September 21, 2020

A Whale of a Story

 By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

If you’ve been following my recent series on the lives of animals – admittedly, an escape and distraction from the dreadful sorrows of our time under the COVID cloud and the cruelties and violence in America these days perpetrated by us human animals – you will know that so far I have concentrated on the smaller and familiar creatures in our everyday world. So we have explored a bit about the lives of bats, prairie dogs, crows, cats, and the occasional stray dog who has managed stealthily to stroll into my stories. Now maybe it’s time to increase the scope of our focus to something in the megafauna range where we find animals of truly super-size dimensions. How about if we swim with whales for a while?

Lately I’ve been re-reading portions of the book, Beyond Words, that I alluded to in an earlier blog. Just to remind you, it was written by the naturalist and ecologist, Carl Safina, who works as a self-confessed hard-headed scientist but can’t help writing like a poet.

One section of his book describes his experiences while spending time with a man named Ken Balcomb who is a well-known marine biologist and one of the world’s leading experts on killer whales, which he has been researching for the last forty years. Balcomb lives up near Vancouver Island where in one of the straits off the particular island on which he lives, many killer whales make their home. Balcomb spends a lot of his time hanging out with these whales, whom he now knows well enough to identify individually, and Safina spent a lot of time hanging out with him, learning about these marvelous creatures.

Just as I drew extensively on a book by Rupert Sheldrake when I was writing about cats, so I will base this essay almost entirely on what I learned from Safina’s book. But to prevent confusion, let’s get one thing straight from the outset.

Killer whales (often called orcas, though Safina prefers to call them killer whales) are actually dolphins. They’re just whale-sized denizens of the ocean. In fact, they are the largest species of dolphins in the world. They can range in size from 23 to 32 feet and can weigh up to 6 tons! Like elephants, they can live up to 50 or 60 years, though some, if rarely, have lived beyond 80. Killer whales, like bats, use echolocation to communicate and hunt, but they can also communicate by making sounds that can travel for many miles.

As their name implies, they are ferocious predators. Up where Balcomb lives, there are two main types of killer whales. One is called "residents" and they feed primarily on salmon. The other, dubbed "transients," feast off of mammals. These two types tend to steer clear of each other.

One last thing before we begin to explore the lives of these mammoth but magnificent mammals. Their name is misleading. Although they can indeed be savage when it comes to their prey, they can actually be very gentle and playful, as we shall see, and there is no record of any human being having been attacked much less killed by any killer whale in the wild. In fact, quite the opposite, as we shall also discover.

For a brief introduction to some of the basic facts about the nature of killer whales, let’s begin with what Safina has to say about them on the first page of his account:

[Killer whales are] intelligent, maternal, long-lived, cooperative, intensely social, devoted to family. They are, like us, warm-blooded milk-makers, mammals whose personalities are really not much different from ours. They’re just a lot bigger. And notably less violent.

Now let me begin to elaborate on some of these features and eventually illustrate them through some of the stories about killer whales that Safina relates.

First, consider the social structure of the resident killer whales who particularly fascinated Safina. Like elephants, their basic social unit is a family headed by a matriarch around whom swim her children and her daughter’s children. But where the family unit differs from that of elephants is in regard to the male killer whales. They never leave their mothers; they remain with her for their entire lives. Thus, the mother-child bond among killer whales is extremely strong as long as the mother lives. But if she should die, so often do her children, especially her male offspring; they can’t live without her nurturance and guidance. The death rates for male children, thirty-years-old or higher, are anywhere from three to eight times that of comparably aged males with intact families. 

Now, let’s talk about how killer whales behave.  

One of the most striking things about them, and from an early age, is how sexual they are. They often masturbate against objects and males regularly engage in sex play with one another. They just seem to love sex, as one whale researcher commented: "Dolphins love to have sex and they have it a lot."

