You probably know the orca by its other name: the killer whale. This name is old. In 1835, R. Hamilton wrote that the killer whale “…has the character of being exceedingly voracious and warlike. It devours an immense number of fishes of all sizes… when pressed by hunger, it is said to throw itself on every thing it meets with…” O.K., 1835 is a long time ago. But as recently as 1975, a United States Navy diving manual warning that killer whales “will attack human beings at every opportunity.” In Spanish orcas are called the ballena asesina (assassin whale). How do such superstitions arise? In fact, as Naomi Rose of the Humane Society of the United States, a recognized authority on orcas today, notes: “Throughout recorded history, there have been no reliable reports of wild orcas killing any human being.”
Howard Garrett who runs a modern Orca website, notes:
“Such hostile interactions have never been recorded in free-ranging orcas, which is truly a remarkable statistic. Zero times have wild orcas attacked a human (though undocumented anecdotes of incidents have circulated, even they are so extremely rare and inconsequential that such stories are insignificant). Even when orcas were being captured, when divers and handlers were in the water or in small boats among the orcas during capture operations, as the mothers were being poked and driven away with sharpened poles while their young offspring were being wrapped in nets and forced into slings, never did the mothers or calves or any of the accompanying whales, male or female, strike out with even the slightest shove or swing of a fluke. This exemplary restraint is the norm among all the many diverse communities of orcas worldwide, whether they specialize in foraging for fish or hunting and killing 8,000-pound sea lions. I can’t explain this reticence even to defend themselves when threatened or attacked by humans, but the record stands: Orcas in natural habitats do not harm humans.”
In many ways, orcas resemble humans: they protect and care for injured and sick individuals. Females are sexually mature around puberty, between 10 and 18. They live about as long as do humans. They are, like us, apex predators, that is, they have no natural enemies. Next to humans, they are the most widely distributed of all mammals, found in every ocean of the world. Each pod (similar to a human tribe) has its own distinct dialect. Young calves nurse for at least a year, and possibly longer.
For no other animal species except the human, can we speak with such authority of the culture of different groups of orcas: “The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties.” Rendell, L and Whitehead, H (2001) “Culture in whales and dolphins.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(2): 309-382.
Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. They are found in all oceans of the world. They are impressive animals to see: the males are as large as 32 feet and can weigh up to 18,000 pounds. On average an orca eats 500 pounds a day.
Lyall Watson, the South African botanist, zoologist, biologist, anthropologist, ethologist, and director of the Johannesburg Zoo, held degrees in geology, chemistry, marine biology and several other disciplines, including a Ph.D. in ethology from the University of London. He died in 2008 at the age of 67.
Watson was in the middle of his career as a writer of more than 24 books. One of his first, published in 1973, was his most popular, Supernature. It was about bizarre, and mostly unexplained phenomena in nature. It raised hackles by claiming things that we will probably never know, for example that plants know when a snail has died. Two decades later he wrote a book called Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil. That is also the topic of my next book, and in this context I found it fascinating that he should tell the following story (which I retell in my own words) about an orca. . He was in the south of Argentina, in Patagonia, on the Valdes Peninsula famous for orcas who beach themselves in order to hunt penguins and seals and other animals on the shore. Only a few orcas know how to do this successfully and have mastered the art. Others get stranded and die. Sometimes they take the baby seals alive, and bring them to their pod, to give to their young to eat.
What Lyall Watson saw defies belief, or at least explanation. He saw a mature orca capture a baby seal, and carry it around in her mouth for some time. Watson saw the look of sheer terror on the little baby’s expressive face (you have seen seals and how cut they look to us). He could hardly bear to look at what was sure to come next. But it did not come. The orca stopped and seemed to consider. She looked at her prey, and suddenly she made a decision: she raced for shore at great speed, then as she approached she gently placed the baby seal high onto the beach, and turned and swam back out to sea. There could be no question that this was deliberate. It was as if the orca was as taken with the unbearable cuteness and the unbearable fate of the little seal, and decided, this once at least, to save his life by releasing him back onto land. Was this really what it appeared to be, Watson asked himself? Could it be that the orca spared the life of the other, intentionally? There seemed to be no other explanation. Watson had never seen this before, and it’s not like orcas ever get too full and leave some of their meal behind. This seemed deliberate to Watson. He was there and he felt certain of it.
Before we explore what could motivate such behavior, we have to ask the prior question of just how much credence we can give to this observation by Lyall Watson. It is, after all, only an anecdote in his book.
Researching this, there was little I could do to verify it by speaking with Watson, since he was dead. But I did the next best thing: I spoke with Roger Payne, a deeply respected and much admired whale researcher. I asked him what he thought. He said that he knew a far more reliable whale watcher, who had also claimed to have seen the same empathic behavior, and he found him an unimpeachable source. I was to call him, for he may well have kept a video of the event. Unfortunately he too had died.
