A Bit About Killer Whales
November 30, 2013

A Bit About Killer Whales

I have just learned and been reminded of a few interesting things about killer whales, also known as orca, so I thought I’d share.

The first thing is that they are not whales at all (I expect people know that already, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, in case we’re introduced to one at a party and end up embarrassing ourselves). They are actually dolphins, and have the intelligence and societal tendencies that other kinds of dolphins have. Whales and dolphins are related, and killer whales are not the only dolphins referred to more commonly as whales. However, the name killer whale is actually an inaccurate translation of the Spanish term for them, which should have been translated as ‘whale killers.’ This is because, as the BBC’s QI (Quite Interesting) points out, “Unlike most whales, they’re gregarious, have teeth and eat large animals (including whales) rather than krill or plankton.”

I have also just this second learned from the same site that female killer whales go through the menopause, the only animal other than humans to have a “clear-cut menopause followed by many more years of life.” Wow.

QI describes killer whales as ‘the second best hunters’ after humans. They hunt in packs, and employ many cunning techniques to capture their prey. They have followed families of whales hundreds of miles until finally the whales become exhausted and an easy catch. They eat the babies, primarily. They also knock seals off rocky perches, including by swimming in formation in order to create a wave which sweeps over the top of the rock and knocks the seal off. Another bizarre technique is to vomit into the water and thereby attract birds such as herring gulls, which approach to eat the vomit. Using their own stomach contents as bate, they can easily catch their prey.

Their young are meticulously trained in all of these techniques. When they are about to knock a seal off a rock with an artificial wave, they look around to make sure the youngsters are watching closely. Sometimes, they will catch and release a seal several times just so that the juvenile can observe the process and take it in fully.

Killer whales very rarely do any harm to humans in the wild, but the 2013 documentary movie Blackfish showed just how dangerous, and affected, killer whales can be in captivity. It focuses on Tilikum, a killer whale captured near Iceland in the 1980s and used at different theme parks, first Sealand in Canada and then SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. During that time, Tilikum was responsible for the deaths of three people, which experts put down to his psychological trauma at being in captivity. The Daily Mirror said: “He has lost many of the teeth in his lower jaw from biting on metal gates and needs daily vet checks to flush out dead fish from the gaping holes left in his gums.” He was severely bullied by two females he was randomly thrown into a holding pool with.

Let’s be honest, we barely know enough about human psychology and mental illness at the moment, so those issues are inevitably going to be a slow learning curve in regard to other intelligent creatures. Maybe our ignorance is something we can consider before throwing them into watery cages, though.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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