Wild Kingdom: Orcas Attack A Pod Of Sperm Whales

Orcas are fascinating. But they are consummate killers, and if you are a species they will eat they are fearsome.

This video was shot off the coast of Sri Lanka, by Brett Heinrichs (just more evidence that orcas are everywhere):

How do sperm whales defend themselves against smaller, faster orcas? Do they rely on bulk (in which case the calves are a target), or can they do damage to the orcas?

Here’s an account, compiled from Heinrichs comments on the YouTube page:

April 19, 2013, Five to Six Orcas (Killer Whales) attack a pod of six Sperm whales of the coast of Sri Lanka. At the end of the video, we jump in the water and captured the first underwater footage of Orcas attacking Sperm whales.

It was truly amazing. I have been swimming with a lot of great creatures in the ocean (blue whales, tiger sharks, whale sharks, manta rays…), but this tops it all.

Alternatively, the Orcas may have been attacking the 3 sides of the pod we were not on, driving the sperm whales into us. At times we were 3 to 5 feet from the Sperm whales. Visibility was good, but not great. While initially we feared aggression from the Orcas, at no time did the Orcas show aggression towards us.

I can tell you that we were very hesitant to get in the water with no precedent for how the Orcas might behave in this attack scenario. Upon entry into the water, they came to us and checked us out then ignored us and resumed their attack. The generally avoided us. The Sperm whales appeared to pick up on this and came closer to us for safety.

I believe the Orcas killed the youngest calf. We saw 6 Sperm whales upon arrival and 5 eventually left the scene. At one point we saw the youngest calf separated from the pod and being hammered by Orcas. The underwater video and images are a first ever and being distributed through other media channels. Not sure how long that process will take.

Have to give the guy credit for getting in the water without knowing how he would be received. The underwater footage will be very interesting to see.

Blackfish Is About To Premiere At Sundance

As many of you might know, for the past 18 months I’ve been helping documentary film-maker Gabriela Cowperthwaite make a documentary about Tilikum, Dawn Brancheau and SeaWorld. She first contacted me about the idea after reading Killer In The Pool, and the aim of the film is to try and help people understand why Tilikum’s life resulted in Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death.

Now the film is finished. It’s called Blackfish, and it will be shown to an audience for the first time on Saturday evening at the Sundance Film Festival (here’s the film’s page).

We’ve been flying below the radar, but here’s an early mention about the film, in a story about Hollywood and orcas. And Indiewire recommended it as one of 20 films to see. They also posted the only clip of Blackfish to be released so far. It’s the intro to the movie, so just a taste of what follows (click the image to play):

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 3.59.49 PM

I just arrived in Park City for Sundance, and will soon be joined by the full production team as well as many of the trainers interviewed in the film. I’ll be posting about the premiere and the Sundance experience over the coming week, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here is Gabriela talking about Blackfish:

California Farmers vs. Southern Resident Killer Whales (and Salmon)

Just focused on this. So farming interests want to delist Southern Resident killer whales as an endangered species because they want to pump more water out of the salmon rivers (which pressures salmon populations, which in turn puts pressure on the SRKW population).

Their argument, according to this report (and, yes, I am paraphrasing): SRKW are not that genetically distinct from other killer whales and there are lots of killer whales around the world, so who cares if they disappear from Puget Sound.

SEATTLE — The federal government is reviewing whether Puget Sound orcas should keep their endangered status.

NOAA Fisheries said Monday the review was prompted by a petition from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation(PLF) seeking to delist the killer whales from the Endangered Species Act. The petition asserts that orcas aren’t in danger of becoming extinct because they’re part of a larger population of thriving whales.

NOAA listed southern resident killer whales as endangered in 2005. The orcas frequent Washington’s Puget Sound. They also spend time in the open ocean. There are currently 86 of these whales.

The agency has a year to decide whether it should delist the orcas. It says accepting the petition does not suggest a proposal to delist will follow.

The petition was filed in August on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy, and Reliability, as well as two California Central Valley farmers.

PLF says that the farmers’ water supply is threatened by the orca’s ESA listing.

I’m tempted to point out that the existence of killer whales in Puget Sound is an enormous benefit to coastal communities. So PLF is proposing to enrich one industry at the cost of another. But I don’t want to put this thing on pure economic terms. Instead I want to simply ask: is making money more important than preserving this?

