Steep, Bloody Engagements
Of Orcas and Men
By David Neiwert
No killer whale has ever taken a human life in the wild. There are no written, visual, or spoken records of Orcinus orca actually killing Homo sapiens in the wild. Various populations of these awe-inspiring mammals do hunt salmon, sea lions, birds, turtles, and other whales for food. It is only while in emotionally-crippling captivity—illustrated in harrowing detail by the documentary Blackfish (2013)—that the animal’s name and reputation are tragically realized.
If the world had fewer marine parks and not so many millions at stake, the title killer might be synonymous with king. As ocean-going apex predators, Orcas have long commanded the respect of indigenous peoples on North America’s western seaboard; the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia have a creation myth that says whales who learned to come ashore started their tribe. In his new book Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, investigative journalist David Neiwert further explains that,
The killer whale’s spiritual potency is symbolic of the power of blending human intelligence with the forces of nature. The orca’s spirit is revered by the Northwest tribes because it is seen as a friend to all of mankind. But Max’inuxw [the ones who hunt] is also a fearsome thing to behold, its awful vengeance only a swish of its flukes and a flash of its toothy jaws away. Max’inuxw is not Shamu.
A more strident subtitle for Neiwert’s book might be We Should Consider Them Our Equals. Indeed, that is the case to be won or lost by the author’s research into anthropology, neuroscience, and salmon ecology. Of Orcas and Men is here to clear the murky water surrounding the charismatic animals, while also measuring what it means to be a successful species.
Returning to the crux of the orcas’ sensational reputation—their name—reveals Basque whalers, who operated between the 11th and 18th centuries. They saw orcas eating the same baleen whales they prized, and bestowed the moniker asenina baleenas, “whale killers,” which didn’t quite translate into English. The rise of water parks in the 1950s, featuring exuberantly-trained dolphins, kicked off the public’s craving for marine entertainment. By cruel fits and starts, in which several animals died of pneumonia or gunshots, imprisoned orcas soon began drawing their own crowds. Park owners initially traded on the orcas’ supposed ferocity-brought-low as much as they did the animals’ natural majesty.
Then came the 1966 film Namu, the Killer Whale (produced by Ivan Tors, who created Flipper); Neiwert says that “it encapsulates an important moment in the history of human-animal relations, a tiny moment signifying a sea change, when people first began to realize that orcas were not only benign but also intelligent.” Just how intelligent orcas are is shocking, like a bucket of ice water down your back. Neiwert’s scientific evidence for orcas’ person-hood includes an excellent brief on their sixth-sense, echolocation, generated by rapid-fire clicks focused through a melon-shaped forehead filled with oil:
The sound bullets that come out of the melon are very dense packets of sound, not entirely dissimilar from the packets that transmit computer information electronically, and so when these sounds bounce back to the killer whales, they carry a broad spectrum of information. This apparently means that when this information is processed by that highly evolved and complicated brain, it renders the orcas capable of not merely detecting the presence of objects (as our sonar does) but rendering a clear and detailed vision of what is there in the water. Indeed, it goes beyond mere vision; orcas can see inside things. Because sound is actually capable of penetrating objects better than light, the bounceback from orca echolocation includes the more subtle variations that occur as the sound penetrates the object and then returns.
When the author mentions “that highly evolved and complicated brain,” he refers to the extremely wrinkled and folded mass of tissue between an orca’s eyes. Wrinkling and folding is called gyrification, and corresponds to how much data a brain can process, how fast. The gyrification index—or GI—for humans is 2.2. Killer whales, with the most folded brains alive, are at 5.70. They also possess a highly developed amygdala, related to emotional learning and memory, as well as a fantastically complex insula, which deals with social cognition and self-awareness.
If killer whales didn’t exist, researchers looking at this data would have to concoct them. Their above average intelligence corresponds with extraordinary levels of empathy and cooperation; they live in matriarchal pods, in which all the adult children remain at the mother’s side until her death. Family members don’t physically fight with each other, or with strangers in the same region. And they maintain food supplies by living within ecotypes—ten subspecies that ply different ocean regions around the globe, specializing in separate prey and never interbreeding. If even one or two of these details accurately described humanity, the Earth’s other most successful apex predator, the planet would be much better off.