Not surprisingly, dolphins are very playful. They seem to love to cavort. Balcomb jokes that "they love to party." And their play tends to be frolicsome, and not aggressive at all. In contrast to chimps, for example, Safina says that they are more peaceful and goes on to comment:

For all their heft and dental weaponry, when they find themselves in close proximity they either socialize or leave. Researchers have long been impressed by the absence of aggression among free-living killer whales.

As the foregoing comments imply, dolphins have a highly developed need for social contact. Some researchers think it is even stronger and more intense than in humans. And research shows that if killer whales are deprived of social interaction, they suffer and can go into physical decline.

One of the points that Safina makes repeatedly about killer whales is that each of them has a distinct personality. They are individuals, just as we are, with their own personal ways and behaviors. And many researchers who have been able to "get up close and personal" with killer whales have been struck with their undeniable presence. Here are just a few such observations:

Dolphins and humans have not shared a common ancestor for millions of years. Yet for all the seeming estrangement of lives lived in liquid, when they see us they often come to play, and we greet them and can recognize in those eyes that someone very special is home. "There is someone in there. It’s not a human, but it is someone," says [whale researcher] Diana Reiss

[One researcher said] You realize this is not a reptile … This is somebody. When he looked at you, someone else said, his gaze "had need in it, and your empathy lit up right away." People saw "an awareness, a presence, a longing" [for contact].

It was hard to accept that level of awareness and intention in something that did not look in any way human. A sense washed over me that this orca was just as aware of living as I was … This was overwhelming.

Finally, according to Ken Balcomb:

A whale’s stare is much more powerful than a dog looking at you. A dog might want attention. The whales, it’s a different thing. It’s more like they’re searching inside you.

And any number of persons, whether they be researchers or simply others who have interacted with killer whales, have commented on the sense of awe and wonder that they inspire. 

One reason that killer whales evoke these reactions must surely be their obvious intelligence. Safina devotes a whole chapter to this subject, and although it’s clear that the intelligence of killer whales is different from ours, it is equally evident that it is highly developed. Furthermore, their neocortex has a greater amount of surface area relative to total brain size than humans brains do, and although humans have more cortical neurons than killer whales, the difference is only marginal. In any case, there is no doubt about how intelligent they are; they are fully conscious beings – like us.

And there is more to their intelligence, too. As with some of the other animals we have considered in this series, there is strong anecdotal evidence that they are telepathic. And since my previous blogs have explored this subject – which professionals call "animal psi," -- let’s now take some time to recount some of the stories that not only suggest that this faculty is highly developed in killer whales, but often gives rise to a sense of the uncanny. 

Because Safina is an avowed skeptic in these matters, he can’t resist entitling a long chapter in his book, "Woo Woo." Nevertheless, by the time he reaches the end of it, he is forced to admit that there are mysteries here he cannot quite explain away. And although he hangs onto his skeptical worldview, his last words are, "What in the world is going on?" Well, let’s see what you make of it. 

In fact, Safina seems to go out of his way and against his own prejudices to make a number of references to animal trainers who have worked with dolphins who cannot shake their sense that dolphins are telepathic. So we find statements like the following: "Then something happened that made me careful about my thoughts about whales ever since … They can read your mind. We trainers see this kind of stuff all the time." And again, "When the trainer at Marineland of the Pacific said that killer whales can read your mind, she wasn’t joking." Another researcher, who had given no indication that she was about to finish her work, wrote "the dolphins seemed to know that we were leaving and gave us a grand send-off. I have often wondered how they knew." And still another trainer, who confessed she was stupefied at how dolphins had seemingly intuited what she had wanted them to do (perform a novel trick) said "we don’t know how they do it." Safina himself could only wonder: "dolphin telepathy?"   

Safina does recount some stories to illustrate these mysteries that seem to point to the telepathic sensitivities of these whales but because of space limitations, I would prefer to focus on one other remarkable type of their behavior: rescues of people or other animals in distress. 

Perhaps one of the most paradoxical things about killer whales, despite the fact that they have been hunted down and savagely killed by humans for many years, is not only do they not respond in kind, but only with kindness itself. As Safina remarks, "The fact is, killer whales seem capable of random acts of kindness." However, I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Their acts of kindness are not random; they are targeted and deliberate.

