It was not so long ago that killer whales were reviled as vicious pests, shot, harpooned, and even machine-gunned by whalers, fishermen, and government agencies. Today, the world has come to appreciate these sleek creatures not only as apex predators but also for their complex societies and their ability to feel grief. But as Jason Colby explains in his new book, Orca, our love affair with killer whales may have come too late, as declining fish stocks, marine pollution, and other forces push some of them ever closer to extinction.
When National Geographic caught up with Colby in Hawaii, he explained how orcas display complex social behavior and even grief, why a controversial new pipeline in Canada threatens their survival, and how writing this book was also a redemptive personal journey.
You suggest some interesting reasons why human beings are attracted to killer whales. Talk us through them.
People have been drawn to orcas in different places and contexts for a variety of reasons. Initially, when we knew relatively little about them, there was something very striking about this black-and-white predator with wolf teeth appearing in the mist of the Northwest. But as we got to know more about them, people came to appreciate what we’d call their family bonds. That transformed perceptions of them. We tend to value animals that remind us of people, with characteristics we imagine in ourselves. So people are fascinated by the orca’s family bonds, especially their matrilineal units. It connects with people’s emotions and causes us to view them differently than solitary predators, like great white sharks.
Both in captivity and in the wild, their interactions are often tender and complex, which we increasingly acknowledge as cultural interaction. The populations we have in the Northwest have their itineraries and cultural practices. For example, northern residents have this whale spa in Robson Bight, where they go and rub themselves on these smooth pebbles right off the beach. This seems to be a regular practice with them, where they socialize.
Southern Residents have this breathtaking ritual that they engage in when they encounter one another. They line up in virtually straight lines when they see each other, 100 or 200 meters apart, stop and wait for a moment, and then they engage in this mad frolic of greeting, which looks like they are meeting long-lost loved ones.
You even suggest that cetaceans may commit suicide. Tell us about Haida and his grief. And how a flute player helped him recover.
Some have suggested that cetaceans commit suicide, like Richard O’Barry, an anti-dolphin captivity activist with the Dolphin Project in the Miami area who did the movie, The Cove. He suggests that one of his dolphins, which was ill or depressed, committed suicide. I won’t tell you that it doesn’t happen; I just don’t suggest that in the book.
Haida is another powerful example of the kind of relationships orcas form. He had been in captivity for several years with this unusual white killer whale named Chimo, who died. Haida then went through a period of what handlers would call depression. Some suggest that he was ill too, but it seemed that he was really in a kind of melancholy.
One of the ways he was brought out of this depression was by interacting with a famous jazz flautist named Paul Horn, who came and played to Haida, which seemed to pick him up out of his doldrums. It’s dangerous to project human emotions onto animals, but it does seem that killer whales, like people, are capable of heartbreak and emotional ups and downs.
Historically orcas and humans have been adversaries, but there were also indigenous hunting communities that collaborated with orcas. Can you tell us about the Kamchadel people?
These are details in reports from the Bering Expedition of the indigenous Kamchadel, in what is now eastern Russia, where the Kamchadel had developed a cooperative hunting practice in which local marine mammal-eating orcas seemed to collaborate with them to help harry and injure large whales, which the human beings could then dispatch, before sharing the meat with the orcas.
There was a much better documented example in Australia in Twofold Bay, where white whalers established shore whaling stations in the 1830s. For a century, this population of orcas collaborated with the whalers by alerting them when larger whales were passing by, swimming into the bay and slapping their tails to summon the whalers, before going out and working with them.
We’ve all heard about cattle rustlers, but you write about whale rustlers. Give us the inside scoop on one of the most famous of those rustlers, Ted Griffin.
In the 1960s, Ted Griffin was a well-known figure on the Seattle waterfront. He had started the Seattle Marine Aquarium in 1962 at the time of the Seattle World’s Fair, and became famous in Puget Sound for capturing killer whales. He was also the first person we know of to swim with a killer whale.
One whale he brought from British Columbia, named Namu, became world famous when a Hollywood movie was made about him. Griffin also published an article in National Geographic, in March 1966, entitled Making Friends with a Killer Whale, which was read by people all over the world.
