Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XI No. 2 - April 2002


Orcas: Well Beyond Our Understanding

By William Rossiter


By New Years Day about 100 orcas were trapped by ice at Disko Bay, West Greenland. By early February local fishermen and hunters had killed at least 24. Shrimp trawlers shot and killed eight orcas in Qasigiannguit, to be flensed and sold on the local market. Eight more orcas were killed in the vicinity of Aasiaat. Assume many more were killed we have not heard about. The contaminated orca's blubber or "mattak", along with parts from large numbers of small cetaceans such as belugas and narwhals, was sold for local consumption by humans and sled dogs. Do you find this and similar activities offensive? Why? It is legal and customary, and perhaps a human survival issue. Who can convince the Greenlanders that orcas do not deserve this?

About that time scientists in New Zealand were swimming with a unique pod of orcas, literally invited into their midst. Besides being close witnesses to and recording the techniques the orcas used to hunt rays, the researchers were challenged to communicate and interact. Limited by today's acceptable descriptions for behaviors (see below) the problem for these scientists may be how to communicate their findings.

Meanwhile scientists in southern Argentina continued their opportunistic work to understand the dynamics of a well-studied extended group of about 30 orcas that appear during pupping season, to catch pinnipeds by stranding intentionally on the beach. Many documentaries have relied on the drama of those captures, but the real fascination comes from understanding how this risky but successful cultural behavior is taught from one generation to the next. After all, no researchers in the region are aware of any orcas dying from stranding, even in the historical records.

About then whale watchers in California were treated to a rare visit by an offshore orca pod that moved through Monterey Bay hunting sea lions. These whales, apparently marine mammal specialists, may have a very large range, but they remain aloof and mysterious, rarely seen by humans. The same may be said of most orcas, worldwide.

The famous and sacred J, K, and L pods of Puget Sound, the salmon eaters, have been too close to humans for decades. They now face what may be their unbeatable challenge, human pollution. They have survived the early assault by the captivity industry to become over-adored icons almost always surrounded by boats, with little time to themselves. Humans overfished the salmon, driving these orcas to forage for bottom-feeding fish, which had accumulated heavy loads of toxins from polluted sediments. The orcas' immune systems now are compromised, with fewer births and more deaths, sliding towards the inevitable. An impressive coalition of experts and advocates has pleaded with NMFS to list the Southern Resident orcas as an endangered species, rather than merely threatened, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This would enable several remedies to their probable extinction, but at an economic cost. Canada has listed them as "endangered" under Canada's endangered wildlife protection program. Their highly visible plight may kick NMFS off the politicized fence, and may have changed the way the region processes waste, but probably not soon enough.

One of those whales, the year-old L-98 or Luna, wandered north this winter to a bay on the west side of Vancouver Island. Another yearling, A-73 or Springer, wandered south from Canadian waters to roam near Seattle. At first their presence was kept secret, but predictably they became the focus of considerable attention. With the help of many resident experts and extraordinary volunteers, both Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the US' NMFS monitored the whales to ensure their survival, safety, and fishing skills, and engaged the public in a debate about whether to take the whales home, or into protective captivity. Check http://www.orcanetwork.org/news/news.html#vashoncalf or http://www.whalemuseum.com/ for updates on A-73 and L-98.

The point to all this is that orcas are complex and unique creatures that we perceive in many ways yet do not understand. Still mostly myth, they challenge us with their diversity, culture, discipline, confidence, tolerance, mystery, and sublime rule over wherever they choose to be. And there is no evidence that they ever wage war on each other.

Why Won't Keiko Go?

Keiko was captured in Iceland at age two, floated through the orca marketplace to Mexico City, starred in the popular movie "Free Willy," was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and was moved to a floating pen in Westmannaeyjar, Iceland in 1998. His ultimate freedom inspired the most expensive and dedicated release effort ever conceived. It has not worked so far. Keiko has been offered many opportunities to run away with wild orcas during several years of effort by a dedicated team. While he has refused so far to link with an accepting pod of Icelandic orcas, the economic crunch has reduced the budget for Ocean Futures' Keiko Reintroduction Project. The primary funder wants out. Advertised positions for the Keiko Reintroduction team continue and Ocean Futures appears determined to keep their lifetime commitment, if required, but no one would have gone this far if they had known that he would not be as eager for his freedom as they were.

