robertharding nature photographer Michael Nolan had an amazing encounter with a pod of rare killer whales – known as ‘Type D’ or subantarctic killer whales – while returning from an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula aboard the National Geographic Explorer.

A meeting with Type D killer whales
An encounter with Type D killer whales, Orcinus orca, in the Drake Passage, Antarctica.

“The adrenaline was really flowing,” says Michael, who came across nearly 40 of the elusive orcas in the Drake Passage, known for its extremely rough seas. “I have photographed killer whales all over the world and immediately knew that these were the rare Type D I have been hoping to see for years now,” he continues. “This expedition was my 49th to Antarctica and this is the one and only time I have had the privilege to see and photograph these animals. To have relatively calm seas in the dreaded Drake Passage together with Type D killer whales made this a perfect day for me!”

Sub Antarctic killer whale surfacing the water image
A young Type D, or sub-Antarctic killer whale, Orcinus orca, surfacing in the Drake Passage, Antarctica.

The ‘Type D’ killer whale was first described when a pod became stranded in New Zealand in 1955. Since then they have been seen and photographed only a handful of times around the world.

“Killer whales are actually the largest member of the dolphin family,” Michael explains. “They range throughout the world’s oceans from the Arctic Ocean in the north to Antarctica in the south. Killer whales are the absolute apex predator swimming in our oceans today, and have been documented feeding on other whales, seals, fish, penguins and even great white sharks. Nothing in the animal kingdom is higher on the food chain..”

2 killer whales in the wild photograph
Adult bull Type D, or sub-Antarctic killer whales, Orcinus orca, surfacing in the Drake Passage, Antarctica.

“Type D killer whales inhabit some of the most inhospitable waters on our planet, at southern latitudes known as the roaring 40s and furious 50s,” Michael continues. “They don’t seem to tolerate the sub-freezing waters of the Antarctic, earning them the name subantarctic killer whales. These waters aren’t often travelled by whale scientists, nor are there many places for whales to strand – reasons we don’t know much about them.”

See more of Michael’s photos of Type D killer whales

See more of Michael’s work

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