ALL OF A SUDDEN we’re being buzzed by killer whales. Riding our wake, just metres from the boat, cruising alongside, doubling back and overtaking us with ease, their power and presence is impressive.
The light is starting to fade and filming conditions aren’t good, but we had almost lost faith in seeing these guys again, and we push it as long as we can.
Finally, the approaching darkness calls time on our adventures. We’re 45 minutes from the harbour and have reef to navigate on our way home.
Encouragingly the pod is still heading north when we leave – the orcas have been out of our range 125 miles south for a long time, and this first encounter is a tantalising glimpse of what might be to come.

“KILLER WHALES? We don’t get killer whales here. You sure you don’t want whale sharks?” On my arrival at Western Australia’s Exmouth airport, nearly a month ago, the cabbie had my best interests at heart.
It was the same at the accommodation: “You’re here to film killer whales? Never seen any.” Then helpfully: “We do get some humpback whales. But whale sharks – now that’s what you want!”
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a whale shark as much – more than – the next diver, but these slow cruising plankton-sifters were not going to work for a behavioural series called The Hunt.
It all started in 2011, when a whale-shark spotter plane chanced upon and photographed killer whales attacking a humpback mother and calf off the Ningaloo reef. It looked incredible, and was behaviour that had never been filmed for broadcast.
Trouble was, the killer whales had hardly ever been seen, and contacting everyone and anyone who worked on the water in Ningaloo led to only five confirmed attack dates since 2007.
It was always going to be a risky shoot, but we needed a strategy. Teaming up with renowned killer-whale scientist Bob Pitman and local marine expert John Totterdall made sense. While they mounted the first formal scientific study of the Ningaloo orcas, we would attempt to film their behaviour.
Nine days ago they managed to get a satellite tag on one of the pod, but since then it’s been an agonising wait as the orcas cruised further and further south, and completely out of our range.
“They could go anywhere. They could go all the way to Antarctica if they wanted.” Bob’s professional opinion was not a lot of consolation. But looking at my compiled historic sightings there was still a chance, and in the past two days the killer whales have turned around, and now with our new encounter it feels as if our luck might be changing.

SIX IN THE MORNING, and according to the satellite track the killer whales have come close overnight. Hitting the water, we speed in the direction of the last tag position. It’s more than an hour old, but we strike lucky. Splashing on the horizon signals that something is up.
To film under water while keeping up with the whales we have engineered our 4k Sony F55 camera in Gates housing onto a heavy-duty steel pole, with a remote video feed coming to a monitor on the boat.
We sorely wanted to dive the event, but in the end getting up that close to 35 tonnes of riled-up humpback fighting off a pod of 5-tonne orcas wasn’t going to be viable. With 10-12m vis, less than a whale’s length, seeing, let alone filming anything would mean being right in the danger-zone.
Even keeping up with the hunt would be impossible without propulsion, and just dropping in would have limited success. So I am on the monitor, while Doug Anderson operates the F55 camera. He will dive with the orcas later.
The first hunt we see fails. The pod have a humpback mother and calf surrounded, but the mother is a force to be reckoned with.
She positions her defenceless calf as far from the killer whales as she can - high up out of the water, on her back. Turning in arcs, churning up the water and flailing with her huge pectoral flippers she creates a smoke-screen of bubbles.
Impossible to see through, and impenetrable to the killer whales’ sonar, this is a dangerous place for an orca to be.
A blow from a humpback could cause serious injury or kill, and the white water conceals powerful sweeps of huge tail and 4m pecs, themselves covered with razor-sharp 5cm barnacles. After 15 minutes of fending off the orcas she makes it to an outcrop of the reef, and they give up the chase.
Following them out to sea they change mode completely, from hunting to slow-cruising and socialising. It’s a good time for Doug to get in the water. Roped off the back of the boat, he takes the plunge.
Scuba is not permitted and he films on breath-hold. While few people ever dive with transient killer whales, there are no records of a diver ever being attacked, and orcas are known to be very prey-selective.
It’s a tense but wonderful moment as four of the orca that just hours earlier were taking on a humpback and calf more than 10 times Doug’s size just cruise slowly by him, dwarfing his frame but showing no signs of aggression. He later says that he felt no threat from them while in the water.
It’s not until around 4pm that we see another attack. The change in the orcas’ behaviour is obvious as they speed purposefully towards a mother and calf.
This time the outcome is not so happy. The pole-mounted camera allows us to get in close and keep up with the boiling tumult.
Amid furious trumpets and snorts, the mother thrashes and turns in circles, but the attack is sustained, and in a foam of white water the calf, bloody, is brought to the surface. We can see that it’s small life is over.
In the moment adrenaline has kept everyone’s attention focused on the job of what we’ve come to film, but as the outcome is resolved and the action subsides, it’s impossible not to feel for the animals involved.
The mother has lost her newborn calf, and we watch as she continues her futile assault, furiously trumpeting and churning the water in the wake of her loss. It’s a poignant reminder of the sentience of these large marine mammals, and the costs involved.

