Published: April 2005

Orcas Unmasked

Whale Fish

Investigating a Killer

Killer whales aren't ruthless killers—or whales.

By Douglas H. Chadwick
Photograph by Flip Nicklin

Early June, Haro Strait, between San Juan Island, Washington, and southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Low swells from the southwest, scattered a.m. fog, turning to smooth seas and sunny skies by noon.

Today is the day the K and L pods of killer whales have chosen to return from their winter travels. After rushing out in a small boat to meet them, researcher Dave Ellifrit is taking inventory while snapping photos to verify identities. This is what it sounds like: "Ooh yeah, L88! (Snap.) L73 (snap) is looking good. L82! (Snap.) L55. (Snap. Snap.) Dammit, she ought to be having kids by now. Wait! And a calf! It's a new calf. And it's right by L55! SHE DID IT! L25, L21, L83, L86 . . . Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Hot *$%@#, man. We're racking 'em up. But no L3 yet. Since the rest of her family is here, she's probably dead. So I feel bad for L74. Lost his mom. (Snap.) There's L41, though. (Snap.) Whoo!"

During a pause in the action, we radio the captain of a nearby whale-watching boat about the new calf. Within minutes, the birth announcement is not only circulating through the commercial whale-watching fleet but is also washing ashore.

Ken Balcomb, head of the Center for Whale Research, where Ellifrit works on San Juan Island, is doing errands in town when shoppers and clerks come hurrying over to tell him the news.

Out on the water we've shut down the engine, waiting to see where the L's will reappear after a long dive. They end up surging by on either side. Farther away, one launches from the water. Ellifrit ID's it with a glance: "L53. She's often the first to start a surface display.” On cue her companions begin breaching, doing side rolls, lobtailing (lifting their flukes high in the air and thwacking them down), and slapping the water with their paddle-shaped flippers or pectoral fins. "Psycho Whale—I sometimes call L53 that—is a very percussive animal," Ellifrit says. "I've seen her lobtail until the water turns to froth."

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