It’s all about the orcas

It is a subtle shift that occurs, between periods of time when words disappear into a hazy background while other preoccupations hold the foreground, and periods of time where a space opens up right in the centre for words to move into and claim for their own. At present, a jumble of words are tumbling over each other to be written. The overly linear side of my brain would like to organise them into a coherent order; complete the Bob Talbot posts, write some welcome updates on Peggy Stap and then progress to writing about Pieter Folkens and climate change, or the lack of it. However, aided and abetted by the Bob-cat still evading my attempts on completion, each time I sit down to write, I feel the other flexible, non-linear, meandering side of my brain (must be the right side) stepping forwards and moving me into non-logical places.

And so it is that today, while I had every conscious intention to write about Peggy Stap and our adventures together searching for cetaceans (aka whales) in Monterey Bay, I am pulled into a minor digression about her black and white research subjects which she calls her ‘dates to the prom’, none other than the fantastically named KILLER WHALES.

Killer whale… Orca… Orcinus orca… Whether you use their common name, nickname or latin name, they have similar root meanings, all of which sound like a horror movie title… Showing at midnight tonight is the spine-tingling chiller ‘Demon Killer from the Kingdom of the Dead’, watch it if you dare!

Of course, as most people know, this name does not do them justice but does elevate them, by name alone, to the status of being ‘cool’. And in the flesh, they are even ‘cooler’. There is just something so extraordinarily compelling about these most beautiful of ocean dwellers. Having seen them a handful of times up close and personal, I know that all the words in the world – stunning, magnificent, sleek, majestic, powerful… – can never be enough. Orcas generate a feeling which lies deeper than words can reach.

The absolute clincher that causes my jaw to drop in awe and my respect soaring to dizzying heights is knowing that these animals that hunt and tear apart seals, dolphins, whales and sharks have never willfully attacked a human in the wild. Moreover, there are only a handful of documented accounts of accidental attacks, none of which have been fatal. Different ‘sub-species’ of killer whales have completely different diets with some, called transient orcas, specializing in preying on marine mammals. I can only guess that a mammal-eating-orca knows full well that human beings are mammals, and ones which, if out swimming or surfing, would be a much easier target than, say, a fast, wary and alert harbor porpoise. Yet, they leave us alone. I cannot help but wonder as to why they afford us such a singular place of honour.

Even as we have been slowly but surely, ignorantly and self-servingly, hammering metaphorical nails into their coffins, orcas still leave us alone. It is, maybe, debatable whether killer whales would even be aware that our actions are the cause of their distress. Do they know, for example, that the high levels of toxins in their bodies are because of us? Or that their lack of food is caused by our endless fishing? Or that the injuries to their ears that can cause them to beach themselves come from manmade underwater explosions and sonar systems? Or even that the debris in the oceans which they can become entangled in is our debris…? How intelligent does an animal have to be to sense that at least some of these abuses can be attributed to those strange creatures who travel across the oceans in noisy, metallic, free-floating islands, dragging huge nets after them and dumping foul-smelling waste into the depths? Maybe orcas, along with fish and other ocean inhabitants, do not have a clue as to the source of their problems… But, seeing as orcas are a great deal smarter than fish, maybe they do. If they do, it is an even greater wonder that they still leave us alone and do not seek retribution. I am not sure if humans would do likewise.

In fact, the only documented accounts of orcas attacking and killing humans are when they are in captivity. Those stories make the headlines; surely we have all heard of incidents at one Seaworld or another where trainers have been hurt or killed, with the most recent killing of a female trainer in 2010 by an orca called Tilikum. Whether or not these incidents are willful attacks or misguided, boisterous attempts at play is uncertain. Dolphins in captivity can commit the extreme act of suicide by refusing to eat, refusing to breathe and striking their heads against aquarium walls. It is equally plausible that an orca could reach levels of despair, frustration and insanity deep enough to commit acts of aggression directed at people. I feel sad for the humans who have died and I feel equal empathy towards the killer whales; an animal of lesser intelligence and capacity for emotional distress, would not get bored, feel despair, or be capable of ‘losing their mind in the heat of the moment’.

But, before my words wander into darker realms, I’ll pull myself out of the depths and return to the warm, sunlit shallows. I know, I know; too many negative images at a time only tend to trigger disinterest. We all need hopeful, stimulating and inspiring images to motivate us along the path of learning to care for our planet…

… So, did I mention something about a transient orca? Let’s return to that ambiguous term. What on earth does ‘transient’ orca mean and, for that matter, what does ‘resident’ orca and ‘offshore’ orca mean? Initially I did not know that these different classifications of killer whales existed. Once I learnt their names, I still did not know exactly what the names meant and so I got very confused when Peggy told me that her main research subjects are transient orcas and not resident ones. I assumed, quite understandably I think, that resident orcas must reside in Monterey Bay, (with transients going in and out of it randomly, and offshores staying a long way out to sea and never entering the bay).

It turns out that I did not get that quite right. There is a lot more to it and, perplexingly, it seems that resident orcas do not in fact reside in Monterey Bay at all. But, this post has meandered on its merry orca-filled way for long enough now, so I will have to halt my flow of words and save them for the next post. If you would like to learn what really makes a transient orca transient, a resident orca resident, and an offshore orca offshore, then do come and visit again soon!

Killer whale photographs in this post are courtesy of Peggy Stap, copyright belongs to Peggy Stap and Marine Life Studies


2 thoughts on “It’s all about the orcas

  1. I’m glad you followed the ‘flexible, meandering’ side of your brain, Amanda – what a great post! Orcas are such awe inspiring creatures – how I’ve dreamt of seeing them one day! It’s wonderful to be able to experience getting closer to them in a virtual way, via your blog.

    I really identify with that sense of words tumbling over themselves to be written. I’m feeling like that at the moment – just as things have got really busy! Finding enough time to fit in all those words is proving a real challenge! Really looking forward to reading your further orca adventures!


  2. Thanks Melanie! If you ever want to see orcas let me know and I can tell you some good places to go… They are amazing, and the more you know about them, the more amazing they become when you see them in the flesh.
    Words, words, words… Yes, why do they sometimes want to come flooding out just as life gets busy. I have written half of another post on orcas but life is not letting me finish it. I guess we just have to trust trust that they will find their way out eventually!
    I fly to England next week… If I have not found a few quiet minutes to read your recent posts before then I certainly will as soon as I arrive.

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