Killer whales seen off Sipadan, reinforces Semporna waters as marine mammal study area

The orcas sighted at Pulau Sipadan in January 2021. The iconic island is in the background. (Photo credit: Arapat Abdurahim)

KOTA KINABALU: A relatively rare sighting of four killer whales or orcas in waters around Sabah’s famed Pulau Sipadan reinforces the importance of the Semporna region for marine mammals and provides valuable data on marine mammal studies in the area.

Footage showing two adult orcas and two calves swimming to the north of Sipadan was captured and posted on social media by Scuba Junkie dive master Arapat Abdurahim last month.

One of the adults was recorded splashing the surface of the water with its tail - ‘lobtailing’ - which according to marine biologists is thought to be a a form of communication between individual orcas, or a warning to stay away.

“It is not unusual for our guests to see marine mammals on their way to Sipadan or on the south side of Kapalai. Quite often, it is dolphins - but on other occasions we are treated to rarer species such as the orcas sighted last week, melon headed whales and even sperm whales.

“It is incredibly exciting for guests and staff to spot a marine mammal on the surface and be able to contribute to the body of research on rarely seen species - for example in 2017, when we reported the first confirmed sighting of dwarf sperm whales in Malaysia, ” Arapat said in a statement on Tuesday (Feb 2).

Scuba Junkie S.E.A.S is a marine conservation organisation based at Scuba Junkie Mabul Beach Resort.

The organisation is working with researchers to gather data on the marine mammals that occur in the area and enable more accurate identifications.

As incredible as this sighting was - it is not uncommon for the Semporna region which had been identified as a key part of the Western Celebes Sea Drop Off ‘Area Of Interest.

The area has been designated by the IUCN Marine Mammals Protected Areas Task Force due to the high number of marine mammal sightings reported there in the media and on tourism and nature forums.

According to a local marine biologist, 21 species of marine mammals have been recorded in the area and most of them were oceanic or deep water species that migrate from the Sulu Sea to Celebes Sea.

“Orcas have been documented in this region before, however, the partnership with Scuba Junkie S.E.A.S has enabled training to be given to local dive operator staff, so we now receive good imagery and clear descriptions from such encounters.

“This has helped enormously in documenting other species with certainty. It is exciting to see this species in the Sipadan area and to have the diving community engage so enthusiastically with our study” said Dr Lindsay Porter from Society of Marine Mammalogy (SMM), which provides funding for the study of whales, dolphins and porpoise in this region.

In addition, she said dive operators have assisted this study by also deploying acoustic monitors on the seabed to record marine mammal vocalisations, from which species identification can often be made.

“For many of the marine mammal species seen in the Semporna region, their use of the area is still unknown. It may be seasonal, to fulfil critical aspects of lifecycle patterns, for example shelter for mothers and young calves - such as the orca last week - or transient, as part of a migration route or larger oceanic passages, ” added Dr Porter.

“The use of acoustics as part of this project has allowed us to monitor the area more consistently, meaning that species identification does not solely rely on opportunistic sightings.

“The acoustic recordings provide us with a detailed soundtrack of marine mammal vocalisations, which will provide us with a more detailed picture of how the mammals use this area, ” she added.

Additionally, Scuba Junkie S.E.A.S conservation manager David McCannsaid they were happy to work in collaboration with researchers and other NGOs to further understand the unique marine environment in Semporna region.

He said that this is not the first time an orca with a calf has been spotted in the area.

“Notably, there was an incredible encounter when divers with Scuba Junkie witnessed an orca and calf eating a sunfish in 2019. Examining whether this area has an important role for mothers and calves would be of great interest to many parties, ” he said

Dr Porter, meanwhile, urges caution and care in encounters with the mammals and for people to “behave responsibly around all marine animals, do not get too close to animals or harass or stress them to get footage.”

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