Orcas have been my favourite animal on the planet since 1994. There are so many things I find utterly captivating about them, but one of my very favourite things is the uniqueness of each population of orcas around the world. To name just a few… in the Pacific Northwest you’ll find residents, who only eat fish, and transients, who only eat other marine mammals. In New Zealand you’ll find the expert stingray hunters. In Argentina you’ll see the ones that beach themselves to catch seals. And in Antarctica you’ll find the wave washers – orcas that have learnt how to use teamwork to create waves that wash seals off ice floes. Not only are each of these behaviours specific to these geographically distinct groups of whales, but their genes are too. The differences in social structures, feeding, and habitat preferences between the world’s orcas are so distinct, having not interbred for hundreds of thousands of years, that many believe they should be separated into different species. They don’t just act different – they look different, too.
NOAA and natural history illustrator Uko Gorter released a brilliant poster showcasing these different ecotypes and the variations in their shape, size and markings. The wave-washing orcas of the Antarctic (whose incredible behaviour you can see here, though sadly not narrated by David Attenborough) are known as type B, and they’ve fascinated me for a long time. The diatoms in their chilly native waters cause the normally white areas of their body to appear yellow, and their dark skin looks grey or even brown and are often dotted with rake marks and other scars. There’s even a pale line that sweeps from the tops of their eye patches (which are huge, by the way) to the edge of their saddle patches. They’re just weirdly beautiful creatures and I’ve been dying to paint one for ages, so while warming up the other day on a 14 x 11 inch canvas I ended up with a composition that’s been on my mind for a while: a type B orca sinking back into the strikingly blue Antarctic water post-spyhop. Maybe he found a seal.
Some in-progress peeks: