Published: April 2005
Investigating a Killer
Killer whales aren't ruthless killers—or whales.
By Douglas H. Chadwick

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."

Early descriptions of "whale killers" or "killers of whales" gave rise to the common name killer whale. More in vogue is the name orca, from the species' scientific label, Orcinus orca, but for those who know Latin, "whale from the underworld of the dead" is hardly an image upgrade. Strictly speaking, orcas are not whales. They are the world's largest, brawniest dolphins, found in every ocean. With enormous reserves of speed and strength, one of the biggest brains in existence—four times the weight of a human's—and no natural enemies as adults, they have staked a claim as the supreme predators across 71 percent of the planet. What do they do when they meet a great white shark? Lunch, according to witnesses.

And how do they view us? Killer whales "will attack human beings at every opportunity," a 1973 U.S. Navy diving manual warned, reflecting a long-held belief. (An orca did grab a surfer once but quickly let him go—the only documented assault on humans in the wild, ever.) At the opposite end of the attitude spectrum, biologist Ingrid Visser jumps in with groups she studies on New Zealand's coast. Adult whales have swum over to show her sharks or rays, much as they would display food to juveniles in the pod. She says she knows of several lobster divers who were poking in crannies on the bottom when they felt a nudge and turned to find a huge, black-and-white creature looking on as if to say, "Whatcha got there, little fella?"

A clearer understanding of killer whales began with the simple fact that their dorsal fin—up to six feet tall in adult males and about half that height in adult females—clears the water each time they rise to breathe. In the early 1970s a visionary Canadian named Michael Bigg overcame skeptics to prove that these animals could be individually recognized by a fin's size, shape, and irregularities such as nicks or tears, plus the pattern of the light-colored saddle patch below the fin's trailing edge. With photo-ID catalogs in hand, a small cadre of researchers was soon charting births, deaths, and social changes in populations along North America's Pacific coast. Still under way, this investigation has become one of the great sustained efforts on the frontiers of science, practically an anthropological study of long-mysterious underwater tribes.

What researchers are finding is that there may be no tighter or longer lasting relationships among large animals than those that bind killer whale families. Researchers call these basic social units matrilines because they are led by the oldest female, or matriarch. A typical pod, as groups are called, consists of several generations in a single matriline or closely related matrilines traveling together. Scientists label the pods with a letter (or combination of letters) and use numbers to identify the various members. For example, a new calf that is the 15th animal recorded in B pod becomes B15. Pods with common ancestors and dialects are considered a clan, and clans that regularly associate and share the same range form a distinct population, known as a community. Within communities, aggression is virtually unknown, and different communities largely ignore each other on occasions when their travels overlap. That such powerful, predatory mammals have found ways to live together in seeming harmony never ceases to surprise us scrappy primates keeping watch.

Mid-June, western shore of San Juan Island, overlooking a cove beside Haro Strait. Partial clearing, low waves sequined by a sharp breeze.

While scanning the seascape from the porch of his home, Ken Balcomb says, "I first got hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1976 just to count the killer whales in the area. I thought, hey, give us two or three years, and we can get all kinds of information about their biology. Talk about optimistic!"

The pods his team studies—the J's, K's, and L's—make up the southern resident community off the Pacific coast. No one yet knows where they winter, although some have been glimpsed off Oregon and as far south as California's Monterey Bay. They were called residents because they always return to chase salmon in the waters of Puget Sound and southern Vancouver Island from early summer through late fall. Within day-tripping distance of greater Seattle and the Canadian cities of Victoria and Vancouver, they may be the most popular, closely watched whales on the planet.

Loudspeakers on Balcomb's walls carry sounds picked up by a hydrophone he keeps permanently deployed off a rocky point to the north. Cocking an ear, he detects the calls of J pod long before we spot spouts. As they near, Balcomb points out the matriarch J2 and describes how he calculated backward from the known ages of her offspring to put her probable birth date at 1911, making her one of the oldest orcas ever recorded. He says, "Think of all the changes that whale has seen."

Year upon year, J2 swam past a spreading human populace that was certain her kind were man-eaters, fishermen who shot the whales on sight as competitors, and, starting in the 1960s, entrepreneurs who captured them live for aquariums and theme parks. Badly depleted before the roundups were phased out in the area in the mid-'70s, the J's, K's, and L's rebounded from 71 individuals in 1976 to 99 by 1995. They have since slipped by about 15 percent and are slated to be listed as threatened in the U.S. this year. Chi-nook, or king, salmon—these whales' favorite food—are listed as threatened in Puget Sound. The fish have been slammed by overharvesting, dams, and pollution, while the long-lived orcas themselves have accumulated worrisome loads of PCBs and dioxins from their prey. These pollutants disrupt mammals' reproductive, immune, endocrine, and neurological systems. Peter Ross, of Canada's Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, British Columbia, says killer whales are the most PCB-contaminated mammals yet recorded. He and others are also alarmed by contamination levels from chemicals in flame retardants used in everything from clothing to computers.

Another transformation took place during J2's arc of years: Those captives performing in concrete pools revealed themselves to be not monsters but clever, sociable giants. Artists were inspired to make the animals icons of the Pacific Northwest, as they were in Indian times, and crowds were suddenly eager to visit pods in the wild. Add enough whale-watching vessels and curious private boaters on top of shipping traffic, and you get a modern controversy over whether it is possible to love killer whales a little too much, since the noise of boat engines may interfere with the whales' communication. As J2 and her relatives swim out of view, Balcomb's voice rises over the underwater noise pollution from thrumming, whining engines picked up by the hydrophone. "Think," he is saying, "of all the changes she has heard."

Killer whales depend far more upon hearing than sight. The sounds they make while hunting are high-frequency pulses generated in the nasal passages, then focused by a fatty lens in the forehead. To us this organic sonar technology just sounds like a series of loud clicks. For the whales it is a way to navigate the submarine terrain and expose prey through precise echolocation. The animals also have an array of plaintive calls, which they rely upon to make contact and convey information over longer distances. But during play, "It all turns to loony tunes," says John Ford, chief whale scientist for the Pacific region of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, "burbles, squeals, whistles, raspberries, and snorks."

As a graduate student during the 1970s, Ford noticed that every pod has its own version of the calls in terms of pitch, pattern, and the number used. Each dialect is an acoustic badge of identity; youngsters learn their pod's dialect from their mothers and older siblings. They also learn to recognize the dialects of other pods. Since killer whales want to fraternize with their nearest kin but must pick mates from among the most distantly related pods within the community in order to avoid inbreeding, they need an easy way to tell which is which in the often dim waters they ply. The calls do the job, since the more similar a dialect is from one pod to the next, the closer their bloodlines.

Mating outside the community doesn't seem to be an option, mainly for cultural reasons. Different populations don't even speak the same language or practice the same traditions. For example, Johnstone Strait, separating northern Vancouver Island from the mainland, is the core summer range for about 200 whales in 16 pods known as the northern resident community. One of their favorite activities is rubbing on certain pebbly beaches in shallow water. Whether such sites are for removing itchy skin and parasites or recreational centers where pods go to mingle is open to discussion. Either way, the southern residents living practically next door never rub. On the other hand, they are much more likely than northern residents to erupt in the showy aerial displays that Balcomb calls fireworks.

Isolated behaviorally as well as genetically, each community appears destined to rise or fall on its own. That's why the drop in southern residents, and a smaller slip in northern residents, has folks on edge.

A third resident community ranges from the northern border of British Columbia across the Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak Island. A fourth continues farther west along the Aleutian Islands and on to the southern Bering Sea. Totaling perhaps a thousand, the whales seem to be stable or increasing in these northerly regions, where salmon stocks remain strong.

Third week of August, northeast of Port Hardy, Vancouver Island. Clear skies, unlimited visibility, light winds with a seaweed smell.

Rhinoceros auklets are diving for herring in tidal rip currents at the entrance to a channel. Beyond lie several small islands, and the water in their lee is like cellophane. Six fins jut from it, slightly more upright and sharply tipped than those usually seen here in the Johnstone Strait area. The tallest has a distinctive notch near the top. Flipping through a photo catalog, Volker Deecke, an Austrian researcher from the University of British Columbia, identifies this male as T142. It and two companions must be the T143 family, named after the oldest female. The other three, Deecke says, look like the T18's.