Wild Orca And Dolphin Show

Thanks to the ever vigilant and always interesting Pete Thomas, a great reminder that orcas and dolphins are capable of putting on some pretty impressive spontaneous shows out there in their natural world.

Here’s a dolphin stampede off South Africa filmed by Chase Jarvis from explorer Mike Horn’s sailboat.

And these orcas in the Sea Of Cortez did a nice job of showing some boaters the joy of being a wild orca. Doesn’t get any better than that.

Orca Sea Of Cortez

Orca Sea Of Cortez

Orca Sea Of Cortez

Orca Sea Of Cortez

The Meaning Of A Dead Orca

It’s hard to see the nobility, or the preservation of worthwhile values, in this.

This orca was killed with a harpoon, fired from a speedboat off St. Vincent and The Grenadines. The photo was posted by the West Indian Wildlife Conservation Society (WIWCS), and further disseminated by the American Cetacean Society. According to the WIWCS: “It happens almost on a weekly basis on the west coast of Saint Vincent, however, usually the victims are Pilot Whales. This is the second or third time an Orca has been killed off of St. Vincent.”

It’s of course terrible to see such an intelligent and socially sophisticated animal slaughtered (and the Facebook comments are running wild with opprobrium). But the hard reality is that traditional whale hunts, or the claim of “tradition” to protect whale hunting, will not go away until the economic needs of the hunters are addressed (subsidized Japanese whalers excepted; that’s a whole other twisted national identity issue).

Just one more example of the hard fact that we need to see the world–and its peoples and economies–as deeply interconnected, and act on the enormous disparities in wealth, before we can truly address the cruel practices that poverty breeds.

And, just as an aside, the slaughterhouse and industrial farming practices that produce the meat eaten by many who are outraged by whale hunting, are equally cruel and barbaric. So there is an issue of moral consistency that needs to be addressed, as well.

Dead Orcas In Korea?

Trying to get the story behind a brutal photoset, which appears to show a number of killer whales captured and killed in Korea Nov. 24.

Anyone know any the details regarding what is shown in these pics?

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Anita for finding this article, which (via a very messy Google translate) seems to say that three orcas (one male and two females) were bycatch and died in a fishing net. It also seems (and the Google translation was very hard to understand, so can’t be sure) that the Korean fisheries authorities found the orcas being sold via an illegal auction and are investigating.

UPDATE 2: Commenter Wikie shows with news articles that these pics come from a 2008 event. It IS NOT recent (even though the original FLICKR pics are dated Nov. 24 of this year.

Thanks for all the info. A great example of the power of crowd-sourcing.

Listening To Whales

I guess today is natural history day. Because here is a very cool story on NPR about killer whale and pilot whale dialects (thanks to Michael for sharing). Check it:

And if you are interested, or think you have a good ear for “whale,” you can be help scientists sort out whale dialects at the Whale Song Project.

Are Wild Orca Captures About To Begin Again?


The orca, the largest dolphin and pack predato...
Image via Wikipedia

Capturing killer whales from the wild has always been enormously controversial: first in the Pacific Northwest, where the first captures took place, and then in Iceland, where the marine park industry went after the Pacific Northwest capture industry was shut down (Iceland eventually shut it down, too). Marine parks, acutely aware of the bad publicity that came from taking killer whales from their wild pods, developed the techniques to breed killer whales in captivity, and since the mid-1980s the majority of killer whales in marine parks have been captive bred.

But it would be wrong to assume that killer whale captures in the wild are a matter for history. Killer whales are enormously valuable to marine parks around the world, and breeding them in captivity is not a simple matter. Recently, according to the Orca Home website, Russia extended a permit for the live capture of killer whales in Russian waters, and Japan might, too:

February 6, 2011:
Capture plans in Russia and Japan

Russia has extended the permit for allowing up to 10 killer whales to be captured from the wild, reports the Russian Orca Project.
And there rumours that Taiji has applied for permits to capture 5 orcas, one to replace Nami who was sold from Taiji to Nagoya and died on 14 January this year, one for Taiji and the others are probably destined for new projects in China.

It’s been a long time since the world has seen wild captures, and new captures would be highly controversial. Hardy Jones of BlueVoice.org, has long tracked the situation in Japan, and produced this video about a 1997 capture:

A lot less is known about Russian orcas, but a friend steered me toward this video that documents the the lives of killer whales that live off the Kamchatka Peninsula:

Part 1

Part 2 (which includes video of a 2003 capture operation that goes sadly wrong, starting at about 1:30)

I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening in Japan and Russia. No matter what you think of marine parks, I find it hard to believe even marine park enthusiasts can or would support this inarguably cruel and brutal process of procuring killer whales for family entertainment.

