I did it! Today I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of Alaska Southeast. All of my hard work over the last four years has all been for one thing—the whales. I will use this degree to learn more about these amazing, charismatic animals and to help conserve their populations. I can’t wait to see what the next adventure will be!
Births are exciting. The arrival of a newborn into a family is something to celebrate, both in human and killer whale society.
The vocal behavior of resident killer whales undergoes a significant change in the days immediately proceeding the birth of a new calf. Each family group has its own unique calls that act as a “family badge” of sorts. When a calf is born, the whales increase the use of these calls after birth for up to two weeks. There are often increased rates of excitement calls as well.
Killer whale calves are not much different than toddlers —they often wander away from their mothers and many have strikingly independent personalities. It may be crucial for a newborn to quickly learn the family calls in order to recognize family members and maintain contact when they go a little too far astray. It is also vital for later in life as they will stay with their family members for their entire life.
This is a 2017 photo of AX87 and a new calf, probably born in 2016.
An AP pod female coming back down from an impressively high breach. She was doing what is called “popcorn” or “popcorning” by some whale researchers—multiple successive breaches in a very short period of time!
At first glance, this photo seems alarming—AP12’s ribs are prominent, suggesting she may be ill or not getting enough to eat.
This is a perfect example of how a single photo taken at a strange angle can make healthy killer whales look emaciated! In reality, AP12 is a chunky, rotund whale. After I took this photo, I watched her cavort around with her family, with no ribs visible whatsoever. Evaluating a killer whale’s body condition can be tricky and conclusions should never be made based off one photo taken at a weird angle like this one!
Long-term field studies of resident killer whales have resulted in a bit of a unique situation in the world of population biology: every single individual is known and documented. This holds true for the northern and southern resident killer whale populations.
In Alaska, however, there are still occasional undocumented pods of killer whales that pop up. This male belongs to one of those “mystery” pods. I have had only a handful encounters with this male and his equally unfamiliar companions. Curiously, I have only seen them in the company of more well known pods, such as AX27 pod, AP pod, and AS30 pod, never by themselves. It seems that even though they are strangers to us, they are old friends to the documented pods! I love a little bit of mystery and the fleeting glimpses I’ve had of this male and his family have left me wanting to know more about their pod structure and movements.
Did you know that in 1983, SeaWorld attempted to capture 100 of Alaska’s killer whales? SeaWorld had been barred from capturing in Washington and British Columbia, so they looked farther north to acquire more killer whales for their parks. They had received a permit from NMFS to temporarily capture 100 whales in Alaskan waters to obtain blood samples, extract teeth, and take weight/length measurements. While 90 whales would be released, 10 would be kept and shipped off to their parks in California, Florida, and at the time, Ohio.
Naturally, this did not sit well with Alaskans. The proposed area of the captures, Prince William Sound, is an important region for the local resident killer whales and people feared captures could deplete the population and cause remaining whales to become scared of humans. The Tlingit people, who revere killer whales, branded the captures and cruel and exploitative. Some fishermen and environmentalists threatened to interfere with any of SeaWorld’s capture operations. Coincidentally, SeaWorld failed to file an environmental impact statement prior to issuance of their permit—several groups, including the Sierra Club, challenged the permit in court on this basis. Their permit was voided by a federal judge in 1985 and SeaWorld was not allowed to conduct the proposed captures.
Knowing that the whales I study and love could have been subjected to cruel procedures or confined to tanks to splash tourists in Florida sends a shiver up my spine. The removal of even one female whale would have had profound impacts on the pods—a productive female can leave as many as 15 descendants over 3 generations. Had even a few of these whales been captured, I might not have had the privilege to view the whales I see today! I am extremely grateful Alaskans stood up to SeaWorld and prevented them from disrupting Alaska’s wild whale populations.
Education matters. As a naturalist and a marine biology student, I am deeply entrenched in all things whale, killer or otherwise. I view them as an extension of myself, and it’s not uncommon for me to react to the phrase “killer whale” as if I heard somebody call my name.
When I first became a naturalist, it was startling to me how little most passengers know about whales. It is so easy for us, entrenched in our whale-centric circles, to forget that to most people, whales are foreign. These are creatures many only see in films or photographs. When I am asked questions like “Are orcas and killer whales the same thing?” I am reminded how crucial education is! Whenever we see whales on our tours, I make it a priority to ensure every passenger has a chance to learn something new, even if it means lugging my laptop and camera around to 70 different people to explain how photo-ID works. The only thing that makes me happier than seeing whales is seeing people’s faces light up as they are introduced to the wonderful world of whale science.
Today (3/19/19) is Taxonomy Appreciation Day! I can’t think of a better day to clear up some misinformation about killer whale taxonomy. The most common misconception about killer whales I encounter is: “they are dolphins, not whales.” This statement is both true and false.
If we look at their classification, we can see that killer whales are indeed dolphins because they belong to the family Delphinidae, which includes all species of oceanic dolphins. If we move one step above the family classification, we see that they also belong to the infraorder Odontoceti, aka toothed whales. Odontoceti encompasses all cetaceans that have teeth. This includes sperm whales, beaked whales, belugas/narwhals, porpoises, river dolphins, and oceanic dolphins. All dolphins, including killer whales, are just small toothed whales!
I have noticed this orca/whale/dolphin misconception seems to be increasing, and alarmingly, some reputable organizations are perpetuating it. So remember: all dolphins are whales but not all whales are dolphins! Note: the taxa designations highlighted here are based off information provided in my marine mammalogy class—these sometimes differ depending on the source (i.e. suborder vs. parvorder vs. infraorder) but this is correct to the best of my knowledge.
