Orcas: Apex Predators Or Marine Park Stars? : Short Wave NPR science correspondent Lauren Sommer joins Short Wave host Emily Kwong to talk about a team of researchers who were the first to document a pack of orcas attacking a blue whale. Their work shows that killer whales, while stars in marine parks and movies, are also the ocean's top-- and often vicious-- predators. Humans' complex relationship with them may say more about humans than about the orcas.

Orcas: Apex Predators Or Marine Park Stars?

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


KWONG: ...From NPR.

Picture the top predator in the ocean at the tippy-top of the food chain, and what do you see - a great white shark? Well, NPR science correspondent Lauren Sommer is here to tell us that's wrong.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Yup, way wrong. And here's one reason why. It starts off the coast of Western Australia.


SOMMER: It was a stormy morning a few years ago, and John Totterdell was on a boat with some students. He's lead researcher for the Cetacean Research Centre in Australia. They spotted some black-and-white shapes in the water. It was a group of killer whales.

JOHN TOTTERDELL: Then we saw a lighter, gray-blue animal, much larger.

SOMMER: Then they saw blood in the water.

TOTTERDELL: And within seconds realized, oh, my God, this pack of killer whales is attacking a blue whale.

SOMMER: He thinks the blue whale was around 70 feet. And this next part might be a little hard to hear, just to warn everybody. The blue whale was still alive, fighting back. But the killer whales, which were only about a third as big, were making coordinated attacks, working together.

TOTTERDELL: There was a good 10, 12 that were active in keeping this animal harassed, wearing it down, just tiring it out.

SOMMER: The blue whale got weaker, and then several killer whales leapt on top of it, forcing the blue whale under the water until it eventually drowned.


SOMMER: And the first thing the killer whales ate was the tongue, probably while the blue whale was still alive

TOTTERDELL: And the tongue is the prize. I couldn't tell you why, but, yeah, preferred cut.

KWONG: Wow. They just don't hold back, these orcas.

SOMMER: No, they don't. Totterdell says killer whales have been known to attack blue whales before, but no one had documented them being successful. It was thought that blue whales were just too big. So he says this really cements killer whales as the apex predator.

TOTTERDELL: It just enforced what I already knew, that they were highly intelligent. And to take on and successfully take down an adult blue whale has lifted the bar way higher than I would ever imagine.

KWONG: Lauren, this image is so different than the one I grew up with renting "Free Willy" from Blockbuster.


KWONG: The whales - I mean, I think they're kind of cute. At least their markings around their eyes make it that way. And also, aren't killer whales called orcas?

SOMMER: Yeah, they are. Orca is part of their scientific name. They're actually part of the dolphin family. You can use either name, but right there, you know, you've got this paradox. Are they super-predators, whale killers, or are they orcas - you know, this friendly animal that you would see at a marine park? Or are they both things? You know, killer whales really challenge our simplistic views of nature, and they're so iconic that over the last century, our understanding of killer whales has forced us to reconsider the way we see nature itself.

KWONG: So today on the show, orcas - the amazing skills that put them on top and what they reveal about our own human shortfalls in how we view the natural world. I'm Emily Kwong.

SOMMER: And I'm Lauren Sommer.

KWONG: And this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: OK, Lauren Sommer, I am seriously impressed by how those killer whales took down that blue whale. Just hearing about the coordination and cooperation among them, it shows how intelligent these creatures are. So with those kinds of skills, do they have a choice of whatever prey they want in the ocean?

SOMMER: I mean, kind of, yeah. Some killer whale groups, they tend to specialize in what they eat. So maybe they only eat salmon. But many pods eat a bigger range of things. And a good example of, you know, just how formidable they are has to do with great white sharks.


SOMMER: White sharks seem to be scared of killer whales.

KWONG: Really?