Why won't Keiko go? Perhaps his concept of a free life demands being with his actual family pod, and to him they vanished with his capture. Alone, he has lost his identity, and joining unfamiliar orca groups is not an option. Perhaps he is resigned to his fate but at least sees his life since he was captured as one of gradually improving conditions. Perhaps he is contented enough that all these people work so hard to please him, and his life is easy. Of course this is wild conjecture, because it introduces values found in some human cultures, and that would be anthropomorphic. Face it, we will never know. Maybe it is time for tough love, before he gives future options for rehabilitation and release a bad name.

Is It Time For Orcology?

We have anthropology to study the cultures and societies of humans. Will we ever know enough to see the need for a similarly focused "-ology" for another creature on this planet? The orca would make a good candidate.

Today's cetologists, who evolved from marine biologists less than a generation ago, are limited by their professional culture when studying orca behavior, societies, cultures, dialects, and ceremonies. How can they expect to document what is really happening when they are denied the necessary tools and training? The process of becoming a professional cetologist leaves little room for what many peers regard as soft science, the stuff anthropologists thrive on. Schooling concentrates on tools and techniques that do not equip new scientists to deal with what they witness. Courses squeeze creativity out of the average Masters and Ph.D. student, and any glimmers that remain suffer in an extremely competitive job market. The results are obvious: there are many technical studies involving DNA, software and satellites, but nothing that explains who orcas are, the way anthropology explains who we are.

A casual review of research projects worldwide reveals that orcas develop local customs and culture, live in discrete populations yet may never inbreed, and never seem to cause each other harm. That last sounds too good to be true, so perhaps it is just a matter of time before we find enough evidence to relax, confident that we are not alone in our violent tendencies. We have had help there from the captivity industry, where, for reasons probably related to confinement and frustration, captive orcas have killed humans and other orcas.

Meanwhile, despite the limits to sophisticated approaches, wild orcas are becoming better understood. The wild orca model used to be based on the vast data from the accessible but small NE Pacific populations, particularly from Puget Sound north through Queen Charlotte Strait. The region's salmon eaters, or "residents", now suffer greatly from their closeness to humans, as described above. Comparisons with other populations suggest that they are not the best models for the world's orcas. Orcas that tend to eat marine mammals are called "transients", but that label almost has become generic for any offshore group. The model needs work.

Because no one knows enough about the range of the "offshore" groups to understand the big picture perhaps we should consider them like nomadic, self-sufficient groups of people, avoiding each other or using different resources to reduce conflicts and competition.

According to the current professional cultural view, that statement would be a scientific sin, if someone who mattered made it. Anthropomorphism is today's scarlet letter "A", a very real threat to professional careers of the young and vulnerable innovators. Using words or examples that describe human motives, values, or labels to any other life form provokes automatic condemnation, almost as a fear response. Yes, this is justified, to a point, but is science refusing to understand reality because technical jargon or toys are inadequate to describe it? Math and chemistry cannot answer everything. Good science often demands comparisons. How can we begin to communicate the enormous range of perceptions and processes we experience individually without a litany of comparisons? Many of our most significant descriptions of the real world demand comparisons with what we each perceive. I would describe red as the color of a rose, not a nanometer value. I cannot label the sound of a violin except to say that it sounds like one. I can understand other cultures better by comparing my own with them. I can grasp the concepts of kinship and altruism because I experience them, and can communicate them best to others who also experience them. To be aware that another creature may be doing something altruistic I must compare their behavior with what I experience as altruistic.

Is my point that, to understand creatures as gloriously complex and unique as orcas, for example, we may require descriptions that use comparisons with our human experience and flirt with the scarlet letter "A"? Only partially. My real point is that an innovative scientific mind is a terrible thing to waste, and that cetology is wasting the potential understanding that can come from the responsible and considered use of anthropomorphic terms to describe reality when the currently approved vocabulary fails. That vocabulary fails often today at the frontiers offered by research on orcas. We need an approved vocabulary for tomorrow.


Go to next article: Meeting Dolphins and Whales: Can We Be Considerate? or: Table of Contents.

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