By Patty Beaven
I’m going to start off this post by stating, for the record, I truly adore orcas. When I was five years old, I wanted to be a “Shamu” trainer. I did end up working with marine mammals and having a very fulfilling career that included rescuing and rehabilitating manatees, giving enrichment to polar bears, playing with sea lions, and building the most incredible relationship with a special bottlenose dolphin, but that original dream to work with killer whales never came to pass. Don’t worry, I am completely okay with that. I got the impression that orcas were kind of like the divas of the ocean. Snobby. Cliquish. Stuck up. I had no desire to work with animals like that.
Eventually, life brought me to the Pacific Northwest. Living on Whidbey Island, I can appreciate people’s deep infatuation with the local population of orcas. They’re our neighbors. Really cool, popular neighbors who will never invite you over to hang out with them because, yeah, you’re not part of the “in crowd”.
I know my opinion on orcas in captivity don’t jive with most others’ living on Whidbey Island. I’m not actually here to debate that point. I want to talk about orca culture here in Puget Sound.
Yes, orcas in the ocean have a culture. It’s as complex as human societies, too. We are lucky to have the most observed, recorded, and studied population of orcas in the world. Ever since the mid 1970s when we decided it was high time we learn about our Northwest neighbors instead of spreading false fear that propagated in the 1960s, local scientists have revolutionized how we look at ocean life.
Killer whales are like chimpanzees of the sea. Yeah, chimpanzees are a good comparative. Most people don’t realize what assholes chimpanzees are to rival troops, or even to other, lesser animals. Orcas are just like that. Except, they don’t kill other “rival” pods. They don’t have rivals. The two types of orcas we see around the Puget Sound are our Southern Resident pods, in the ecotype of “resident” whales, and the migrating pods that travel from Alaska to California and stop over in Washington for a bit to eat some seals and go on their merry way are called “Transients”. Here is what’s interesting. The resident orcas eat mainly Chinook salmon. That’s it. This is why our salmon eating habits can have such a drastic effect on orca populations, because these “killers” only kill salmon. The transients, however, are the whales that gave orcas their insidious names and reputations. Ancient sailors would see these large “devil fish” attack and kill other whales and they were dubbed “whale killers”. Time passed and the name got switched to killer whales. The ancient sailors were observing transient whales, the only ones known to go after the largest prey on earth- baleen whales. The two ecotypes don’t even eat the same food. They don’t care if the others are in the same area because they aren’t competition for food sources.
However, this is where the niceties end between the two groups. The Southern Resident orcas are divided into J, K, and L pods. They rarely come together, but if they do, there is possibility of mating between pod members, maybe a little tussle, I don’t know, possibly games amongst the youngsters. They’re cool with each other.
If a resident pod and a transient pod accidentally meet up, they go in opposite directions and do not socialize or interact with each other in any way, shape, or form. Think about that for a moment. Orcas have a culture amongst their pods, and while they are okay with their local neighbors, they do not socialize with their visiting neighbors.
Some scientists are starting to think that transient orcas and resident orcas may be of different species. I don’t think it’s quite that complicated. It may be anthropomorphic, but I think the answer to why orcas don’t socialize outside their own pods is because, well, they’re xenophobic. That’s right. I was wrong when I thought orcas were just snobbish divas. They’re little Trumpettes swimming around their ocean and shunning those other orcas who are different from their own pod.
“Mommy, I want to go play with that other little orca in that group?”
“Oh, no Tommy, not THAT group! That group of orcas eats WHALES!”
“That’s weird. Does Harry, the little orca we had over the other week, does HE eat whales?”
“No, he’s a good orca who eats only fish! That’s the way we live, and we don’t socialize with the weird whale-eating orcas.”
Seems as though we have more in common with our ocean dwelling neighbors than we thought!