There is something about killer whales.
Maybe it’s their sheer size, some as big as school buses. It might be their force and power, their awesome ability to rocket into the air, or travel 100 miles a day. It could be their masterful design, their hydrodynamic submarine-like forms, or those elegant black-and-white patterns, as if outfitted in tuxedos made of wetsuits. Perhaps it’s the fearsome name and ruthless, predatory reputation. Or maybe it’s the whales’ almost otherworldly intelligence, their sense of humor and play, their apparent love of sharing.
For many people, it is all of the above. They are, quite simply, mesmerized by Orcinus orca.
“Killer whales are the most amazing animals that currently live on this planet,” wrote Robert Pitman, a leading US Government marine ecologist not given to hyperbole, in the spring 2011 Journal of the American Cetacean Society. “They are probably the most universally recognizable animals that live in the sea, or perhaps anywhere on the planet. Add to that, they are predators nonpareil – the largest top carnivores on the earth today with killing power that probably hasn’t been rivaled since dinosaurs quit the earth 65 million years ago.”
It’s little wonder that orcas are popular, drawing millions of fans to marine-based theme parks each year, and a growing number of people to British Columbia, Washington, Norway and other places to see these majestic animals thrive in their natural habitat – the boundless ocean.
Few people realize that killer whales are members of the family Delphinidae, making them the planet’s largest dolphins, giant cousins to the far more common white-sided, spotted, bottlenose (think TV’s Flipper); and 28 other species of seagoing dolphins. Orcas not only have the largest brain of any dolphin, at 12 pounds it is four times larger than the human brain (a great white shark’s brain weighs 1.2 ounces). They are among the smartest animals in the world.
Killer whales have been prowling the earth’s oceans for millions of years, and it appears that their large and complex brains continued to evolve over much of that time. They are the ocean’s top predator and the most widely distributed animal on earth after humans. Unlike us, they fear nothing in the natural world.
Orcas have captivated the human imagination for millennia, and the first written reference to them dates back to 70 AD by Rome’s Pliny the Elder, who thought them to be loathsome, “pig-eyed” assassins. Killer whales also figure prominently in indigenous people’s myths and legends, including many Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, who revere the whales in their history, religion and art. They call the orcas “blackfish,” and the animal is a common motif in totems and other native sculpture and drawings.
The Haida and Nootka tribes of British Columbia created legends about orcas living under the sea in homes and towns, taking human form beneath the waves. People who drown go to join them there. In much of the region’s mythology, killer whales are believed to embody the souls of chiefs who have passed away. The Tulalip Tribes of Washington State have sagas about blackfish helping Tulalip people during famines, and they selected the orca as their tribal logo.
Scientifically, the animal is known by its genus Orcinus – from the Latin “kingdom of the dead,” or belonging to Orcus, Roman god of the underworld – and its species orca — from the Latin and Greek for large whale or fish. “Killer whale” evolved from the term given to orcas by 18th Century Spanish sailors – “whale killer” – because some types of orcas feed upon other whales and dolphins. It is difficult to find a satisfactory explanation for why “whale killer” got reversed into “killer whale,” though one possibility is that Spanish puts the noun before the adjective.
In today’s vernacular, the names “orca” and “killer whale” are interchangeable, though many media and animal-activist types seem to prefer the former, while scientists and the display industry tend to use the latter. Indeed, SeaWorld has belittled reporters in the past for using the term “orca,” rightly pointing out that we do not call any other animal by its Latin species name alone. A human is sometimes referred to as Homo sapiens (our genus and species), but never just as “sapiens.” SeaWorld’s protestations aside, the word “orca” appears in dictionaries and newspaper stylebooks throughout the English-speaking world, where the species has also been known as grampus, seawolf, and of course, blackfish at various times in history.
The term “orca” began gaining popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, when people started realizing how intelligent the creatures are and how gentle they can be. Before orcas were first held captive, they were widely regarded as bloodthirsty monsters and brutal, shark-like killing machines.
