SAN JUAN ISLAND, WASHINGTON – It’s an image you often see on paintings and wood carvings – a giant totemic killer whale, with the images of sea creatures and faces artistically contained within the whale’s body.
The image tells the story of the Tlingit legend of the creation of the killer whale, which goes as follows: Natsilane was a charismatic and skilled wood carver who married the Chief’s daughter. Jealous of Natsilane’s popularity and talent, his brothers-in-law devised a plan to abandon Natsilane at sea during a traditional sea lion hunt. Left to die on a small rock in the middle of nowhere, Natsilane was summoned under the waves by a sea lion. The sea lion asked him to heal his son who was injured by a spear during the hunt. After pulling the spear point out, the Sea Lion Chief granted Natsilane great powers and helped him back to shore.
Still angry about being abandoned, he began carving a great whale out of different types of wood. The first two carvings, when set in the water, simply floated away. But the third, made of yellow cedar, came to life. Natsilane sent it to exact revenge on his brothers-in-law. When the killer whale found them, he smashed their canoe and killed the brothers. But Natsilane felt badly about what he had done, and when the whale returned to him, he instructed it to never harm humans again.
The legend tries to explain something curious about orcas. They don’t attack people. The question is — why not? On a simple, biological scale they are bigger and stronger than we are, have sharper teeth, and they’re carnivores. Any similar creature might see humans as a tasty little snack, but not orcas.
Observation has shown that one answer may not be far from the ancient legend. Killer whales seem to follow rules that go beyond basic instinct and border on culture. Individual pods forage, communicate and navigate differently, much the way different cultures of people do. Researchers have witnessed “greeting ceremonies” between pods. They’ve even seen the equivalent of a funeral. It may very well be that within “orca culture” there is a social norm not to go after people.
A more scientific explanation might be that we’re simply not tasty enough to be included on the killer whales’ menu. Orcas, it turns out, have picky palates. The Southern Resident Killer Whales of Puget Sound dine on only the fattest Chinook salmon, even if it means allowing an entire school of skinnier salmon to swim by. Transient orcas, which have a broader diet, have shown similar selective behavior, in one case killing a gray whale but eating only its tongue.
A third possible reason is that we don’t resemble any food source killer whales typically depend on. There have reportedly been incidents where an orca attempted to hunt a human, but broke off the hunt immediately upon realizing it wasn’t a sea lion.
Okay, so we’ve established that killer whales are pretty darned smart — they have a culture with specific behaviors, a picky diet, and they know that we don’t taste very good. Still, humans pump toxins into their water, we bombard them with noise, and sometimes we kidnap their babies and put them in aquariums. Orcas have a pretty good reason to hate us, perhaps even enough to want to extract revenge, yet they don’t. The answer here might be friendship. There are many cases where nomadic killer whales have gravitated to humans, bonding with them and playing games. Trainers at places like Sea World say very little goes into orca training. The whales seem to understand people, and are eager to cooperate and create bonds.
In fact, the only apparent instances of orcas attacking people have happened at aquatic parks, where the whales have killed trainers. Many experts think these attacks are not malicious, rather a case of play getting out of hand. Howard Garrett of the Orca Network disagrees. He argues the attacks are deliberate, though not in cold blood. Cut off from their pods, confined in small concrete tanks, and hand fed instead of being allowed to hunt, Garrett thinks the pressures build causing the orcas to occasionally lash out.
Whether that’s the case or not, it’s clear that in the wild, orcas seem to have a pretty universal rule: don’t attack humans. The reason would appear to be both biological and cultural. Killer whales have been around about 11 million years. Compared to them, we are a relatively new species on the planet. Physically we’re no match for this apex predator, but they’ve apparently deemed us worthy of coexistence. We owe them the same.
At the very least, we can admire and respect these creatures, and be grateful to Natsilane for commanding the killer whale to follow the universal rule.