Orca Uber Alles

3 Feb

For anyone who has any doubt about the supreme intelligence and physical superiority of killer whales, I offer this article about research being done on the lives of orcas who frequent Antarctic waters.

It's a fascinating account of the sophistication of orca society, communication, and hunting strategies. It leaves even me, a mutant with certain evolutionary advantages, with one simple thought: "We are not worthy."

Charlie's buddy, Jarle Andhoey, better not mess with them (and somewhere in footage of his that he once sent me he has a great sequence of an orca repeatedly spyhopping throuh a hole in the ice right next to one of his crew–who appears to be summoning the orca by raising his hands into the air in perfect time with the arrival of the orca).

Anyhow, to give you a taste, here's a description of how these orcas operate:

As many as four generations of killer whales will travel together, passing on astonishingly sophisticated group hunting behavior from one generation to the next.

“You’ve got individuals that are spending 50, 60, 80 years together, and you can do a lot of things when you’re spending a lot of time with your family and related individuals,” Pitman told me in an interview. “You can hunt cooperatively. You can make sacrifices that other animals wouldn’t make. If you kill 50,000 seals in your lifetime, you get pretty good at it. And if you learn a few things you pass them on to your offspring. It makes them quite remarkable and very human-like in the things they do.”

“We have grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmothers traveling in groups together with younger whales, imparting cultural knowledge,” added Durban.

Three years ago, farther south along the western Antarctic Peninsula, Pitman and Durban spent three weeks observing such behavior among a group of pack ice killer whales, also known as large type-B Antarctic killer whales. The men studied a hunting technique known as “wave-washing,” in which a pod of whales moves through ice floes, its members lifting their heads out of the water — a behavior known as “spy-hopping” — looking for their preferred meal: fat, fish-eating Weddell seals. Once they spotted a seal on an ice floe, the whales called in reinforcements and, two to seven abreast, swam toward the floe and washed the seal off the ice by creating a large wave with powerful strokes of their tails. Pitman and Durban then observed what they call the “butchering” of seals, with the whales first drowning the seals and then meticulously stripping off their skin to get at the choice flesh.

“It was shocking to see,” said Pitman. “You’re not used to animals doing things that are so canny.”

And here are some pictures of orcas in action which say it all:

A pair of Antarctic killer whales “spy-hops” a Weddell seal on an ice floe. Shortly after spotting the seal, the whales dove and called other members of their pod, who swam to the floe and engaged in the “wave-washing” hunting behavior that would sweep the seal off the ice. (Photo by Bob Pitman)

In a display of their highly sophisticated group hunting behavior, a group of Antarctic killer whales approaches a Weddell seal on an ice floe. The wave created by their coordinated swimming and powerful tail strokes will wash the seal off the floe and into the jaws of waiting whales. (Photo by John Durban)

An Antarctic killer whale pursues a minke whale off the western Antarctic Peninsula. Whale researcher Robert Pitman reports that although an adult minke whale can normally outrun a killer whale, a team of 30 killer whales successfully subdued this minke. (Photo by Bob Pitman)

Any questions?


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