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Encounters of the Apex Kind

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Balancing Wildlife Interactions With Conservation

ETP Orca Hunting Common Dolphin Dec 18, 2023 Photo credit: ©Noemi Cabre, PhD

Apex Predators offshore San Diego

The waters off San Diego are a remarkable showcase of marine biodiversity, playing host to around 20 different cetacean species. These waters serve as a crucial pathway for various species either following migration patterns or residing as permanent inhabitants. Among them are blue whales, gray whales, and humpbacks. Notably, the area is home to one of the largest resident populations of common dolphins, a sign of a robust and healthy marine ecosystem.

This thriving population of common dolphins is a key indicator of the overall health of the region's marine environment. Their abundance signifies a rich and balanced food web, which in turn attracts the ocean's apex predators - the orcas. Orcas, are drawn to these waters by the availability of diverse prey. Their presence is not just an awe-inspiring sight for those fortunate enough to witness it; it's also a testament to the vitality of the marine ecosystem in San Diego.

Mega Pod of Common Dolphins Dec 10, 2023 ©Net Zero Expeditions

A Rare Encounter with Nature's Power

On a recent expedition just off the coast of San Diego, we were fortunate enough to witness an orca pod in action. This was not just a typical sighting but a remarkable display of their hunting prowess. One orca, in particular, demonstrated the immense power and agility that these animals possess. Capable of reaching speeds up to 56 km/h and weighing 6,000 kg, this orca generated an energy force equivalent to 727,087.87 Joules. It was a striking demonstration of nature's raw power.

The orcas' hunting strategy is a complex and coordinated effort that showcases their intelligence and adaptability. Their ability to work together as a group to outmaneuver and capture their prey is not only a testament to their survival skills but also to their place as top predators in the marine ecosystem. These hunting strategies passed down through generations, are crucial for the survival of the species and play a significant role in maintaining the balance of the ocean's food web.

Two ETP female orcas and their calves corral a common dolphin, passing down cultural traditions.

Dec 18, 2023 ©Net Zero Expeditions

Experiencing the Ecosystem Firsthand

At our organization, we are deeply committed to offering experiences that bring people closer to the wonders of the marine world. Our expeditions are designed to provide an immersive experience into the lives of these majestic creatures, allowing the public to witness firsthand the beauty and complexity of the ecosystem. We take great care to ensure that our operations are sustainable and have minimal impact on the environment.

This commitment extends to carefully managing our carbon footprint and adhering to strict protocols that respect the wildlife we encounter. We understand that every interaction we have with nature should be conducted with respect and mindfulness. Our goal is to foster a connection between people and the natural world, helping to create a deeper appreciation and a strong sense of stewardship for the environment.

Changing The Tide Against Commoditizing Nature in the Age of Social Media

ETP Orca swimming by whale watching boat displaying curiosity for a group of tourists.  ©Net Zero Expeditions  Dec 19, 2023

In an era where social media has become a dominant platform for sharing wildlife content, the insights of experts like Professor Chris Palmer become even more pertinent. His book, "Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker," highlights the ethical dilemmas in wildlife filmmaking, which are increasingly relevant in the context of social media’s rapid content dissemination. This new form of commoditization of nature on social media, while raising awareness, also risks oversimplifying or sensationalizing animal behavior.

It is crucial to approach wildlife tourism and the resulting media with a thoughtful approach. Conscious operators understand the need for protocols that ensure respectful and minimally disruptive interactions with wildlife. They strive to educate their guests about the importance of conservation and the impact of their actions on the environment. By promoting responsible wildlife tourism, we can mitigate the negative effects of commoditization and ensure that our interactions with nature are beneficial and sustainable.

A profound moment of mutual curiosity  Photo credit: ©Julia Pelio Dec 19, 2023

With this new paradigm presented by the democratization of content production, the mantle of responsibility extends beyond nature filmmakers and tour operators to encompass content creators and social media audiences. Today's digital landscape demands that online content not only captivates but also adheres to ethical standards that honor the true essence of wildlife and their habitats. Capturing these moments requires a profound respect and thoughtful consideration for the subjects, underscoring the need for a wider dialogue about these practices.

This shift towards responsible content creation is pivotal. By doing so, we can transform social media from a platform primarily for entertainment to a powerful conduit for disseminating messages of conservation and promoting sustainable interactions with the natural world. Such an approach doesn't just raise awareness; it fosters a deeper understanding and respect for our natural environment, encouraging active participation in its preservation.

Understanding the Ecotype: ETP Orcas

The Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) orcas represent a unique ecotype within the orca species. They exhibit distinctive behaviors and feeding ecology that set them apart from other orca populations. These orcas are known to navigate vast stretches of ocean, demonstrating adaptability and resilience in various marine environments. Their presence is a vital indicator of the health and diversity of the marine ecosystem in this region.