The most familiar pods along the coast, the residents, generally live in groups of from 10 to 40 and follow regular travel patterns within a seasonal range. They make calls about half the time they are submerged and broadcast sonar bursts freely to pick out food. At the surface they are noisy and conspicuous, often floating like logs while they rest or making some big splash on the social scene. Their diet is salmon and more salmon, with the occasional lingcod, flounder, or other flavor of fish thrown in.

But back when orcas were being nabbed for display, one newly captured group of killer whales refused every fish offered for 78 days, even after a member died of starvation. Not until the 1980s did scientists fully realize that those animals represented another kind of killer whale.

For years observers in the wild had noticed small gangs of two to six killer whales that moved more randomly across a far greater area than residents typically did. What no one suspected yet was that these animals' meals would turn out to be exclusively warm-blooded: seals, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, porpoises, and whales. They swallow a few seabirds and sometimes help themselves to a swimming moose or deer. But fish? No way. They also make longer dives, probe more closely along the shorelines, and call less than 5 percent of the time. To orient themselves, they send out sonar clicks in brief patterns that blend in with noises like stones knocking together in the surf. Otherwise, they run silent, listening—stalking. Scientists continued to label resident pods alphabetically but reserved the letter T for these smaller, less predictable groups. T stands for transients, the hunters of mammals.

Compared with residents, transient killer whales have stouter jaws, perhaps to deal with larger, tougher prey, whose defensive abilities may also explain transients' more tattered-looking dorsal fins. (Eating the eaters of fish, they are loaded with twice the amount of PCBs found in residents. In the grandest of ironies, some transients are so tainted with toxic brews they exceed the limits for the disposal of hazardous waste at sea.) The saddle patch of transients sits farther forward than on residents. Nor do the two types share any of the calls in their repertoires.

The adult males in resident pods, once assumed to be harem bulls, are more like big momma's boys that never leave their family. While transient males also remain at their mothers' sides past maturity, researchers are finding that some strike out on their own beginning around age 20, and other family members may split off to travel apart or with another transient group for a while. After analyzing the DNA in skin samples, Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium concluded that residents and transients have probably not interbred for at least 10,000 years. They may qualify as distinct subspecies and possibly separate species.

It seems other marine mammals clearly recognize the difference. When Deecke played killer whale voices to harbor seals, they fled at once from the transients' calls while ignoring those of local residents. Pacific white-sided dolphins and Dall's porpoises will zip around resident pods, riding their bow waves, swimming with them side by side. Sea lions even nip residents, possibly to contest good fishing spots. But to transients, sea lions are like sausages with whiskers. Dolphins are known to hurl themselves up onto beach rocks in a suicidal frenzy to escape the mammal-hunting orcas. Like wolf packs, the transients coordinate attacks, heading off a speedier swim-mer by converging from different directions or chasing the target in relays until it tires.

At the moment, the T143's and T18's are moving in typical stealthy style, cruising near rocky isles and poking into crannies, surfacing only briefly in-between. All at once, by Duncan Island, they boil into plain view, breaching, rolling over each other like plump braids of rope, whapping flippers on the water, and generally frolicking like a resident pod. The time is 2:45 p.m. Deecke mutters, "Transients don't usually socialize like this except after a kill. How the heck did we manage to miss it?"

Later, we rendezvous in mid-channel with Graeme Ellis, a Canadian orca expert, tie our boats together, and share a snack while we drift. Ellis has the most experienced eyes in the business. And unlike us, he did witness a kill today. Some whales in the T59 group nailed a Dall's porpoise, he says.

Where? "About 17 miles south of where your group was cavorting."

When? Ellis checks his notebook: "Looks like 2:45."

The meaning hits like a breaking wave: As Ellis's group made its kill, their calls, traveling five times faster in water than in air, were funneled along submarine canyons and picked up by the animals Deecke was watching, stimulating them to start festivities of their own.

Discovering that such excitement can be contagious for transient killer whales over long distances has put Deecke, the sound specialist, in a mood to frolic too. Throwing his arms wide, he proclaims to passing gulls, "Behold the power of acoustics!"

Earlier in July on Vancouver Island's eastern coast. Slack tide, smooth water, muffling mist. Visibility less than a quarter mile.

