The Daily Telegraph - Travel

Black and white beauties of the deep

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Emma Thomson joins a small group of tourists invited to participat­e in a fascinatin­g project researchin­g killer whales off Western Australia

Beneath the darkblue waves of the Southern Ocean, 30 miles off Bremer Bay, Western Australia, bubbles a little magic. Down in a deep trench, methane hydrate leaks from cracks in the seabed and mingles with the water to form an ice-like reef. The alchemy brings bacteria and triggers a food chain. Deep-sea crustacean­s colonise this cold patch and release billions of nutrient-rich eggs into the abyss.

Why is this quirk of nature of interest to travellers? Well, those eggs attract bigger creatures: giant squid chased by diving sperm An orca rises majestical­ly to the surface, right; watching from the deck of the Cetacean Explorer, far right whales; great white sharks; and, most unusual of all, orcas, or killer whales, in 100-strong pods thought to be the largest gathering in the southern hemisphere. It’s a new marine hotspot discovered completely by chance.

From 2005 to 2012, film-maker David Riggs participat­ed in a survey of bluefin tuna and at the start of each year was surprised to keep seeing the black-and-white whales. He alerted Naturalist­e Charters, a local boat operator already running whalewatch­ing tours to see sperm whales, and together they set up a research project to find out why the orcas were turning up. To fund it, they started trips for a select number of tourists and I jumped at the chance to try one.

The day was bright as Naturalist­e Charters’ Cetacean Explorer motored out of Bremer Bay’s small harbour, but as soon as we left the sheltering arm of the peninsula she began to arch, bounce and buck over the tall waves. “Keep one hand on the rails,” warned marine biologist-turned-skipper Malc. “It’s more for your dignity, than safety,” he added as I waddled to the front of the boat on unseaworth­y legs.

After an hour of sailing, he yelled from the top deck: “We’re on the frontier now!” Not a single crust of land breaks up the blue between here and Antarctica. A wandering albatross glided past, inches above the water, its wingspan as large as that of a light aircraft. “Look. JCs,” said deckhand Luke. “JCs?” I asked. “Storm petrels. We call them Jesus Christ birds because they walk on water.”

“Mola mola on the starboard side!” shouted Malc. We stood at the railings and could just discern the pewter outline of the sunfish, flat and large as an elephant’s ear, basking near the surface. “We had a great white shark hanging round the boat yesterday,” said Luke, grinning. Malc broke the silence: “Whales at one o’clock!”

We moved to the bow of the boat and scanned the choppy waters for signs of life. Then a poker-straight black fin speared the surface 40 yards away and we got the briefest glimpse of that distinctiv­e ivory eye-patch. Other, smaller, fins followed, some flopped sideways like melted candle wax. I had thought this only happened in captivity, but Malc told us that among females they are continuous­ly rounded and in young males, fittingly, they only straighten during puberty.

After a few flickers of the camera shutter they dived, leaving still, glassy ponds called footprints. “Looks like Notchy and his gang,” said Malc.

Notchy? The experts have already begun to identify a few individual­s, but the main conundrum puzzling them is this: if the ice-reef is present all year round, why aren’t the orcas? One theory is the presence of the Leeuwin Current, which runs along the coast of Western Australia to Tasmania. When it is flowing strongly, nutrients leaking from the canyon are suppressed, but between November and March its flow eases and the minerals can rise to the upper levels.

As opposed to other whale-watching trips, here research is the main focus. Two student marine biologists, Layla and Becs, were on board to answer any

OTHER MARINE HIGHLIGHTS

Kimberley Marine Park.

Whale sharks Snorkel with a whale shark, the world’s largest fish, from late March to July in the Ningaloo Marine Park. Local operators offer tours from AUS$385 (£210).

The new Coral Bay Kayak Trail has 10 moorings above prime offshore snorkellin­g sites where turtles, manta rays and more than 500 species of fish can be spotted.

Capricorn Sea Kayaking (capricorn seakayakin­g.com.au) offers a fully guided three-day tour including kayaking, snorkellin­g and camping equipment, transport and park fees as well as meals for AUS$995 (£542) per person.

Wild dolphins Monkey Mia, inside the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, is one of the most reliable places to see wild dolphins. Three to five females usually swim into the shallows Entrance AUS$8.50 (£4.63).

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