One topic I have been pondering lately is the issue of captive killer whales intentionally stranding themselves on slide-outs in marine parks. It’s often cited as an abnormal, stereotypical, and or/dangerous behavior by those against captivity and viewed as normal by those in favor of it. Typical online debates around this issue usually go the following way:
1. Video or photo of a captive killer whale intentionally stranding on a slide-out is posted.
2. Somebody claims the behavior is unnatural and dangerous.
3. Another person refutes this, citing populations of killer whales in the wild that use intentional stranding as a hunting method.
4. Someone points out captive killer whales are not from these populations, therefore, it is not natural and a sign of abnormal behavior in captivity.
I do not support killer whale captivity myself, and I used to believe with certainty that intentional stranding by captive killer whales was absolutely evidence that captivity altered their normal behaviors. Over the course of my marine biology degree, I’ve had the opportunity to study killer whales, both through the literature and with personal observations in the wild. One thing I’ve learned is that their behavior is often far more complex than we think and when it comes to judging whether or not a behavior is “abnormal” in captivity, a lot more scrutiny and critical thought is required than is typically given. I think the topic of intentional stranding is one of those things that may require a closer look.
In the Wild
In the wild, two populations of killer whales are known to intentionally strand on beaches: the killer whales around Punta Norte in Argentina and those in the Crozet Islands.
Female killer whale stranding to catch a southern elephant seal in Punta Norte. Photo: Wildlife Trails.
In Argentina, both adult males, adult females, and juveniles will intentionally strand on the sloping beaches in order to capture southern elephant seals and South American sea lion pups. In some cases, stranded adults have been observed capturing sea lions and then “flinging” them over to stranded juveniles, apparently in an attempt to teach them how to hunt.
In the Crozet Island, two forms of intentional stranding have been documented, one that involves strand hunting for elephant seals and another known as “social stranding play,” in which adult females, calves, and juveniles intentionally strand themselves in non-hunting contexts. This stranding play behavior may occur in adult females as a way to further refine their hunting techniques, or it may be for social purposes, such as establishing social standings/dominance within a group. In contrast to Punta Norte, male killer whales do not strand-hunt in the Crozet Islands, likely due to their large size and high risk of becoming stuck.
Slide-outs are raised platforms within killer whale tanks, typically covered in a shallow amount of water. They are frequently used in shows and for husbandry activities that require whales to be out of the water for a procedure, such as taking urine samples.
Katina on a slide-out in SeaWorld Orlando. Photo: The Dolphin Project
Captive killer whales have been observed to intentionally strand themselves on slide-outs outside of husbandry or show contexts. In the video below, Makani, a juvenile male, voluntarily strands himself on a slide-out:
When videos like this are posted online, they are often met with backlash. One of the most common arguments is that stranding in captive killer whales is entirely “unnatural” because no captive killer whale originates from either the Punta Norte or Crozet Island populations. Usually, this is followed by the assertion that their bodies are not adapted to be out of the water on slide-outs. However, we must think critically about this. There is currently no evidence that either the Punta Norte or Crozet Island killer whales are more physiologically adapted to stranding than any other killer whales, including captive ones. I see no reason why it would be more dangerous for a captive killer whale to intentionally strand than a wild killer whale.
It seems strand hunting and stranding play techniques are cultural. Culture, which is defined as “information or behavior—shared within a community—which is acquired from conspecifics through some form of social learning,” is very prevalent in killer whale populations around the world. The strand hunting techniques in wild killer whales are likely not instinctual––rather, they are probably cultural and learned as calves, passed down from mother to offspring and learned from observation or direct teaching. There does not seem to be any reason other populations of killer whales could not learn to display similar hunting techniques if provided the right environment, including captive killer whales.
I don’t think many people consider that captive killer whales are likely capable of cultural learning as well. While they live in a radically different environment than wild whales, they are still killer whales with the same brains and learning capabilities. Perhaps strand hunting in wild killer whales got its start when an intrepid individual hastily and successfully chased and captured a sea lion on a beach. Perhaps it shared this information with its conspecifics, and the behavior spread throughout the population, eventually morphing into play behavior (or perhaps the other way around?). In captivity, this behavior started with a human trainer teaching the whales how to slide-out, and the whales subsequently have taught other whales to do so. At this point, many people will say “But it’s unnatural!”, but from what I have watched in some videos, it is not so fundamentally different than what is occurring in wild killer whale populations. In the video below, Wikie, an adult female, is seen pushing her son Keijo onto a slide-out and is accompanied by her other son, Moana:
“I also observed, in calm sea conditions, female A3
pushing her calf, A5, with her head to strand it. She then
stranded farther onshore, in front of her calf, so that she could
assist it in returning to deep water. The adult females were
always observed returning to the water from the shore at the side
of the calf, apparently to help it roll back into the water.”
Here, Wikie does not strand on the slide-out with Keijo, rather, she waits in the water for him to return before pushing him back up. Some have interpreted her behavior as malicious, as trying to permanently strand him to kill him. I do not see an aggressive, infanticidal animal in this video: I see a mother teaching her calf how to strand on a slide-out, which seems strengthened by the fact her mother, Sharkan, was known to do this to her as well.
I think perhaps this is what occurs with intentional stranding in captive killer whales as well. That said, there are some instances where stranding on the slide-outs may have negative implications, such as if it becomes a repetitive behavior or when an animal gets stuck.
It is important to view the behavior of captive killer whales through a critical lens and understand the contexts and the roots of the behavior before we jump the conclusion of “it’s unnatural, so it must be bad.” Killer whales are amazingly complex and intelligent––what plays out in the wild may also be occurring in captivity, just in a very different way.