Here's Graeme Ellis, fogbound, edging his boat from Telegraph Cove out into Johnstone Strait, reflecting on how our understanding of orcas has shifted around like a sandbar: "I've been coming out here 30 years, and I'm still working with some of the same whales. Old friends, you know? So little was known about them at first that we kept looking for comparisons. Are they like lions? Canines? Hoofed animals? None fit. They're like killer whales. But then we find different types. Maybe the best analogy is: They're like humans. Different tribes, different dialects—different cultures, if you like."

From time to time, as many as 60 killer whales traveling in a swarm appear near the continent's Pacific coast. The animals are smaller than either residents or transients, their dorsal fins are more often ripped and nicked, and they seldom stick around long. By the 1990s Ellis and others finally felt certain that these constituted a third major type of killer whale in the region. The researchers labeled them offshores, on the theory that they spend most of their time well out at sea. Little else is known about their lifestyle. Since offshores are very vocal, they probably don't dine on mammals. Whatever they do eat seems to wear down their teeth. Guesses include sharks, which are taken by killer whales elsewhere.

The orcas off North America's Pacific coast may be the world's best studied, but it remains to be seen whether they can serve as models for the species elsewhere. The harder scientists look, the more killer whales they turn up with different physical traits, travel patterns, social groupings, call patterns, and learned traditions. The division between fish-eaters and mammal-hunters generally holds up for killer whales around Antarctica and Norway. But those that prowl the subantarctic Crozet Islands for southern elephant seal pups apparently turn to fish after the rookeries empty. Though data from much of the world is spotty, it appears that some populations make their meals mostly of tuna. Others include squid. Still others live up to the old name of whale killers. Contrary to the popular vision of pods tearing apart victims with their teeth, shark style, they are more likely to wait for a safe opening, then ram the victim with their heads or bludgeon it with their flukes. Like other predators, they tend to target the weakest, most vulnerable members of a prey population. These are often the young, as in the case of West Coast transient pods seen attacking gray whales as they migrate north each spring with newly born calves.

Early July, Holkham Bay, about halfway between Juneau and Petersburg, Alaska. Glittering sunlight on light chop, waves building higher out in Stephens Passage.

For days, Volker Deecke—buzz cut, hatless, and wearing the same grease-stained, red flotation jacket and salt-stained, black windbreaker pants—has been motoring up and down Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm in an inflatable skiff, dodging icebergs calved off tidewater glaciers at the head of these fjords. Mother seals gather on the floes by the hundreds to give birth. Some are starting to leave for more open waters with their newly weaned, month-old pups—pudgy, inexperienced, snack-size morsels. Deecke knows transients will come scouting.

Back aboard the fishing boat that serves as our mother ship, Deecke wanders the deck doing what scientists do in their slack time: ponder. "To appreciate other people's cultures," he says, "you have to shed your prejudices—strip yourself down to where you are just human and then build up your understanding. With killer whales, I feel we are moving one step beyond. You must strip all the way down to just being a mammal, then start from scratch trying to under-stand how the whales perceive and interpret their world. Imagine ‘clicking' [focusing a sonar beam] on another member of your society."

We can barely see six feet into this water clouded by glacial silt. But with sonar clicks, a killer whale can monitor family members hundreds of yards away. At closer quarters one animal may be able to tell whether another's stomach is full, if it is pregnant, and from the thickness of blubber, its overall condition. Think full-body sonogram. The whales may also pick up information merely by listening quietly for heartbeats and stomach rumbles from companions or for distant splashes and breathing sounds from prey.

Toward midmorning half a dozen orcas glide past on their way out of Endicott toward the point called Wood Spit. Tight formation, sharp-tipped fins: transients. We weigh anchor and follow. As a male approaches the shallows, he lifts his head for a better view. A harbor seal on a boulder surrounded by waves does the opposite, laying its head flat against the stone and holding very still. Any seals still in the water have likely squeezed into hiding spots among the rocks and kelp. The transients round the point and cruise on toward Stephens Passage. After their next dive, only the male reappears, still headed away. The minutes stretch on. We are scanning the horizon for the others when they surface almost on the beach. Having made what looked like a feint toward open water, the whales executed a right-angle turn in the depths and swam a quarter mile submerged back to Wood Spit.