In many ways, Of Orcas and Men is exactly the kind of natural history with which many longtime readers of the genre may be exhausted. Neiwert’s chapter on our historical encounters with killer whales (aptly titled “The Demon From Hell”) and another about the lies SeaWorld sells to audiences (including “the ocean is dangerous”) are as depressing as they are fascinating. Overall, the author emphasizes that moral progress usually requires steep, bloody engagements.
But between the science, anthropology, and conservation, Neiwert squeezes in fun pop-culture critique. He places the 1977 Dino De Laurentis film Orca:The Killer Whale in context as a junk-science riff on Spielberg’s Jaws. Starring Richard Harris and Bo Derek, the film offers a snapshot of the cetacean Dark Ages preceding more robust marine biology. Neiwert’s dismantling of a single scene makes you want to watch the entire fiasco with him:
“Like humans, orcas have a profound instinct for vengeance,” relates [Charlotte] Rampling, who plays the film’s resident killer-whale researcher. (She also plays recordings of humpback songs to explain to her students how orcas communicate.) This evidently explains why, after seeing its family slain by Harris, the orca proceeds to blow up much of the local town (it manages to rupture a fuel line and set it afire, which spreads to a refinery) and then tears down the shoreside building housing Ms. Derek, who slides into the water and loses her leg to the voracious orca, courtesy of the aforementioned special-effects realism. (I think Derek’s missing leg turned up a few years later as the lamp in A Christmas Story.)
The demonic sea-wolf image is alluring, sometimes persisting in strange cultural crannies. Neko Case, singer, songwriter, and animal rights proponent, reinforces the confused identity of her muse in the song “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” with the lyrics: “You know they call them killer whales/But you seem surprised/When it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank/Where you can’t turn around/It took half your leg and both your lungs…”
Mocking inept filmmakers can only go so far. Neiwert segues into Free Willy (1993), a triumphant—and refreshingly anti-corporate—movie about an orca who simply wins his life back by jumping a wall. The crushing reality of releasing a captive whale is that, ideally, her pod must be located, she must be in vigorous health (strong immune systems typically elude physically and emotionally repressed individuals), and the animal needs to realize that the prolonged presence of humans is abnormal.
This is a key point, even as another sea-change in public perception about orcas draws increasing tourism to their feeding grounds. The San Juan Islands and the Puget Sound area of the Washington coast are immensely popular whale-watching destinations. The boat traffic serves thousands of people, and at its thickest forces the orcas into greater maneuvering while hunting fish. Some marine biologists, like David Bain, say that higher-pitched sounds from power-boats can interfere with echolocation. Others like researcher Ken Balcomb disagree, pointing to diminishing salmon runs as the biggest threat to North American populations.
The future of orcas, especially the endangered pods of Washington and British Columbia, rests on choices individual people will make. Neiwert explains how dammed rivers can destroy salmon spawning runs, which leaves the whales with too little to eat. This forces them to start burning fat reserves, which often contain decades worth of “persistent organic pollutants” (like PCBs, PDBEs, and dioxins) that they’ve absorbed while eating lower in the food chain. If citizens researched and protested against the use of dams, certain chemicals, and feeding grounds as oil tanker routes, killer whales would benefit immensely.
So would humans. Sometimes, natural history books or articles ask that we preserve the environment and animal life so our children can enjoy them, and I cringe. Shouldn’t we preserve the environment because all living creatures deserve to exist unmolested by our pernicious activities? I believe so, and yet Of Orcas and Men opens with an experience Neiwert and his young daughter shared, and the passion channeled here reminds me that beliefs are meant to change:
Profoundly humbling experiences are good for our souls: those knee-knocking, gut-emptying, jaw-dropping, life-altering moments when you come flat up against the reality that we are each, no matter how big our egos or incomes, insignificant flesh-specks fortunate enough to be alive in this grand universe, those moments such as when we stay up late to see the Milky Way on a summer’s night in the Rockies, or stand agape at the edge of the Grand Canyon or an erupting volcano in Hawaii, or watch the birth of our own child. Of all these, there are few as deeply affecting as having an encounter in the wild with one of nature’s premier meat-eaters, and of these, none are as profound as having a five-tone killer whale with a towering dorsal fin come looming toward your kayak out of the fog.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.