WE HAVE SEEN our first hunt, but to really reveal the detail of the behaviour we need to film from both the boat and the air.
Poring over the charts reveals a good weather window coming up: easterly winds of just a few knots. There would never be a better time to go for the aerials. Scrambling kit and crew, aerial cameraman Blair Monk cuts short his holiday in Fiji, and flies in to join us.
Untying the helicopter as the sun rises the signs are good, with hardly a breath of wind in the air.
Flying time is hugely expensive, so to be as effective as possible the boats will look for the killer whales, and we’ll coordinate by radio.

Knowing the calm weather won’t last long we take to the air as soon as there is good light. Although we don’t yet know where the killer whales are, the humpback migration is an important part of the story and I want to get shots before conditions change.
With just 4-knot winds the lee of the reef is glassy, and we are rewarded with some of the most beautiful images. With barely a wrinkle on the water’s surface, the light penetrates deep and clear.
The whales appear suspended in an ethereal blue space, while glowing sun-rays radiate around them through the deep blue water.
Whales weightless in a dream-world. The image is bewitching, so clear that we can see barnacles, scars, tubercles. Mothers chaperone their calves up the reef, calves frolic, sometimes running rings around mum, sometimes breaching repeatedly. Here and there groups of whales travel together.
It’s a fantastic sight, but as the breeze starts to come up – smudging our perfect image, its time to get back.

MID-MORNING the boat picks up the killer whales out at sea. They’re travelling slowly, far from the migrating mothers and calves that hug the reef for safety. We do a few shots but return to the airstrip to fill our tank. We need maximum flying time in case something happens.
It’s about 4pm when we get the call.
The killer whales’ behaviour has switched completely, and they’re now travelling fast, porpoising, heading straight for the reef. With bearings from the boat, we fly out to meet them.
Hovering up high and using the zoom of our gyrostabilised camera, we try to determine which humpbacks they will go for. There are several mothers and calves around.
The killer whales seem to be choosing their target too. As we watch, two of the pod seem to have split off. They buzz a few different whales, including one with no calf. We’re trying to decipher their motives when the boat radios to say that it has picked up the rest of the pod.
Framing up, we see four killer whales bear down on a mother and her calf.
This time the battle is immense.
As the killer whales attack from all sides, we see the mother with calf up high on her back, right out of the water. From above, the killer whales are small, dark, streamlined shapes, dwarfed by the humpback.
Despite the immense size and power of the mother, it’s clear that defence against the numbers is not easy. Twisting and turning to meet their every approach, she is having to fight hard.
Then the “escorts” get involved.
Escort whales often travel with female humpbacks on migration. They are assumed to be males but not necessarily the father of the calf, and their role has never been properly understood.
As a second and then a third adult humpback joins the fight, it is truly humpback whales on one side versus killer whales on the other.

IN THE PLAN-VIEW from above we see the escorts flanking the mother left and right. The killer whales are fast and nimble and work like a pack, attacking from different sides at different times.
The humpbacks are huge freight trains – powerful heavy hitters, but slow in comparison. In the mayhem the baby somehow becomes washed from the back of the mother, and there’s a collective gasp in the chopper as we think it’s all over.
A killer whale surfaces right next to it, but somehow, miraculously, the mother recovers the baby, likely hidden by the white water.
I can think of no larger battle in nature, and there’s a moment at which I’m struck by the thought that no-one on Earth, living or dead, has ever seen this in the way we’re seeing it now.
Hovering high overhead with the powerful zoom of our gyrostabilised camera we can see the whole battle unfold below in unprecedented detail.
It’s visceral, but it’s also nature at work. These huge battles are part of life – as is death. It’s the death of some that feed the lives of others. The killer whales are predators, and this is what they do.
We see a lot of amazing things that day. Working with the science boat and dive-boat below we see two similarly huge battles. While scientists have long speculated that orcas attack humpbacks, it’s never been formally documented first-hand, and the aggressive counter-attacks by the escorts were also unknown
In one attack, the humpbacks are just too good, too defensive, and at some unseen signal the killer whales call off the hunt, three of them swimming off in unison, side by side.
It’s hugely inspiring that the natural world still holds secrets of this scale that we know nothing about.
Remarkably, the last hunt ends exactly as the sun dips, and just as we reach the edge of our fuel and flying time. It’s been a day none of us will ever forget.

A YEAR LATER, I return for a second shoot. Seeing my cases of equipment, the cabbie asks: “You here to film our killer whales?” Times have changed.

You can see a “making of” behind- the-scenes film on the killer whales shoot narrated by David Attenborough on The Hunt DVD extras. The DVD goes on sale on 6 December. The sequence appeared in episode 1 of the continuing series The Hunt, first broadcast on BBC1 on 1 November 2015.