"They're milling!" Deecke cries and lowers his hydrophone. "I've got calls. And little squeals and mews." Social noises—more signs of a probable kill. Five minutes later the whales move off. All that's left is an oily sheen on the surface and gulls squabbling over shreds of blubber and meat. The lack of drama is a tribute to the predators' efficiency—plus the fact that female killer whales weigh as much as six tons and males nine or ten, while a harbor seal averages about 250 pounds. If transients are the proverbial wolves of the sea, this is a pack snatching a rabbit, not hauling down an elk. Swish, swish—wham! And one of those seal's heads that followed me whenever I kayaked along Wood Spit in the evenings is no more.

Third week of August, Knight Pass, western Prince William Sound, Alaska. Variable clouds, light chop, turning heavier with afternoon winds.

Craig Matkin, director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, and colleague Eva Saulitis are running his 34-foot boat, the Natoa, parallel with the resident group known as the AE pod, but the whales keep fanning out after silver, or coho, salmon. Only AE11, born in 1970, and her calf, AE23, born in 2000, stay close enough for identification photos. In fact they're coming straight for the boat.

Although a number of older killer whales still carry scars from fishermen's bullets, relations between our species and theirs have improved to the point that orcas from many formerly shy pods no longer avoid boats. Some individuals will come over to swim alongside awhile. In recent years two different young orcas—one from the southern resident community and one from the northern—apparently desperate for company, took to playing with boats and allowing people to pet them. But the mother and calf heading for our boat aren't paying a social visit. They are after a coho that just sought refuge under the Natoa.

AE11 comes within inches of scraping the hull as she races the fish from bow to stern. Overshooting her target when it jukes to one side, she doubles back in a massive swirl and circles several times while the salmon makes frantic turns inside the orca's orbit. She is not trying her hardest to catch it. Rather, she is herding the fish until her calf joins the hunt. As the salmon tries to break away by diving, she goes deeper, driving it near the surface again. And in between, young AE23 is six, five, four . . . three feet behind the coho's tail. Ten minutes and multiple spins, rolls, submarine somersaults, and close calls later, we are still scrambling around the deck cheering, mostly for the young whale but with growing respect for this badly vexed fish. At last the lesson, or practice session, is over, the calf swimming off with the salmon in its jaws.

Like humans, killer whales are a blend of what they are born to be and what they are taught. The young nurse for as long as three years. Before the flow of milk stops, a mother needs to make sure her offspring is skilled at catching food for itself. Ingrid Visser, the New Zealand biologist, thinks juvenile orcas overcome a natural reluctance to enter dangerously shallow bays, where rays flourish, by emulating older animals. Youngsters in other pods learn to take sharks caught on the hooks of fishermen's longlines—again, Visser reports, by observing their elders. Much as transients will drive dolphins into a bay and then form a line to cut off escape, resident-type killer whales in Norway work together to herd herring against the shore. In another coordinated effort, called carousel feeding, a pod may encircle a herring school in open water, forcing the fish into a defensive ball. The whales then take turns lashing at the huddle with their flukes, stunning mouthful after mouthful. Some Antarctic killer whales will speed in a curve toward ice floes, setting up waves that wash seals off the slick surface into the water.

June, morning in Agnes Cove, on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Dimpled by a drizzle, the bay is glassy, with fog streaks drifting through.

The sounds of big breaths announce whales fishing their way into the bay's quiet embrace. It's the AD5's again, a friendly resident pod. As usual the group members spread out to hunt, diving at intervals while they sweep along at a steady four or five miles an hour.

I paddle my kayak to a better vantage point, but not too close. That's good, because a couple of adults suddenly shoot ahead after their quarry. Going airborne at times, they accelerate to 20 miles an hour as if turbo-thruster engines had just kicked in. Dorsal fins slice the water trailing rooster tails of spray. After the almost casual pace at which these mega-dolphins usually go about catching prey, here is a reminder that Orcinus orca can punch out great white sharks. I too come from an impressive culture that meshes power with knowledge transmitted between generations. But scrunched down in my little eight-foot-long tub while a male almost four times as long comes steaming past with its salmon catch, I wouldn't begin to argue over who the true master of the oceans might be.