“In whatever quarter of the world (killer whales) are found, they seem always intent upon seeking something to destroy or devour,” wrote 19th Century whaler Charles Scammon. Swimmers feared them, fishermen hated them, many people fired weapons at them. Nearly one-quarter of all orcas captured for display during the late 60’s and early 70’s showed signs of bullet wounds. Royal Canadian fighter pilots used to bomb orcas during practice runs and, in 1960, private fishing lodges on Vancouver Island persuaded the Canadian government to install a machine gun at Campbell River to cull the orca population. In the end, it was never fired. Even as recently as 1973, U.S. Navy diving manuals warned that these “extremely ferocious” predators “will attack human beings at every opportunity.”
In the second half of the 20th Century, killer whales were targeted by the commercial whaling industry, which was running out of larger species tp pursue. Between 1954 and 1997, Japanese whalers captured and slaughtered 1,178 orcas while the Norwegians took 987. The former Soviet Union was responsible for taking more than 3,000 killer whales, many of them from Antarctic waters.
Despite their name, teeth and reputations, killer whales in nature are generally mild mannered with people and with each other, aside from the occasional spat. Indeed, it wasn’t until the captive marine mammal industry began to display orcas that we improved our understanding of their nature. The public display industry should be credited for changing the public’s attitude toward killer whales from one of contempt to admiration and even affection.
There is very little evidence of wild killer whales attacking people. An early expedition to Antarctica reported that orcas had unsuccessfully attempted to flip over an ice floe bearing a terrified group of men and their dog team, though the whales may have thought the barking dogs were some strange species of seal.
Decades later, in 1972, an orca bit down on the leg of a surfer in Big Sur, California. The animal probably confused the surfer’s black wetsuit for seal skin, until it got a taste and let go. Nonetheless, the victim required 100 stitches. It was the only human injury ever recorded. In 2005, a 12-year-old boy was bumped in the shoulder by a transient orca while swimming in shallow water in Helm Bay, Alaska, home to many harbor seals. It is believed that the whale mistook the boy, who left the water uninjured, for prey. So wild killer whales rarely, if ever, cause deliberate harm to humans. Captive killer whales, however, are another animal altogether.
Killer whales are part of a large order of marine mammals known as cetaceans, from the Greek word for whale, kētos. All cetaceans – which comprise whales, dolphins and porpoises – have forelimbs modified into “flippers,” (pectoral fins), a “tail” (fluke) that has been flattened horizontally, as opposed to the vertically arranged tails of fish, and one or two nostrils on the top of the head (blowhole) that provides the only air passage to the lungs. Cetaceans cannot breathe through their mouths.
There are three suborders of cetaceans: the Mysticeti, or baleen whales (blue, humpback gray, etc.) that trap krill, other zooplankton and small schooling fish in the long strands of brush-like baleen material that line their mouths; the Odontoceti, Latin for “toothed whales,” which includes dolphins, porpoises, belugas and others; and the Archeoceti, or ancient whales, which are extinct.
Among the toothed whales, the largest is the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), the leviathan immortalized in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” The male of the species can grow up to 60 feet in length and weigh 90,000 pounds (females are much smaller). One third of his body is taken up by his head and its 17-pound brain, the largest on earth.
Other toothed whales include beaked whales, beluga whales, narwhals and six species of porpoises. Many people think that porpoises and dolphins are the same animals, but they are not even in the same family. Porpoises tend to be shorter and stouter, with rounded rather than beaked or bottlenose rostrums. They are actually more closely related to belugas than dolphins.
The largest family of toothed whales, the Delphinidae, or oceanic dolphins, has some 36 species, including such popular theme-park draws as the bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, short-finned pilot whale, false killer whale, and of course, the killer whale, the second largest toothed whale after the sperm whale.
The terminology gets a bit confused here. The word “whale” is an English common term, not a scientific one. It basically means “large cetacean.” So even though killer whales, false killer whales and pilot whales are all in the dolphin family, they are also relatively large cetaceans, and therefore called “whales.” And while the smaller dolphins (as well as porpoises) are cetaceans, they aren’t really large enough to generally be called whales.