SOMMER: There was a recent study where researchers were watching white sharks that they had tagged, you know, with these tracking devices so they could see where they were swimming off the coast of California. And one day, a group of killer whales swam through, and all the white sharks booked it. They left the area immediately, and most didn't return for months.

KWONG: For months? For months?


KWONG: Wow. Really throwing around that apex predator weight, these killer whales. Is this all because killer whales eat white sharks?

SOMMER: Yeah, that's been seen in a few cases. And it's a little strange how they do it. You know, sharks have this really big liver. It's very calorie-rich. So scientists think that killer whales have developed a technique to bite into the white shark skin, and then they squeeze the shark so the liver pops out. One researcher described it like squeezing a tube of toothpaste.

KWONG: That's gruesome, but also kind of cool.

SOMMER: There are other killer whale attacks that are kind of rough. It's pretty common that they attack whale calves. So...

KWONG: So babies.

SOMMER: Babies, yeah. Like, humpback whales and gray whales, the mothers migrate with their babies. And when killer whales find them, they do everything they can to separate the mom and baby, and then they drown the baby and sometimes only eat its tongue.

KWONG: That's kind of hard to hear. Maybe it's my human baggage, but I'm a mammal, so I feel for other mammals.

SOMMER: I mean, it's hard not to feel that. I asked John what he felt, too, since he's seen calves being attacked, as well as that blue whale attack.

TOTTERDELL: You do feel for the prey. And especially, you feel for the mothers of young calves being taken. But then you look down and you see the killer whales have babies, have young with them who need to be fed.

KWONG: Well, that's nature at work for you.

SOMMER: Yeah. And he told me after the blue whale was killed, its body sank. So the adult killer whales were diving down and bringing chunks back up for the young ones to eat. But I kind of also wanted to see what a blue whale researcher thought about all this, so I called John Calambokidis at Cascadia Research.

JOHN CALAMBOKIDIS: You know, as a scientist, I tend to look at these things, you know, maybe sometimes a little less emotionally, but I'm affected by it emotionally.

KWONG: Yeah. I remember when I started to see orcas differently. I was living in Alaska. And on a kayaking trip with my friend, we saw off in the distance a pod of orcas on the move. And I turned to her, and I said, what do we do? And she was like, there's nothing we can do. They are so fast. We just have to hope whatever prey they're pursuing doesn't come towards us, towards our kayaks. Thankfully, it didn't. But, Lauren, do orcas pose a threat to us humans when we're in the water?

SOMMER: No, not really. There haven't been any documented human attacks by wild orcas, though there have been a few cases where an orca mistook a person for a seal. But for attacks on blue whales, it's a different story. Those attacks might've happened a lot more back in the day because there used to be a lot more blue whales, but they were decimated by commercial whaling. Their populations have slowly rebounded since then.

CALAMBOKIDIS: As whales and large whales recover, we might see that these attacks become more common as that becomes a more frequent and available prey again.

SOMMER: And these killer whale families, they're really tight-knit. They're led by a matriarch. And once they have a skill, they teach it to each other. I mean, each pod has its own culture.

KWONG: That's pretty cool. So since there are more blue whales now, maybe killer whales almost relearned this behavior, and it could become part of their repertoire now to hunt down and kill blue whales.

SOMMER: Yeah, exactly. So it could be happening more often from here on out.

KWONG: It's interesting because it's making me reconsider how we see orcas in general. I mean, when I was a kid, there were a lot of nature shows with wolves and cheetahs running down their prey - that classic predator montage. Killer whales - they weren't portrayed like that at all.

SOMMER: Right. And for many people, the perception of killer whales has changed a lot over the last century.

KWONG: Yeah.

SOMMER: I spoke to Jason Colby about that. He's a professor of history at the University of Victoria, and he wrote a whole book about this. He says, just look at the Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, who have long had a different view of orcas.

