Produced by Ari Daniel Shapiro/YouTube.com
Courtesy of Volker Deecke
A field team consisting of (from left) Volker Deecke, Harriet Bolt, Hannah Wood and Andy Foote visited Scotland's Shetland Islands last summer to study the eating habits and vocal activity of killer whales.
A field team consisting of (from left) Volker Deecke, Harriet Bolt, Hannah Wood and Andy Foote visited Scotland's Shetland Islands last summer to study the eating habits and vocal activity of killer whales. Courtesy of Volker Deecke
Courtesy of Volker Deecke
The research team spent days and days scanning the waters off the Shetland Islands, about 80 miles north of Scotland, for signs of killer whales.
The research team spent days and days scanning the waters off the Shetland Islands, about 80 miles north of Scotland, for signs of killer whales. Courtesy of Volker Deecke
Courtesy of Volcker Deecke
Field assistants scan the water for whales. To get close enough, they first had to find them by spotting the animals from a distance.
Field assistants scan the water for whales. To get close enough, they first had to find them by spotting the animals from a distance. Courtesy of Volcker Deecke
Courtesy of Ari Daniel Shapiro
Killer whale biologist turned radio producer Ari Daniel Shapiro says the animals may capture people's imaginations because of their elusiveness.
Studying animals in nature isn't always about close encounters. For the field biologist, there is passion in the search for the quarry and the lengths to which people will go to find it.
Volker Deecke, a research fellow at the University of St. Andrews' Sea Mammal Research Unit in Scotland, makes his living researching killer whales.
"I love the challenge of having to think like a killer whale," Deecke says. "You know, having to strip your biases as a terrestrial, visually based mammal and ... understand what life might be like for an animal that lives in a 3-dimensional world where vision is not very useful, where sound travels for large distances."
'Mythic And Real At Once'
His colleague, Ari Daniel Shapiro, spent years as a killer whale biologist before becoming an independent radio producer. He says he would have unbelievably vivid dreams of encountering the whales he hoped to find by day.
"Back home," Shapiro says, "I've heard emergency sirens outside and mistaken them for a band of roving killer whales that have somehow come ashore to put out a fire. Whales are mythic and real at once."
Killer whales live in every ocean and hug the coastlines of every continent, Shapiro says. Each population feeds on something different. In Norway, they eat fish, mostly herring. In Alaska, one of the populations eats marine mammals, including seals and porpoises.
They locate and pursue their prey, and then they attack and eat it.
In one obvious way, killer whales that eat fish behave differently from those that eat marine mammals: They're loud.
The Norwegian fish eaters call to one another a lot — they echolocate, using sound like an acoustic strobe light to scan their surroundings and find fish, which tend to have poor hearing. By contrast, the Alaskan mammal eaters are absolutely silent when hunting. The seals and porpoises they eat have excellent hearing, and a vocal killer whale would tip off the prey.
Waiting For The Moment
Both types of whales spend a lot of time in pursuit, waiting for and following their prey. And it's not unlike how killer whale researchers spend their time, waiting for the whales to show up, chatting with one another, scanning the water from a windy bluff.
Deecke and three field researchers went in search of killer whales last summer in the Shetland Islands, about 80 miles north of Scotland. They would scan the water looking for killer whale fins breaking through the water's surface.
But to get close enough, they first had to find them by spotting the animals from a distance. Shapiro, who visited the team, says that requires a lot of waiting.
"Day after day, while we stood there looking for whales and not seeing any, there were often tourists and locals observing us, trying to make out why we watched the waters around us so intently, so hopefully," he says.
"As killer whale biologists, we wait weeks for a glimpse of a black fin on light water — for the moment when we can observe and describe what the animals let us see.
"It takes a kind of love to maintain that kind of relationship, because we're pretty sure the killer whales don't feel the same way about us. It's not like they're waiting for us to show up. But it doesn't matter. We're drawn to them."
Infatuation Born Of Elusiveness
One of the researchers, field assistant Alice Rocco, says there's an incredible sense of infatuation with killer whales.
"Like the first time we saw them, to me, the male was extremely sensual," she says. "Like he had these sexy movements going on. Looks like he was a dancer or something, a really good dancer."
Killer whales capture the imagination, Shapiro says. Maybe that's because of their very elusiveness, the way they disappear beneath the water's surface into their own world, leaving us behind on the shore, wishing to see them just once more.
A love like that, he says, can sustain you for a lifetime.
The radio piece was produced by former killer whale biologist turned public radio producer Ari Daniel Shapiro, with help from Jay Allison and the public radio Web site Transom.org, and support from the Open Studio project, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.