The distinct black-and white pattern of a killer whale helps camouflage the animal from prey swimming under water, or perched above the sea on ice floes, beaches and shoals. Like a military plane, the orca’s white belly makes it harder to spot from below, and its dark dorsal side makes it more difficult to discern from above.
Orcas communicate through a complex and poorly understood system of vocalizations which are divided into two main types. They are, according to the Vancouver Aquarium:
Whistles:Killer whale whistles are used for communication and sound a lot like human whistles. They are continuous sounds and are referred to as ‘pure tones’. Their function isn’t entirely known, but they seem to play a role in communicating the emotional state and location of individuals – as they do in humans.
Calls: Referred to technically as ‘burst pulse calls’ – killer whale calls are very rapid streams of sound pulses that sound continuous to our ears. Most sound somewhat like human cries or screams, some sound a bit like a squeaky door or creaking floorboard. Many of the calls used by killer whales are ‘stereotyped’ or produced repeatedly by a given group of killer whales. Certain killer whales even use sound as a kind of family badge and researchers have discovered much about their family relationships by simply listening to the sound of their calls.
The vast majority of data available on wild orcas was collected from the Northern and Southern Resident communities of British Columbia and Washington State. That’s mostly because these animals happen to swim close to shore, often near populated areas. Orcas can be spotted from the shores of Seattle, Tacoma, Port Angeles, Bellingham and the popular San Juan Islands in Washington State; and Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Campbell River and other cities in BC. These venues not only offer easy access to the whales, they are scenic and pleasant places to live: Researchers who study orcas tend to gravitate more toward this region than, say, Iceland.
As a result, we know a great deal about the Southern and Northern Resident communities, which today number some 330 in total; and far less about other populations (though that is changing), including the transient and offshore orcas who share the same region of the Pacific Northwest as the residents. And while it is tempting to ascribe “resident” and “transient” attributes to killer whales in Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Antarctica and elsewhere, scientists say there are just not enough data to support such comparisons, with the possible exception of Alaskan orcas.
For the past 40 years, field scientists have exhaustively documented these Pacific Northwest animals, which they break down into three distinct ecotypes:
Residents – The most highly studied whales of all, these orcas are divided into two groups: the Northern Resident community, which ranges from mid-Vancouver Island north toward the Alaskan panhandle, and the Southern Resident community, which typically ranges from mid-Vancouver Island south to Puget Sound in summer and fall and, in the winter and spring, as far south as Monterrey, California and also north of Vancouver Island. The two generally do not mix. These whales live in extremely stable and large groups, or pods, marked by tightly knit family units dominated by females. They communicate at a highly sophisticated level and eat mostly fish.
Transients – These whales differ from residents primarily by what they eat: other marine mammals, including dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and even larger whales (and sometimes sharks). Transients have been known to bat their prey around for hours before finally consuming it. They travel in small groups (3-12 whales), and their range is far greater than that of resident orcas, though it does overlap. Transients do not mix with residents, having split from their cousins, genetically speaking, tens of thousands of years ago.
Offshores – Little is known about this population, which tends to stay about 30 miles off the mainland coast, though they have been spotted in inland waterways on rare occasions. Offshores can travel in huge pods numbering up to 70-100 orcas. Scientists believe they mostly forage on Pacific sleeper sharks and schooling fish.
In recent years, researchers have compiled new data on killer whale populations in other parts of the world, including Iceland, Alaska, Norway, the UK, Japan and Russia in the northern hemisphere, and New Zealand, Argentina, Antarctica and the Indian Ocean’s Crozet Archipelago in the southern. There are several other ecotypes, and perhaps even separate species entirely, than the northwest American whales.
Orcas can be found in all oceans of the planet, even in the tropics. Their total population is estimated at 40,000-60,000, perhaps half of them around Antarctica. Most populations seem to be stable (though data are limited), but the Northern Resident population of British Columbia has been listed as “threatened,” and the Southern Residents have been added to the more serious “endangered” list. Part of the reason is a reduction in fish stocks, which environmentalists say is due to pollution, salmon farming and the damming of rivers that wild salmon must navigate in order to spawn upstream.