JASON COLBY: Predators were generally seen as having a right to exist in their place, not necessarily seen as in a zero-sum game with human beings. You know, only useful creatures need to proliferate, and the ones that compete with us should be eliminated. That's definitely a transition that happened with sort of, you know, settler colonialism and eventually capitalism.

SOMMER: So after European settlers arrived and took over the western U.S., the fishing industry really took off, especially for salmon, and many fishermen saw killer whales as competitors. They were portrayed to the public as, you know, scary and vicious, and it was common to just shoot at the whales when people saw them in the water.

KWONG: Wow. All right. So what changed?

SOMMER: Yeah. So in 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium wanted to make a scale model of a young killer whale, so the solution was to go kill a young whale so they'd have something to base the model on. They harpooned it, but the whale didn't die, and they dragged it back to Vancouver to put it on display for the public. The whale was named Moby Doll, and it lived for a few months before dying. But the fact that it didn't attack humans, as people expected, was a big moment, and that opened the door for this era of killer whale captivity, where a lot more whales were taken from the wild for that purpose.

KWONG: I suppose this moment is what ushered in the era of SeaWorld and other aquariums having killer whales. They were put on display to do tricks as kind of an ambassador of the ocean. I remember being a kid, going down to Florida to watch this with my family.

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, I saw them, too. For an entire generation of kids, killer whales were these accessible, you know, family-friendly things, something you kind of - you know, you buy the stuffed animal at the gift shop, right?

KWONG: Oh, I only had one of those on my bed.


SOMMER: I had one, too.


SOMMER: But pretty early on in that process, though, there were questions about the ethics of doing this with an animal that's so large and so intelligent. Actually, in the 1970s, someone who worked at the Vancouver Aquarium with a killer whale - his name is Paul Spong - he felt they shouldn't be in captivity. He connected with Greenpeace, which at the time was just an anti-nuclear organization. And that one encounter with a killer whale spawned Greenpeace's huge anti-whaling movement that went worldwide. And then you get to the 1990s, and you have "Free Willy."


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: In a world where beauty is held captive...

JASON JAMES RICHTER: (As Jesse) Miss your family?

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...It takes a special friend.

SOMMER: A young boy becomes best friends with his captive whale.


RICHTER: (As Jesse) Let's free Willy. He's got a family out there. I heard them.

SOMMER: I mean, at this point, the image of killer whales is almost cuddly.

KWONG: Then, you know, flash-forward - in 2013, you get the documentary "Blackfish," which totally complicates the narrative. It raises a lot of questions about whether it was outright cruel to keep killer whales in captivity.


LORI MARINO: All whales in captivity are all psychologically traumatized. It's not just Tilikum.

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL: If you were in a bathtub...

KWONG: And shortly after, SeaWorld announced it would start phasing out its killer whale shows.

SOMMER: Right. So if you look at this whole progression, you know, killer whales have gone from this scary predator to kid's best friend to maybe now a more nuanced view of just how complex and intelligent and powerful they are. Historian Jason Colby says killer whales have been the same this whole time.

KWONG: Right.

SOMMER: All of this is really just a sign of how human views have changed.

COLBY: Human beings love stories. They love narratives and kind of icons to represent things we care about. And so we certainly find iconic animals, or even individuals in a species, to tell a bigger story, which is often a story of regret on our part - right? - regret about the damage we've done, even if we don't necessarily think about it that way.

KWONG: So the challenge to us humans really is to stop seeing killer whales as cute and friendly or scary and menacing and just resist the urge to put them in a neat box.

SOMMER: It's not easy to do. I mean, maybe respect is a good place to land here.

KWONG: I like that.

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, one scientist told me they do what they do, and they do it very well.

KWONG: That is a good last statement on orcas. Lauren, thank you so much for taking us on this journey.

SOMMER: Happy to do it.


KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Chloee Weiner, edited by Andrea Kissack and fact-checked by Katherine Sypher. Gilly Moon was the audio engineer. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Neal Carruth is our senior director of on-demand news programming. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


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