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The mystery of the Orcas
I have a confession. My nearly 20-year-old daughter’s surly stage ended years ago, but I remain suspicious of her motives, such as the recent occasion when she stopped and expressed interest around what it was I was writing. I could have simply told her, but that wasn’t the card that I played.
“Why do you want to know?” I asked looking up, attempting to take her measure.
The truth is that we are at an impasse over The Warning. She is a subscriber, which I deeply appreciate, but an unpaid one. She believes that she is owed a free subscription by birthright. I believe this should be a great and valuable use of her discretionary income. Because we are related, each position isn’t likely to yield anytime soon…
She sat down and continued the conversation. I asked her what she wanted me to write about. She raised a shared passion about one of Earth’s most magnificent living beings, so that is my focus for today’s essay — something a bit unexpected from me.
Millions of Americans will wade into ocean waters this summer. Many will be thinking about sharks and specifically the Great White, which has long been erroneously labeled the Apex predator of the Earth’s ocean. Of course, that is fake news, propaganda and hype from the voracious “Shark Week” industrial complex (joking — kind of).
The Earth’s oceans cover two-thirds of the planet’s surface, and is the home to a stunning array of life, including highly intelligent mammals who can think, grieve, communicate, and live within highly structured societies. One of them — the Orca — is the true apex predator of the sea and a fellow mammal with tremendous intelligence.
I heard the Orcas before I saw them. The kayaks cut silently through frigid water in the Johnstone Strait off of Vancouver Island. A shroud of mist covered the shore and hung over the water. The only sound was water lapping against the fiberglass hull and the small splash from a paddle carving the ocean. The water was impossibly clean. Pristine might be the best description. The world was silent, tranquil and still when the first breath punctuated and echoed the air. There was one and then another and another. It was a sound that pierced the air and dissipated slowly. It echoed through and around the midst. I sat still and silently and then they appeared. It was a pod of transient Orcas that fish the British Columbian coast. Majestic and graceful didn’t begin to describe it. I felt a profound sense of peace, gratitude and pure joy. For an instant, I was paddling in a smooth harmony with the pod. They surfaced everywhere around my small boat, cutting through the water in absolute silence; their only sound being a titanic release of breath. It wasn’t just ethereal. It was mystical. There was a divinity involved. It was if I was present at the creation and there was only life. The Orcas passed by and swam on.
They were part of the Northern Resident Orca pod. Did you know there were different types of Orcas? Some, called Residents, are pescatarians, while others, called Transients, eat mammals. The Residents live their lives within a geographic boundary, while Transients hunt the Earth’s oceans.
Orcas live in a matriarchal society and adult males spend their entire lifetimes with their mothers in close proximity in a complex society of family groupings. The Resident populations of British Columbia are divided between a Northern and Southern pod, and within those associations are dozens of sun pods and family groups. Different pods speak different languages that are clearly distinct and discernible. The audible distinctions are as pronounced as differences between English and Chinese. The Orcas of the Northern pod never mate within language groups, and by doing so, they preserve the integrity of their genetic makeup. Orca mothers have clearly evidenced behaviors that can only be described as grief and terror when their babies have been seized from them by humans. There are no instances of attacks by Orcas on a human in the wild ever, but there is substantial evidence to suggest they have killed with premeditation when they have been confined, isolated and effectively tortured. The Orca isn’t just one of God’s most magnificent creations, but likely sentient as well. This raises deep and profound questions around the meaning of life, and how humanity should think about its encounters with another sentient life form.
There is something unusual happening off the coast of Spain and Portugal, and concentrated around the Strait of Gibraltar. Have you heard about it?
Across the world from British Columbia there are two Transient Orcas that have been terrorizing the Great White Shark population in South African waters. The Orcas hunt together and attack with a plan. They stun the 18 foot-long sharks and flip them on their backs, thus putting them to sleep. Next, they bite them in half, surgically removing their livers and gorge on their feast. Reports have counted at least 20 dead sharks. Perhaps word has spread to the waters off of San Francisco where the White Shark population has been hunted as well. One mystery of the oceans that has revealed itself is what happens when an Orca pod swims near one of the greatest gathering sights of White Sharks in the world. The sharks disappear.
All over the Earth there are Orcas in the oceans, but until now they haven’t done something they have started doing off of the Iberian peninsula. Let’s watch:
The Orcas are attacking, disabling and sinking human vessels. Why? There is speculation that it could be a game, but there is also speculation that it could be revenge. Ponder that. Could the interactions be a premeditated and deliberate attack rooted in vengeance? Or is it simply rote behavior? Indisputably, it is taught and learned behavior. Is vengeance and desire for revenge rooted in intelligence and sentience, or is it uniquely a human condition and instinct rooted in the soul? This seems to me to be an important existential question that is discussed more broadly as we consider the power of artificial intelligence to think and act. Let me ask the question again. Does intelligence or character — or both — produce the instinct for vengeance? It seems like it would be a good time to ask.