The flipside of his career came after Namu proved so popular and the demand for captive orcas skyrocketed around the world. Griffin meets that demand by capturing local killer whales that we now know are Southern Resident Killer Whales. In Puget Sound, he captures dozens of them and sells them to marine parks all over the world. And as those captures go on and people’s misgivings grow, in the span of just a few years Griffin goes from being a hero, the world’s greatest friend to the killer whale, to potentially the greatest threat, at least to the Northwest killer whales, and ultimately ends up being a bit of a pariah in the Northwest.
You have to tell us what really happened to the star of Free Willy—it was not the happy ending we all saw in the movies, was it?
No, and there is still a contentious history among those who participated. Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was captured in Iceland in 1979 and went on to perform at several places. But by the time that movie was made in the early ‘90s, he was at poor facilities outside of Mexico City. When the movie does well, a campaign is launched to bring him to better facilities. But it soon develops into a campaign to return him to his native waters in Iceland. Millions of dollars are spent to initially take him to the Newport, Oregon aquarium. But the larger project to release him in Iceland waters faces numerous challenges.
Firstly, Keiko was not a healthy animal. Also, nobody had any idea about the social structure of the Icelandic killer whale pods or what family he might be connected to. There was an internal struggle between those who wanted him to be in his home waters, but feared he would never be able to catch wild fish again, and those who believed that, if he was just released, he would be connected to local orcas and start catching fish again.
There are those who claim it should be considered a happy ending, because he was ultimately swimming free. Some claim he even caught wild fish. But the people I’ve spoken to, who took care of him in Iceland, adamantly insist that there’s no proof he ever took wild fish and he ends up dying of hunger and pneumonia in the winter, off the coast of Norway.
In many ways, it’s an example of how our fascination with a single, dramatic Hollywood story about one killer whale’s life can supersede the bigger, more complicated questions about ecological health and conservation, and survival of whales in the wild.
The Southern Resident killer whale pod is endangered and other pods are now extinct. Talk about their plight and tell us what can be done to save them.
When I penned the words for this book, Southern Residents were down to 76 wild members—three pods in total. This summer at least one more went missing, so it’s down to 75. We haven’t seen numbers that low since the mid-1980s. I should point out that killer whales around the world are doing fine, but this population is listed as endangered on both sides of the border of the U.S. and Canada.
They probably numbered 200-250 at one point, when they had a healthy environment and availability of their most important prey, Chinook salmon. But the damage to the environment and especially the depletion of their primary prey has taken a massive toll. One thing I like to point out to people is that after live capture ended in the region in 1976-1977, Southern Resident orcas were probably down to about 70. By the late nineties, they had recovered to nearly 100. But in the last 20 years they have fallen again dramatically.
What’s hurting them is, above all, the lack of available prey. The Columbia and Sacramento Rivers have been dammed, and we’ve seen a massive fall in Chinook salmon runs. Other threats include pollution, growing marine traffic and the controversial expansion of the oil pipeline close to Vancouver. Southern Residents don’t just rely primarily on Chinook salmon; they overwhelmingly rely on Chinook salmon from the Fraser River. And the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which has just been 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 had captured three orcas for the display industry. Let’s end back at the beginning with that story.
I had a very personal, as well as a scholarly, reason for writing this book because in the 1970s my father participated in live captures of orcas on both sides of the border and, as I was growing up, I saw him wrestle with some of the legacy and guilt of that.
I was nine years old when we returned to Pedder Bay. He didn’t tell me that’s why he wanted to visit. We were just renting a boat to go out on the water. But he began to tell us in detail the story of how he had captured orcas. Just as he was finishing the story, this pod of orcas entered Pedder Bay and started swimming and frolicking around our boat. I’d never been that close to wild killer whales, and a large male came so close that I could almost reach out and touch his fin.
It was an astonishing moment and my father had a really emotional response, almost an emotional breakdown. He was just crying, seeing these killer whales. Of course, I now know that it was wrapped up with all the guilt he felt, knowing that three of the four whales he’d taken out of these waters died in captivity. I don’t think he ever really got over the feeling of responsibility and was horrified later to learn that those were the last three Southern Residents ever taken out of the wild for captivity. So, in the process of writing this book, I was wrestling with my family’s responsibility in this story and our region’s responsibility for this iconic animal that has taught us so much.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.