For example, Balcomb told Safina of a number of instances, including one where he himself was involved, of getting lost in terrible fog without a GPS, when suddenly a group of killer whales appeared. Balcomb followed them for fifteen miles and found, when the fog lifted, he was home. In some cases, whales have led lost sailors safely to their port without even knowing the seaman’s destination – or did they?

For another, let me quote one that Safina himself was told by his own editor. He was kayaking off the Georgia coast  when…

"the wind and tide suddenly changed and conditions became challenging. He didn’t know the area well and was beginning to grow worried. Soon dolphins appeared, flanking him, seemingly piloting him. He went with them, and they brought him to an inlet where he could get to safely."

Now let me cite one such story at length in order to provide a sense of how uncanny some of these rescues seem to be.

Once, Alexandra Morton [a whale researcher] and an assistant were out in the open water of Queen Charlotte Strait in her inflatable boat when she was enveloped by a fog so thick she felt like she was "in a glass of milk." No compass. No view of the sun … A wrong hunch about the direction home would have brought them out into the open ocean. Worse, a giant cruise ship was moving closer in fog so reflective Morton could not tell where its sound was coming from. She imagined it suddenly splitting the fog before it crushed them.

Then, as if from nowhere, a black fin popped up. [And then several more.] As they clumped close to her tiny boat, Alexandra followed in the fog like a blind person with a hand on their shoulder. "I never worried," she recalled. "I trusted them with our lives." Twenty minutes later, she saw a materializing outline of their island’s massive cedars and rocky shoreline … The whales had taken Morton to her home.

Morton felt changed. "For more than twenty years, I have fought to keep the mythology of orcas out of my work. When others would regale a group with stories of an orca’s sense of humor or music appreciation, I’d hold my tongue … Yet there are times when I am confronted with profound evidence of something beyond our ability to scientifically quantify. Call them amazing coincidences if you like; for me they keep adding up … I can’t say whales are telepathic – I can barely say the word -- but I have no explanation for that day’s events. I have only gratitude and a deep sense of mystery that continues to grow." 

Why these killer whales are motivated to help us we can never know with certainty, but what is certain is that they do and such stories are legion. For another kind of frequent helping behavior, consider this remark of Safina’s: "From antiquity to recent times, stories recounting dolphins pushing distressed swimmers to the surface are too numerous to track." And then he proceeds to give some examples.

In some cases, they can even alert human beings to a life-threatening situation before it turns fatal. Consider this case:

One foggy day, the biologist Maddalena Bearzi was taking notes on a familiar party of nine bottlenose dolphins who’d cleverly encircled a school of sardines near the Malibu pier. "Just after they begin feeding, one of the dolphins in the group suddenly left the circle, swimming offshore at a high speed. In less than an instant, the other dolphins left their prey to follow."

Berzi thought this was very odd, so she followed, too. The upshot? She found "an inert human body with long, blond hair floating in the center of the dolphin ring. Berzi again: "Her face was pale and her lips were blue as I pulled her fully dressed and motionless body from the water."

Somehow she survived and said that she had been intent on committing suicide. The dolphins wouldn’t let her. They saved her life.

Why? All Safina could say is "Such things are profound."

But after recounting these and other cases, Safina is left to try to puzzle them out.

How do we explain the facts of so unexpected a truce [between killer whales and humans], so unilateral a peace? It seems to me that it is, yes, a big leap to go from the fact of no aggression to the idea that killer whales have chosen to be a benevolent presence and occasional protectors of lost humans. But what do whales think? How is it that all of world’s free-living killer whales have settled upon this one-way relationship of peacefulness with us? Before I encountered these stories, I was dismissive. Now I feel shaken out of certainty. I’ve suspended disbelief. It’s an unexpected feeling for me. The stories have forced open doors I had shut, doors to that greatest of all mental feats: the simple sense of wonder, and of feeling open to the possibility of being changed. 