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Do Orcas At Marine Parks Injure One Another? More Photos…

Loro Parque's Killer Whales

Last September I looked at the question of killer whales injuring other killer whales at marine parks (aggression within wild pods is very rare). Recently, I came across these pictures of some killer whales from the Loro Parque marine park in the Canary Islands. In 2006 SeaWorld loaned four killer whales to Loro Parque: Keto (a 10-year old male) and Tekoa (a five-year old male) were shipped from SeaWorld Texas; and Kohana (a 3-year old female) and Skyla (a 2-year old female) were shipped from SeaWorld Florida.

Part of the theory for why marine park orcas injure one another is that the groupings they find themselves in at marine parks are artificial. The groupings have more to do with the park’s needs than they do with family, or orca type ((i.e. killer whales with Icelandic roots might be placed with killer whales that have Pacific roots). And the groupings change as killer whales are moved around from one park to another for breeding, or any number of other reasons (including the need to sometimes separate warring killer whales).

In contrast, killer whale groupings in the wild are much more homogeneous, family-based, and stable. They speak the same language. The social order is set along matriarchal lines and killer whales settle into their place over decades. So it is not surprising that there is evidence (see the previous post for some of it) that killer whales in marine parks are much more prone to beating on each other as the social dynamic in marine parks is much more fluid, and the killer whales are less tightly bonded by language and genetics.

This, of course, is not an aspect of marine park life that marine parks or their supporters are eager to acknowledge or address. So it is always useful to see pictures that help convey what is happening in the pools.

When the four SeaWorld killer whales arrived at Loro Parque in 2006, and were put together in the pools, a new social grouping was created. That demanded a new social order, which in turn meant some beatdowns as the killer whales tried to sort themselves out. These pictures show just part of the result:

These two show Kohana’s dorsal fin and tail fluke, after she was bitten by Keto:

And these two pictures show young Skyla’s raggedy dorsal fin after Kohana went after her:

If you have any photos that document this phenomenon of orca on orca aggression in marine park pools, please send them to me and I will post them as well. It is just one of the many factors that affects the life and psychology of killer whales in captivity (for a detailed report on all the factors that contribute to killer whale stress at marine parks, go here).

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Two Former Orca Trainers Document The Deadly Stresses Of Captivity

Since the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau almost one year ago, the world has been learning a lot about more about the reality of life in marine parks for killer whales.

Now two former trainers have just released a powerful report that captures the full range of stresses suffered by orcas in captivity, stresses that likely contributed to the death of Dawn Brancheau (as well as a trainer named Alexis Martinez as a marine park in the Canary Island two months earlier).

(Note: Images are from the report)

The former trainers, Jeff Ventre and John Jett (now a doctor and a professor, respectively), worked as trainers at SeaWorld Orlando (including with Tilikum) for a combined total of 12 years, and both knew Dawn Brancheau. The stresses they catalog include: aggression between whales, medical issues, captive breeding practices, and the total disconnect between marine park life and the natural world and social structures killer whales are used to in the wild.


In particular, Jett and Ventre break new ground by explaining how life at marine parks leads killer whales to damage their teeth:

Social strife and boredom accompanying orca captivity also contribute to broken teeth. Steel gates are the primary method of separating orcas prior to training sessions, shows, or when aggressive tensions exist between animals (e.g. Kayla and Kalina). It is common for separated whales to bite down on the horizontal metal bars, or to “jaw-pop” through the gates as they display aggression at each other. In addition, under-stimulated and bored animals also “chew” metal bars and mouth concrete pool corners, like the main stage at SWF. As a consequence, tooth fragments can sometimes be found on the pool bottoms following these displays. This breakage leaves the pulp of some teeth exposed.

This behavior, and the resulting broken teeth and exposed pulp, prompts SeaWorld to drill out broken or worn-down teeth to prevent abscess and infection. The resulting bore holes require trainers to irrigate the teeth multiple times each day (the authors note that SeaWorld trainers tell visitors this is evidence of the superior dental care the whales receive), and might be a vector for some of the mysterious infections which often seem to be the cause of death in marine park killer whales.


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