Studying these orcas provides valuable insights into their role within the marine food web. They feed on a diverse range of prey, showcasing their adaptability and importance in maintaining ecological balance. Understanding the ETP orcas' behavior, migration patterns, and social structures is not only fascinating but crucial for conservation efforts. It helps us appreciate the complexity of marine ecosystems and the need to protect these magnificent creatures and their habitats.

Orcas swimming in proximity to Matlahuay State Marine Reserve in La Jolla CA.  ©Net Zero Expeditions Dec 19, 2023

San Diego's Commitment to Marine Conservation and the Role of MPAs

San Diego's dedication to marine conservation is evident in its establishment and maintenance of marine protected areas (MPAs). These MPAs are not just protective zones; they are vital ecosystems that foster a rich biomass, crucial for supporting species like the common dolphins. The flourishing dolphin population is a direct indicator of the health and abundance of marine life supported by these protected areas. This robust biomass forms the foundation of a thriving food web, essential for sustaining apex predators like the orcas.

Adapted Image from Esri

The presence of orcas in San Diego's waters is intrinsically linked to the health of these MPAs. By providing a refuge for smaller species, the MPAs ensure a stable food source for higher trophic levels. Orcas, often visiting these regions, are drawn by the abundance of prey like dolphins, which thrive in the undisturbed and nourished environments of MPAs. This intricate balance showcases the importance of MPAs not only in protecting individual species but also in maintaining the natural dynamics of the marine ecosystem.

The Importance of Understanding and Protecting Orcas

The need for further research and conservation of orcas, particularly the ETP's, is of paramount importance. Despite being top predators and key indicators of ocean health, many aspects of their biology and ecology remain a mystery. Their classification as 'Data Deficient' on the IUCN Red List highlights the gaps in our understanding and the urgency for further scientific exploration.

By studying these magnificent species, we can better understand their needs, behaviors, and the conservation challenges they face. This knowledge is crucial in developing effective conservation strategies. Protecting orcas and their habitat is not just about preserving a single species; it's about maintaining the health and balance of the entire marine ecosystem.

ETP Orca pod regrouping after a successful hunt ©Net Zero Expeditions   Dec 18, 2023

Embracing Our Role in Marine Stewardship

As we reflect on the remarkable experiences and insights shared in this journey, from the awe-inspiring encounters with ETP orcas to the vital role of San Diego's MPAs, a common thread emerges: our interconnectedness with the marine world. These experiences not only heighten our sense of wonder but also deepen our understanding of the delicate balance that sustains these ecosystems.

Our responsibility extends beyond observation to active stewardship. Evolving the anthropocentric views that have long shaped environmental policies and actions, we recognize the need for a profound paradigm shift. It's essential to move from a perspective that sees nature primarily as a resource for human use, to one that values nature as our most precious asset, intrinsic to our survival and well-being.

In this new framework, decisions are made with the understanding that true value resides within the natural world itself. This approach acknowledges the interdependence of all life forms and the critical role that healthy ecosystems play in sustaining the planet. It's about harmonizing our needs with the needs of the natural world, ensuring that our interactions with nature are not just sustainable, but also regenerative and nurturing.

In this spirit of gratitude and responsibility, we invite you to join us in this ongoing journey of discovery, conservation, and stewardship. Together, we can chart a course that honors and protects the immense value of the natural world for generations to come. Thank you for taking the time to engage with our story. We look forward to the possibility of sharing more of these incredible experiences with you, side by side, in our mutual quest to protect and celebrate the wonders of our oceans.

We want to extend our heartfelt wishes to you and your loved ones. Happy Holidays to you all from everyone at Net Zero Expeditions. May this season bring you, peace, and a renewed commitment to our beautiful planet.

About the Author

Manolo Mendieta is the founder and executive producer of Spunco Films, an international production company that develops original and impactful stories about nature conservation and animal behavior. He is also the founder of Net Zero Expeditions, a carbon-neutral expedition, research, and ocean conservation organization. Some notable collaborations over his career include projects for National Geographic, BBC's Natural History Unit, Netflix, RED Digital Cinema, and Hulu's feature Immaculate Room. With a professional career spanning two decades and a deep rooted passion for nature filmmaking, Manolo enjoys a multidisciplinary approach to his work. Comfortably switching between roles as a Producer, Director, Cinematographer, and post-production lead. His passion for telling stories about nature has taken him to the remote corners of our planet, inclusive of the polar regions. Currently, he's invested in the final stages of development of "Whalelands," a one-hour blue-chip natural history documentary featuring striking cinematography and novel whale behaviors spanning locations from Antarctica and Patagonia to the South Pacific. Manolo holds a BS in science communication and an MBA from ITESM.

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