Then there are the captive killer whales; miniscule in number when compared to their wild counterparts, but each one a political and emotional lightning rod. As of this writing, there were 42 captive orcas at theme parks and aquaria in Canada, France, Spain, Japan, Argentina, Holland, and of course the United States, which has 21 whales — 19 of them at the SeaWorld chain of attractions in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego.
This book illuminates the intensifying debate over keeping killer whales for “public display,” and whether captivity is too stressful on some animals, leading to health problems such as impaired immunity, increased infections and other serious issues, as well as behavioral problems such as aggression toward one another, and violence – at times deadly, as we shall see – against humans.
At play here are two vital questions:
1) Is captivity in an amusement park good for orcas: Is this the appropriate venue for killer whales to be held, and does it somehow benefit wild orcas and their ocean habitat, as industry claims?
2) Is orca captivity good for society: Is it safe for trainers and truly educational for a public that pays to watch the whales perform what critics say are animal tricks akin to circus acts?
Not surprisingly, people who support SeaWorld and other marine-themed entertainment parks (“pro-caps” in the lingo of this particular argument) answer affirmatively to both questions, while “anti-caps” insist the answer is a resounding no.
People opposed to captivity include some scientists, academics and environmentalists, nearly all animal activists, a handful of former orca trainers, and a worldwide network of people who say that killer whales are too big, smart, sentient, mobile and close to their families to be kept in tanks and trained to perform for tourists. They assert that keeping killer whales in captivity is cruel and unusual, dangerous for animals and people, and should be phased out.
On the other side are aquarium and amusement park owners, managers and investors, current and former trainers and staff, industry trade associations, some scientists and veterinarians, and most government officials, especially those whose constituents benefit from having a large oceanarium in the area. They argue that captive whales serve to educate the public about wild whales, that the quality of life for captive orcas is superior to that in the ocean, and that whales in these collections receive world-class care, dine on “restaurant quality fish,” and are free from the worries of pollution and dwindling food supplies found in the wild. Captive orcas, they say, are simply better off. They are supported by millions of fans who spend billions of dollars each year on ticket sales, food, beer and merchandise at the parks.
One side views SeaWorld as a Garden Hilton for killer whales, and the other side views it as a Hanoi Hilton for killer whales.
Those divisions aside, people on either side this battle sincerely care about these animals – and many of them truly love orcas. One such person was orca training supervisor Dawn Brancheau, who was living out her life’s dream in Florida, working with every “Shamu” (a stage name given to performing orcas) at SeaWorld Orlando. Dawn was killed during a “relationship session” with SeaWorld’s 12,000-pound bull, Tilikum, following the popular “Dine with Shamu” lunchtime show. The notorious whale already had been involved in two other deaths. Now he was about to claim his third victim. In the end, “Tilly” would brutally ram, rake, bite and lacerate his adoring trainer. Tilikum was not just “playing.” This was a killing.
Four people have died in a pool with killer whales. Dozens more have been attacked, some with lifelong injuries. SeaWorld calls these events rare accidents; critics call them preventable tragedies, the inevitable outcome of what they claim is the stress of captivity. Killer whale shows are not going to be closed down any time soon, but opponents are pushing hard to convince the public that they are as outdated and inhumane as the circus dancing bears that still perform in parts of Russia and China.
What’s more, the killing of Ms. Brancheau woke up a previously inattentive media to a gripping story and a bruising national debate – one that would soon drag the courts, Congress and even the Obama Administration into the roiling conflict.
Is captivity for orcas, on balance, a good thing? Readers must make up their own minds. But regardless of whether one is pro-cap, anti-cap or somewhere in the ambivalent middle, one thing is abundantly clear: Dawn Brancheau’s death at SeaWorld, on February 24, 2010, forever changed this emotionally charged debate.