Secret Lives of Orcas


One of the most common spells people fall under when viewing wildlife is anthropomorphizing the animals that they are watching. It is hard not to place human emotions, actions, and tendencies upon them. It helps us relate and and better understand the world among us. I’m as guilty as anyone, comparing bubble netting humpback whales to, “a bunch of buddies fishing together.” But in the scientific world, anthropomorphism can cloud your judgment, creates bias, and foul up even the most well thought out study. But when it comes to dolphins, orcas in particular, it’s hard not to make an exception to the rule.

Orca whales have the second largest brain on earth, behind only the sperm whale, a creature nearly twice its size. While we like to think of humans as the most intelligent race on earth, the orca’s brain contains a part even more well developed than our own. Orca have an extra fold of tissue between the limbic system and neocortex which humans do not posses. While research is still in the beginning stages, scientists like Dr. Lori Marino believe the additional lobe has something to do with processing emotions, thinking, and a heightened sense of self. The idea is fascinating, an animal that may be capable of recognizing itself from others, and may be processing the world in a way, while different than primates, could easily be equivalent or above us.

Which brings us to a question we may never be able to fully answer. If orcas have such a heightened sense of self, are emotionally and socially as advanced as us, isn’t it possible that they could, like us, have rituals and traditions? A whale equivalent of Christmas and the last day of school? In the northern resident community of orcas that make there way in front of Hanson Island every day, there is a behavior that is seen only in this population of 250 whales.

Just to the east of the lab on Vancouver Island is a series of beaches. Unlike the rocky steep coastline that dominates the intertidal here, the beaches are a gradual slope composed of tiny, thumb sized pebbles. On almost every pass by these beaches, the orcas stop, and rub themselves on the smooth tiny stones. Speculation runs rampant for why and when the northern residents started rubbing (it has gone on for at least 50 years). Some suggested they were sloughing off parasites, most just shrug there shoulders and assume they must like it. A creature, an entire population doing something just for the joy of it. Like it was a sport, a holiday, a tradition. Precious few people could tell you why we give presents at Christmas, have turkey at Thanksgiving, or hot dogs on the fourth of July. We just do. What if the northern residents were just like us. There ancestors did it, their mothers do it, so they follow suit as well.

For years the rubbing beaches have been walled off from humans, an ecological reserve giving the orcas a glorious respite from the boat noise in their favorite place in the strait. But there’s no rule about placing cameras there. And for the first time, Paul Spong and Orca Lab have set up two cameras over one of the rubbing beaches. When the sun shines down on them it looks like a tropical paradise. The shallows reflecting turquoise out from the shore line, the harsh rocks and steep edges at the points turn the strait back into its normal substrate. It’s like a private beach for orcas, with there own ecological wardens, chasing trespassers away. I had given up the hope of ever seeing them rub. Accepting that it would have to be something to read about, and listen to the sound of raking pebbles as they pass over the hydrophone.

But now there’s footage, probably a few hours already of orcas, gliding serenely into view slowly and gracefully pumping powerful flukes, blowing bubbles to become negatively buoyant, and sliding smoothly across the pebbles, in ten feet of water, a stones through from shore. Sometimes they stay for an hour, other times the family will pass through just once, but it’s all captured on film. Following every move of this tradition generations old, even if it’s just for a brief moment. We are peering through the key hole, getting the faintest glimpse at the private, personal lives of an animal, just as intelligent as us.

Photo Credit: Stefan Jacobs


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