SciSun: Whale, Well   Leave a comment

‘Killer’ whale is an oxymoron. It is true that these marine mammals can be determined hunters with wide-ranging territories, able to attack and kill almost any other animal in the oceans – including the Great White Shark (take that ‘Shark Week’!); but many Killer Whales (Oricinus orca) are happy to live their lives within compact and closely-connected family groups, in relatively small bays and straits close to land, where the only thing they ‘hunt’ is salmon.

In Puget Sound, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean off of Washington state, lives a small group of less than 100 orcas known as part of the ‘southern resident’ population of killer whales. The entire species of these whales – although actually they are more closely related to Dolphins than true whales (or does that mean dolphins are actually very small whales?!) – are generally accepted to belong to one of three very different and distinct groups: Resident whales that live in the same areas year-round and for multiple generations; Transient populations that move between areas on a more or-less regular schedule; and Offshore, or open-water groups, living far from land and traveling long distances. The whales, which can be found in almost all oceans and every sea from the Arctic to Antarctic, is further categorized as Northern or Southern; and one of four types ‘A’; ‘B’; ‘C’; or ‘D’. It’s rumored there are also urban and suburban populations, although these last two must be the whales that live in aquariums.

Scientists had grouped all Killer Whales as the exact same species, more-or-less interchangeable, and any difference in behavior or appearance is just due to individual living conditions and food sources. Seen one Killer Whale, seen them all. But about 30 years ago, researchers began noticing not only do specific populations of whales behave differently, they also exhibit distinctive coloration and markings, have exclusive ways of interacting, moving, and working together; and even share unique sounds and vocalizations that are only found within environmentally-specific groups. While these differences aren’t enough for each population to be considered an individual species, today it’s generally recognized and accepted there are enough genetic and ecologically unique differences between populations for each to be considered as a separate, unique population and all Killer Whales aren’t, in fact, the same. Of course the Orcas knew this all along and maybe were trying to tell us, but not many people have been listening to dolphins since the ‘Flipper’ show was on TV in the ’60’s.

While the native people considered Orcas sacred and they were believed to live in complex societies under the sea (maybe those early people were on to something….), today the whale has developed a bad reputation and many consider them, well, killers (probably because of their name. Time for a marketing make-over). It is true that killer whales can be very dangerous and there are documented reports of the animals working together to chase, kill, and eat seals, penguins, true whales many time the size of individual Orcas, and other sea life. Some fishermen report Orcas attacking boats, although it’s certain the whales were only trying to get to the fish the boats had netted. Killer whales have killed people, although never has a whale been known to purposely attack and kill a human, and any deaths are probably due to misunderstanding or confusion between the human and the animal. Whenever there’s an interaction between a person and an animal that’s over 20 feet long and weighs 5 tons or more, the human is obviously at a disadvantage.

The whales are so happy about this news, they're jumping for joy.  Or maybe they're jumping for salmon, it's hard to tell.

The whales are so happy about this news, they’re jumping for joy. Or maybe they’re jumping for salmon, it’s hard to tell.

So because of their largely-undeserved reputation, Killer Whales are considered by many people as threats to humans and human activities, like fishing. The Puget Sound population has been targeted as a hazard to the local area by groups who want the whales gone, and eliminate one source of competition from commercial fishermen. But in an ironic turn of events, in trying to prove the animals are dangerous it’s actually been discovered these Puget Sound whales are generally harmless, laid back, and just want to live their lives near Seattle. Maybe it’s the coffee. This whale population is so distinct, and there are so few of them, officials have determined this group deserves Endangered Species protection and their salmon food source must be carefully monitored and safeguarded from pollution and environmental damage. Which is a win-win for the whales, friends-of-whales, and the environment – although maybe not for the commercial fishermen, who have to continue sharing the ocean with Orcas. And probably not good news for the salmon, either. But as long as no one is greedy and everyone only takes what he needs, there should be enough to go around and for now, for this small and unique population in Puget Sound, everything is well, for this Whale.


Michonne Says: Anything that’s named ‘Killer’ isn’t something I’d want to be around. Maybe some of those whales are really nice, but no one will ever know because their name is so scary.

Posted August 25, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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