It is not so long ago that orcas, called “killer whales” by their detractors, were insulted as malignant plagues, shot, harpooned and even machine-gunned by whalers, fishermen and government agencies. Today, the world has come to appreciate these intelligent animals not only as great predators, but also for their complex societies and their ability to mourn. However, as Jason Colby explains in his new book, Orca, our love affair with them may have come too late, as fish populations shrink, sea pollution and other forces drive some of them closer to extinction.
When National Geographic spoke with Colby in Hawaii, he explained how orcas exhibit complex social behaviors, including mourning, why a controversial new pipeline in Canada threatens their survival, and how writing this book was also a journey for him. redemptive staff.
You suggest some interesting reasons why humans are fascinated by killer whales.
People from different places and contexts are attracted to orcas for a number of reasons. In the beginning, when we knew relatively little about them, there was something quite impressive about this black-and-white predator with wolf teeth that appears in the northwestern fog. However, as our knowledge of them grew, people came to appreciate what we might call their family ties, which transformed their perceptions of them. We tend to value animals that remind us of people, with characteristics that we imagine in ourselves. So people were fascinated by the orcas’ family ties, especially their matriarchal units. There is an identification with people’s emotions that makes us see them differently from lone predators such as great white sharks.
A trio of orcas jump at Sea World in San Diego, California. In the past, groups…
A trio of orcas jump at Sea World in San Diego, California. In the past, groups of orcas were decimated as a result of live catches for marine parks like Sea World.
PHOTO BY FLIP NICKLIN, MINDEN PICTURES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Both in captivity and in the wild, their interactions are often affectionate and complex, which we increasingly recognize as a cultural interaction. The populations we have in the northwest have their own cultural practices and itineraries. For example, northern residents own a whale resort in an inlet, where they rub off on the smooth pebbles near the shore. This habit seems to be common among them, in which they socialize.
(Related: “After 17 days of mourning, orca finally separates from the dead cub’s body”)
Southern residents have a breathtaking ritual when they meet. They arrange themselves in nearly straight lines when they see each other, 100 or 200 meters apart, stop, wait a moment, then give a crazy, cheery greeting that makes it sound like they’re meeting long-lost loved ones.
You also suggest that cetaceans can commit suicide. Tell us about Haida and mourning her. And how a flute player helped him to recover.
Some people have suggested that cetaceans commit suicide, such as Richard O’Barry, an anti-dolphin captivity activist located in the Miami area, who made the film, The Cove. He suggests that one of his dolphins, who was sick or depressed, committed suicide. I’m not telling you that it doesn’t; I just don’t suggest it in the book.
Haida is another striking example of the kind of relationships formed by orcas. He was held captive for several years with a rare white killer whale named Chimo, who died. Haida went through a period called depression by caretakers. Some suggest he was sick too, but it looked like he was even in a sort of melancholy.
A whale he brought from British Columbia called Namu became world famous when a Hollywood movie was made about him. Griffin even published an article in National Geographic in March 1966 entitled Making Friends with a Killer Whale, which was read by people around the world.
The other side of his career came after Namu proved so popular and demand for captive orcas soared around the world. griffin listengave that demand by catching local killer whales that we now know were residents of the south. In Puget Sound, he captured dozens of them and sold them to marine parks around the world. And as these captures continued and people’s fears grew, in the space of a few years, Griffin went from being a hero, the best friend of the orca world, to potentially the greatest threat, at least to those in the northwest, and eventually became , at last, an outcast in the northwest.
You need to tell us what really happened to the Free Willy star—it wasn’t the happy ending we all saw in the movies, was it?
No, and there is still a history of dispute between those who participated. Keiko, Free Willy’s star, was captured in Iceland in 1979 and has gone on to perform at various venues. But when the film was made in the early 1990s, it was in disrepair premises outside Mexico City. With the film’s success, a campaign to take it to better facilities was launched which soon evolved into a campaign to return it to its original waters in Iceland. Millions of dollars were spent to initially take him to Newport, at the Oregon aquarium. However, the larger project to release it into Iceland’s waters faced several challenges.
First of all, Keiko was not a healthy animal. Furthermore, no one knew the social structure of Iceland’s orca groups or what family he might belong to. There were internal battles between those who wanted him to return to his home waters but who feared he would never catch wild fish again, and those who believed that if he were simply released he would bond with the local orcas and begin to catch fish again.
WITH THE HELP OF THE MOTHER, MALE ORCA KILLS PUPPY OF THE SAME SPECIES
For researchers, the unprecedented images reveal a recurrent behavior in the animal kingdom: killing other individuals to ensure the perpetuation of the gene itself.
There are those who claim that it should be considered a happy ending because he finally swims free. Some even claim that he caught wild fish. But the people we spoke to, who cared for him in Iceland, reiterate adamantly that there is no evidence that he ever caught wild fish and that he ended up dying of starvation and pneumonia in the winter off the coast of Norway.
In many ways, it’s an example of how our fascination with a single Hollywood dramatic story of the life of an orca can trump larger and more complex questions about the conservation and ecological health and survival of whales in the wild.
The southern resident group of orcas is threatened with extinction and other groups are now extinct. Talk about the dilemma they face and tell us what can be done to save them.
When I wrote the words of this book, the southern residents had been reduced to 76 members in nature—three groups in all. This summer, at least one more disappeared, so they dropped to 75 members. We haven’t seen such low numbers since the mid-1980s. I’d like to point out that orcas around the world are doing well, but this population is on the endangered list on both sides of the US and Canadian borders.
They likely had 200-250 individuals at some point, when they had a healthy environment and availability of their most important prey, king salmon. But the damage to the environment and especially the depletion of its prime prey came at a high price. One thing I like to point out to people is that, after the end of live captures in the region in 1976-1977, the southern resident orcas population had probably dwindled to around 70 individuals. By the late 1990s, they had rebounded to nearly 100. However, over the past 20 years, they had dropped dramatically again.
What affects them most is, above all, the lack of available prey. The Columbia and Sacramento rivers have been dammed and we are seeing a significant drop in king salmon migrations. Other threats are pollution, increasing maritime traffic and the controversial expansion of the pipeline to Vancouver. Southern residents don’t just rely primarily on king salmon; they depend predominantly on king salmon from the Frazer River. And the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which was just taken over by the Canadian government, threatens salmon production and access to that river.
You were nine years old when you and your father returned to Pedder Bay, where he captured three orcas for the show industry. Let’s close by going back to the beginning with this story.
I had a very personal and academic reason to write the book because, in the 1970s, my father participated in live orca captures on both sides of the border, and when I grew up, I saw his difficulties in dealing with part of the legacy and the guilt for that. .
I was nine years old when we got back to Pedder Bay. He didn’t tell me why he wanted to seelook at it. We only rented one boat to go on the sea and he began to tell us in detail the story of how he captured orcas. Just as he was about to finish the story, a group of orcas entered Pedder Bay and started swimming and playing around our boat. I had never been this close to orcas in the wild and one large male got so close that I could almost reach out and touch his fin.
It was an amazing moment and my father reacted very emotionally, having almost a nervous breakdown. He started to cry when he saw the orcas. Of course, now I know it was all the guilt he felt, knowing that three of the four whales he had captured from those waters had died in captivity. I don’t think he ever really got over the feeling of being responsible and was later horrified to learn that these were the last three southern residents taken from the wild into captivity. So, in writing the book, I struggled with my family’s responsibility for this story and our region’s responsibility for this iconic animal that taught us so much.