 2014 | by  | in Arts Online Only |
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Echolocation

I was looking for them all day. It was windy and the sky was that kind of overcast that’s bleached white, cold white, hard to stare straight into. I was sitting by the window with a book and a cold cup of wildberry tea. I wasn’t looking out the window — it was so glaring and bright that my eyes were hypersensitive to anything interrupting the whiteness. In my peripheral vision, I saw a sudden black shape piercing the glow.

It must have been the uppermost point of the dive. New Zealand orcas are especially known to dive deep for stingrays, unlike other species who prefer to surface feed. Their 8-metre bodies might momentarily hang at right angles to the surface of the sea.

As soon as I’d focused on the flickering black shape it was gone. That’s when I saw a cloud of spray hovering low, dissipating on the water’s surface, marking the spot where the black shape had been. Like a person’s footprint, but almost instantaneously vanishing — an air print? A cloud print? I ran to the beach and all at once there were tall black fins cutting through the surf about a hundred yards off shore. Two, three, five, six, eight, gliding and kicking about in lazy loops and tight circles. The tallest fin looked at least a metre high, sharp and glossy like hard onyx. Little flippers belonging to two orca calves sprung up, smacked the water, and then a pair of little tail flukes flung high. I saw the stark white belly of the orca calf — a quick glimpse of the striking pattern on the underside of their bodies that looks like the badly stencilled shape of a dolphin. The harbour ferry cut its engine and hovered quietly near the pod. They didn’t seem to mind; young ones circled it playfully on their way out of the harbour, following their mothers. I wondered which one was the matriarch. Not the tallest, sharpest fin — that’s a male. The female orca’s dorsal fins are sloped in a slight hooked curve. A smaller fin with a notch at the tip led the pod out towards the narrow harbour entrance — that might be her. A queen of the southern transients.

The wind got sharp and cold but I couldn’t leave yet. I looked at the little clouds of spray that tracked their path through the channel — each puff becoming less and less clearly defined as the orcas swum further out to Cook Strait.

I waited until the black fins were too small to see anymore — just dark specks on the ocean’s surface. I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. My fingers were purpling from the cold.

If I were to have put my head underwater just then I might have heard, or felt, very faint echolocation clicks and whistling calls. I wonder what it must feel like – to have a large animal feeling its way around for you, placing you in its world, with the use of underwater clicks. Echolocation is mostly used for foraging — 70% of an orca’s day is spent foraging — but also for socialising, since orcas are the extroverted social butterflies of the ocean. The pod I just saw were part of the transient species, not residents; their sense of belonging has nothing to do with where they are, but who they’re with. Bats and dolphins are the animals best equipped to echolocate, followed by cave-dwelling birds such as swiftlets and little mole-rats called shrews. The orca is by far the biggest echolocator. So, if I were to wade into the water with them only a hundred yards away, the bouncing echoes of their calls and clicks would not only tell them exactly where I am, but how big I am and how fast I’m travelling (and therefore, what kind of thing I might be). They receive the returning echo in each ear at a different time, at different levels of loudness, to pinpoint my distance and direction. With all kinds of marine mammals breaching, surfacing and echolocating in distant waters around me, they feel my presence much more keenly than I can feel them. They feel me bouncing off their skin.

I’m glad humans can’t touch me with their echoes.

 

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Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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