Perhaps just from reading these stories, you, too, would be moved to wonder why these huge animals who can indeed be killers when it comes to other sea life have nevertheless formed such a regard for the welfare of human beings, which almost seems – dare I say it? – like a kind of love.

Toward the end of his book, Safina lets a psychologist by the name of Paul Spong have the final word about these killer whales, which pretty well sums up Safina’s own view about them.

Eventually my respect verged on awe. I concluded that Oricinus orca is an incredibly powerful and capable creature, exquisitely self-controlled and aware of the world around it, a being possessed of a zest for life and a healthy sense of humor and, moreover, a remarkable fondness for and interest in humans.

This would seem to the point to end this essay, but there is more to the story of these killer whales that must be added.

They are in trouble, and Ken Balcomb has been in mourning because he can see the writing on the water. It appears that these wondrous creatures to whom he has devoted his life, like so many species, may be doomed to extinction

Why?

There are several factors at play here. To begin with, in the 1960s and 1970s, many young whales were captured, which has led to a long-term problem. Without these whales to mature and breed, the population has been decreasing. Now their numbers, already down to 80, are continuing to decline. Balcomb says they are losing one or two a year.

But that isn’t the worst thing. These resident killer whales feed off salmon, but there is no salmon protection act, and the stocks have been declining because of over-fishing. When the salmon go to humans, they are not there in sufficient quantity to support these whales. On learning all this, Safina is moved to write ruefully, "First we took their children, then we destroyed their food supply." Balcomb tells him that in one of the three existing pods there is not one matriarch left to breed, and Safina remarks: "He looks at me while it sinks in: this whole family is doomed." Furthermore, over 40 percent of baby whales have died before they reach the age of even one year. If these trends continue, these pods will cease to exist in a few decades.

And that’s not the end of it either. We are also poisoning the oceans with our toxic chemicals, and they, too, are sickening and killing these whales. [According to Rebecca Giggs, in her book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, the earth’s most toxified animals are the killer whales who live in Washington’s Puget Sound.] And since whales are at the top of the food chain, they are particularly vulnerable, and the baby whales that are born are the recipients of this bitter fruit. No wonder so many of them die young.

As if that isn’t enough to break your heart, let me quote this passage to illustrate the latest assault on the lives of these whales.

Balcomb shows Safina some photographs of a three-year-old female named Victoria, and says of her: 

"A sweet little whale. A favorite of whale watchers here, very playful. Jumping all the time. Very outgoing and vivacious. A real charismatic whale. Just a sweetie.

Found dead. Look at these photos." Her young corpse looks battered to death. Hemorrhages all over her head, blood in her eyes and ear canals. These next images show her ear bones actually blown off their attachments. I’m trying to assimilate these images while Ken is saying … "We had whales on the hydrophones. It was night. Then we heard the navy sonar. And then, an explosion."

Ken explains: "When the shock wave hits, rapid compression of air in internal spaces such as the ears creates enough of a vacuum to make the adjacent blood vessels – which are pressurized – burst. Once burst, that’s it; they just continue bleeding … At less than a hundred yards, military sonar alone can also create fatal hemorrhaging."

Our U.S. Navy is killing these whales. It is continuing and getting worse. Balcomb believes that, worldwide, thousands of whales are being killed in this way.

There are more gruesome stories like Victoria’s in Safina’s book, but there is no point to give further examples. You can already see what we humans are doing to destroy these creatures who only want to befriend and play with us.

This, it seems, is what we humans do to our animals, and with impunity since they have no political rights. We either exploit them or eat them or, what we appear to do best, kill them. It goes without saying that there are many good and caring human beings, but as a species, has there ever been a more deadly predator on earth? We seem to have a penchant for destroying everything including now our own planet.

As for our megafauna, there are few left now. Our elephants and rhinos may well be extinguished by the end of the century, and we can only hope that our whales will survive somewhat longer. In the meantime, as we suffer from an increasingly hot planet, they will have to cope with living in waters that are not only no longer healthy for them but full of dangers they have no way to avert. Let us treasure them while we can.