Visiting the orcas — Tuesday afternoon
Visiting the Orcas
By Michael Mountain
About 10 of us are on the deck of the office at the Center for Whale Research. Some whale watching boats have appeared in the distance, which means they’ve spotted some orcas heading our way and are following them at a respectful distance.
A half-dozen kayaks are also in place, hoping to see some action. Ken Balcombe, who runs the center, passes around a few pairs of binoculars. The interns take up their cameras with long telephoto lenses.
Almost immediately, dorsal fins are popping out of the water. They’re visible for just a second or two as the orcas come up to breathe.
“There’s one!” calls one of the interns. “Another at 11 o’clock,” shouts another, pointing half left. “Three o’clock,” says another, pointing right.
These students are not just tourists taking photos to send to their friends. This is serious business. They’ll be analyzing every photo to identify who the orcas are, which pod they belong to, and who they’re traveling with.
“That was J2 with one of the younger ones,” says Ken, as two orcas dive back underwater. J2 is the famous “Grandma” whose 100th birthday the team celebrated a few days ago.
“How do you know she’s 100 years old?” I ask .
“It’s a rough guess,” Ken says, “but we learn a lot simply by watching who she’s with. She used to travel a lot with J1, who was in his 60s. And we know that because we know who his children are. So we’re guesstimating that J2 was born around 1911. J1 rarely left her side, and he died recently.”
“Why did they travel together?” I ask.
“Orca males are mama’s boys,” Howard Garrett explains. “They rarely leave the side of their mothers. Their mothers teach them everything, including pointing out nice potential girlfriends. But their sons always come back after mating. Not long ago, a mother whale beached herself, and her son was obviously distraught. He wouldn’t stay in the ocean. Some rescuers pulled him back out to sea, but he kept coming back and beached himself next to his mother, refusing to move for two days after she’d died. The rescuers were finally able to tow him back out to the ocean to save his life. And this time he went on his way. But we don’t know what happened then. Some of the male orcas who lose their mothers become depressed and don’t live very long after.”
These magnificent, intelligent creatures with rich lives, held together through deep emotional bonds.
Grandma J2 is the matriarch of the “J” Clan. “That’s probably why the clan has become so large,” Howard says. “She’s a wonderful grandmother. She knows where the salmon are, where they hide in the ocean, where the whole clan needs to be at any particular time of year. They’ve really thrived under her leadership.”
What Howard says reminds me of the stories of elephant clans in Africa, where the matriarch holds all the knowledge and wisdom of the family. She knows the best watering holes, what trails to avoid, how to protect the calves from predators. She guides the whole extended family.
All the orcas we’ve seen this afternoon are from the “J” pod. Two other pods — K and L — are in the vicinity, but they haven’t shown up today.
It’s 5.30 p.m. and we’ve driven over to Candace’s home, a mile or two down the coast. Howard is gazing out of the big window as he says to me, “Well, we didn’t see any whales breaching today.” Breaching is when a whale launches her whole body out of the water — for fun, for display, for whatever reason.
At that moment, and within a stone’s throw of the beach, an orca breaches.
Soon, about a dozen more people arrive at Candace’s house for dinner — scientists and families and friends.
One of the group is Samantha Berg, who, when she was in her 20s, spent several years as a trainer at SeaWorld.
“It wasn’t until years later that I realized that it was like being part of a cult,” she says. “They persuaded us that everything we were doing was right — that it was good for the orcas. But it wasn’t. They told us how to think. It’s only now that I understand how wrong it is to take these animals away from their homes and families and use them to entertain people.”
I know what Samantha means. In some ways, when you go to a marine circus like SeaWorld, you see a lot more than what I saw today. Sure, you see orcas really close up — you watch them twirling and slapping their tails and racing around the small pools they’re made to live in. Compared to that, I just saw a few glimpses of orcas as they surfaced for a second or two at a time in the distance — often nothing more than a fin.
But while you can see the body of a captive orca close up at a marine circus, you see nothing of the true life of an orca. You understand nothing of what it means to be an orca — of who they really are.
And while what I saw today was just glimpses of orcas surfacing, sometimes nothing more than their fins or tails, I saw far more of the lives of orcas than I could ever imagine at a marine circus. With those brief sightings of orcas in their home, traveling together in pods led by a wise matriarch, comes a far deeper understanding of who and what they are — these magnificent, intelligent creatures with rich lives, held together through deep emotional bonds.
Ken tells us about a young whale who recently gave birth to a son. He watched from his boat as she nursed the calf along, lifting him to the surface to teach him how to breathe and coaching him as the pod wends its way through the waters. Then she suddenly changed course and steered the calf over to Ken’s boat. “She turned him on his back and lifted him out of the water so we could see his underside. She wanted to show him to us.”
Why did she want to introduce him to some humans?
“Perhaps because she was proud of him and was showing him off to us,” Ken says. He pauses, and adds as an afterthought: “Then again, maybe she was showing us to him to teach him about the kinds of animals that it’s good to avoid.”
Next: T is for Transient