Back in America, there is a happy story playing out that is being funded by Jim Irsay, the owner of the landlocked Indianapolis Colts. Lolita, an Orca, is going home.
Lolita, who is also known by her Native American name of Tokitae, or "Toki," was captured and brought to the Miami Seaquarium in 1970. She performed for humans until she “retired” in 2021 as a result of illness. She will be transported across the United States in an exceedingly complicated logistics operation and brought to her new home, a sea pen off of her native waters, the Salish Sea area of the Pacific Northwest that spans Washington State and British Columbia, Canada. She will have the opportunity to taste freedom again. What is freedom? Who deserves it? Who grants it? Where does it come from? These are all deep questions steeped in religious traditions and customs that can be traced to the beginnings of mankind’s recorded history.
There is an American perspective about these issues that was asserted into the consciousness of mankind by an act of revolution and faith that declared that these rights do not come from men, but from a higher power. Americans declared that they came from the creator. The creator of all things.
The creation story is part of every culture and society on Earth that has ever been. The First Nations peoples have lived in harmony with the Orca since the beginning of time, alongside the waters of the Boughton Archipelago off of what is today the west coast of Canada. They, too, have a creation story. It is the story of the first Orca and the bond between him and humans. It is a story of betrayal and revenge:
Natsilane — A Tlingit Legend
In a time before there were any killer whales there lived a very able sea lion hunter and a highly skilled carver named Natsilane. He was from Kake and when he took as his wife the daughter of a chief on Duke Island, he decided to live among her people. He was accepted into her family and because he tried hard to prove himself, he soon had a place of honor as an accomplished hunter and spear carver.
His desire to please won him the admiration of the youngest of his brothers- in-law but the oldest ones misunderstood his intentions and became jealous and so began to plot against him. The men decided to get even with Natsilane on the day of the big seal hunt.
After much preparation, the day of the big hunt arrived and Natsilane along with his four new brothers paddled their canoe toward West Devil Rock, out in the open straits. The wind was blowing fiercely and the waves were high but Natsilane was determined that the hunt would be successful. When the canoe neared the rocks, he leaped toward shore and plunged his spear into the nearest sea lion before it could escape. Unfortunately, the point broke off and the lion slipped into the water. Worse yet, Natsilane saw that his brothers, over the fierce objections of the youngest, were paddling away- abandoning him on the deserted island with no food or weapons. Their betrayal stung him deeply and after a time, he pulled his cloak up over his head and fell asleep.
Natsilane awoke the next morning to the sound of his name. He saw a sea lion that looked like a man beckoning to him to go with him down beneath the waves into the Sea Lion's House. At the great house he met the chief of the sea lions who asked him if he could help his injured son. Natsilane saw that the young lion had his spear point embedded in his body and with some effort was able to remove it and the son was healed. The chief was very grateful and after granting Natsilane even greater skills, arranged for his safe return to the village.
Natsilane met with his wife and after telling her his story, he made her promise to keep his return a secret. He took with him his carving tools and went into the woods to carry out a plan of revenge on the older brothers-in- law who had betrayed him. Remembering the Sea-Lion Chief's promise, he asked him for help and began carving a large black fish, a killer whale of spruce the likes of which had never been seen before. After three tries and much improvement in his carving skills, he fashioned a whale of yellow cedar and when launched, came to life and swam out to sea.
He called the black fish to him and ordered it to find his brothers-in-law when they returned from their hunting, destroy them and their boat but spare the youngest boy. The black fish set out and found them late that afternoon. black fish capsized the boat breaking it in two and drowned the older three brothers by keeping them from shore. The youngest made it back safely along with his story of the great black fish and his brothers' treachery.
The villagers now came to wonder if Natsilane had carved the great black fish and given it life. Not long afterward, a strange black fish with teeth was seen near the shore and at times would leave a freshly killed seal or halibut there for the villagers. Natsilane had instructed it never again to harm humans but instead, to help them. As he continued to help the villagers, they realized that the "Killer Whale" was a gift from Natsilane and so they took it for their crest. Natsilane became a legend to their village and some have claimed to have seen him riding the seas on the backs of two great black fish.
The story raises some questions:
Do you believe in myths as always rooted in some greater truth and meaning?
Is there anything that mankind has done to break the bond of affection and trust between them and the blackfish?
Has man hurt the oceans?
If only we could understand. What is it that the Orcas are trying to say off the coast of Spain?