Yet, I’m inclined to believe the story. And this is what I think: The orca was going to lunch, and baby seal was on the menu. Before you say “yuk” stop and consider a typical lunch menu at any of our upscale restaurants in the Western world: Lamb, veal, chicken, and duck. So why not a baby seal? And how old do we think the lamb or the veal or the chicken or duck is? Weeks? A few months? When their natural life span could well be many many years.
But can orcas really be sentimental about their food and survive? Sentimental? It’s an odd word to use about a seal-hunting animal. After all, the orca is also known as the killer whale – an animal that no other animal in the ocean is able to escape should he decide to eat them. Well, maybe not. Orcas do have enormous brains. Not only are they big, four times the size of a human brain, but they are also highly convoluted with many folds especially in the frontal cortex, indicating that they are, in many respects much like us, and probably have brains as complex as our own. They use them to negotiate the highly intricate social relations orcas engage in for life. Recently it was discovered that orcas (and some other dolphins and whales) have spindle cells, previously only seen in humans and some great apes, cells that code for deeper emotions and social bonds. Orcas stay with the same pod for life, a matriarch leading the entire pod. She may well live for up to 90 years.
So what was it about this particular orca (or was it that particular baby seal??) that made such a choice possible, when all around her other orcas were going about their lunch in the usual fashion? Did she draw attention to herself and her eccentric behavior? It would be like sitting down in San Francisco at noon, watching all around you as the office workers unwrap their chicken sandwich and begin to eat. And then have one person suddenly stop, look at the chicken in the chicken sandwich and up pops an image in his head: chickens on grass. He looks around. None of the others have stopped eating. But he has. The difference is of course that we humans can afford to make the choice. We don’t starve or suffer if we choose to be vegetarians or vegans. Orcas, and all other animals, have no such choice.
From time to time an orca might get sentimental (in the best sense of the word), or just hesitant, or suddenly she might feel empathy for her meal. She might say to herself: “Not this time. Not for me.” But only rarely, if at all, for otherwise he would starve. “Let’s not get sentimental about food,” says his mother. Eat, or else. “Iss mein Kind,” as my Jewish grandmother always told me in Yiddish, especially when I blanched at eating an animal.
In fact, when you think about it, is it so different for us, when we look at the history of our species? Until recently, hardly. Throughout most of our history, we all ate what everyone else ate. I have asked New Zealand Maori elders in their eighties whether they had ever heard of anyone in earlier times, when they were little, refusing to eat meat. No, such a thing had never happened. I am not sure when the first vegetarians appeared on earth, but surely not before the early Upanishads in India, from around 800 BC.
And thus the reason this behavior by a wild orca is remarkable is that no wild animal species ever displays compassion over what they eat. That includes us humans for nearly our entire natural history. In fact, if you search online, you can see plenty of video scenes of orcas tearing out the tongue of young whales while the poor animals slowly bleed to death. The orcas have the brainpower to recognize the suffering they cause. They seem to have tremendous emotional depth for the suffering of other orcas. So I am sure they could understand what they are doing as well as we can when we slaughter baby lambs.
The fact is, if some particular orcas didn’t feel much like killing they would starve, and those particular genes would not be preserved. Orcas who felt bad all the time about killing seals would soon die out and their genes would no longer be carried by any other orcas. And orcas are apex predators, that is, they have nothing to fear in their environment, the ocean. It is their domain. Remember, they can be 20 feet long and weigh up to 20,000 pounds.
If being on top of the food chain sounds familiar, it might be because you’re thinking about humans in our habitat here on solid ground. We also have little to fear in the animals around us, even if we as a species did not start out that way.
But it must also be said that animals that orcas do not eat have nothing to fear from them. And it is here that orcas really begin to differ from us: Whether or not an orca might hesitate for a moment to inflict panic, pain, suffering and death on a species it sees as food, one thing is certain: Orcas don’t hunt of the hell of it. Not even to hone their skills. And most astonishing of all, they don’t kill one another.
As far as anyone knows, no free-ranging orca has ever killed another orca. Not one. Not once. Never. When thinking about modern human history, this fact stands out as remarkable. It took me a while to establish the veracity of this altogether remarkable fact. Indeed researchers were at first puzzled by my question, although none could think of an exception. Slowly the implications began to sink in. It is one thing to realize that no wild orca has ever killed a human (remarkable in itself, given our slaughter of whales), it is quite another to think they never kill one another. There is no known rape among orcas. No torture. No murder. No war. No genocide.
These are killer whales, indeed, let us not kid ourselves. But they are not the killers we are, or should I say the killers we as a species have become.
“All men would be tyrants if they could,” said Daniel Defoe. Yet no orca, as far as anyone knows, has ever tyrannized another orca in nature.