3 Mysteries About Killer Whales

Blackfish, the documentary film on the tragic killing of Orca whale trainer Dawn Brancheau by the Seaworld favorite Tilikum opened late last month. As is true of many well-done documentaries the topic of whale husbandry as it’s known—the capturing and raising of whales in captivity for the purpose of entertaining audiences—has become a hot button issue in many wildlife and conservation circles.


What has captured my interest these past few weeks is the unique mystery that surrounds Orca whales and how little we still know about a whale like Tilikum that doesn’t seem to pertain to any land animals. Stories of lions or bears attacking park rangers and zookeepers are not unheard but while tragic, they don’t tend to arouse as much suspicion or intrigue. We think of lions as killers and either accept an outpouring of rage as matter of fact or are quick to blame the handlers for keeping such animals in captivity. Orcas are a bit harder to understand and that mystery can shed some light on where our positions, fears, and doubts about captive whales come from no matter the stance we take on the Tilikum case.

Killer Whale Intelligence

Many types of whales are noted for their intelligence but none more so than the Orca—the kind responsible for the death of Dawn Brancheau—which breeds as many new questions as it helps us to understand what went wrong that day. Researchers recently released findings of Orca whales’ remarkable ability not just to understand human behavior but imitate it, a trait they associate directly with advanced intelligence.

tilikum Killer whale at Seaworld
by SMSea

Dogs, as a reference point, can be trained to respond to specific behaviors but this is due to a simplified process of assigning a sound or imagine to a basic action—“sit”—without actually understanding the connection between the word and the action. Orca whales like the ones in the scientists’ study were found to have a far more complex understanding of behaviors, including watching birds hunt for fish in their pools and learning how to hide fish near their mouths in order to bait the birds themselves. This is not call and response, it’s an advanced understanding not just of what the birds are doing, but of why and how they were doing it.

While research is always shedding light on the intellectual prowess of whales, identifying where it comes from has proved much harder. Many have cited the complex socioecological systems whales inhabit in the wild that has caused whales, like humans, to have to interact with and understand a large variety of life forms in order to have all their survival needs met. But the Orcas in the imitation study were all Seaworld Orcas, some even born into captivity.

The mystery of how an animal so foreign looking can have a better understanding of our actions and behaviors than the dogs and cats we bring into our homes is scary to some, endlessly fascinating to others, but undoubtedly brings up questions for all that are harder to answer than for other animals: not simply what happened or how it happened, but why?

Out of Sight, Always in Mind

Another key part of the Orca mystery is the world they inhabit in the wild. It may seem a pretty boring, obvious statement to say that whales live in the ocean but the implications of that are actually quite intriguing. The debate over Orcas in captivity stretches far beyond the scientific community but for many who are not marine biologists or part of well-funded advocacy groups, captivity has been the only way we’ve been able to have personal interactions with these mythic creatures. Because of this, on the whole humans have nearly no interaction with these animals outside of films and photographs.

Because we’re given only a glimpse of Orca life, we’re unfamiliar with what’s it’s like to just be around them, what they do when no one is watching, how they interact with each other in intimate, private moments. So when something unexpected like Tilikum’s attack takes place, we have no knowledge to base our understandings on.

We are certain something “wrong” has happened but we can’t really be sure. Do Orca’s frequently attack perceived predators? Do they lash out when on the hunt or are they more likely to attack from a defensive place? Of course there is extensive research that tells us how Orcas behave and what motivates them but this is still a very removed sense of understanding compared to, say, our almost instinctive understanding that a dog with its ears and tail lowered is acting out of fear.

Having experience with Orcas in only one, rather contrived, environment can breed a false understanding for many about what motivates them and why they behave the way they do. Our relative inability to witness and interact with Orca whales is another key aspect to what makes them such an unknown creature in our minds.

Can You Hear Me?

Nothing breeds a sense of exclusion more than being in the presence of inclusion. While their distinctive intellect and relative unknown lifestyles in the wild make Orca whales difficult to understand, their style of communication—complex and dense in a way similar to human communication though as of yet still undecipherable to people—is fascinating to study and can be a bit frightening to witness. Orcas have no sense of smell and while they’re equipped with great eyesight, vision gets you only so far in the dark depths of the ocean.

Orcas primary sense and form of communication is through sound. Various calls and songs have been recorded throughout Orca families or pods as they are known and they utilize a complicated form of clicks and echolocation similar to that of SONAR technology to map their routes and find prey. While we fear sharks for their primitive and instinct-driven approach to hunting, Orcas are in many ways far more frightening to some because of their ability to communicate at such an advanced level.

Knowing this, it becomes hard to see Tilkum’s attack as an unconscious rage outburst, and raises questions about not only about what he may have been thinking, but what the other Orcas that he lived with knew about his emotional state and intentions that day. Was he even acting out of his own fear/anger or was Tilikum directed by one of the other Orcas who may have misunderstood what was taking place with his trainer?

Orca whales in the ocean
By Miles Ritter

Still more interesting is that despite our inability to crack the Orca code, many studies have shown that these whales both in the wild and in captivity are remarkably able to understand human languages, including indications that they are able to differentiate based on the tone of the voice whether they are being praised or chided. Is it possible that even if a misunderstanding had taken place that Dawn Brancheau could have tried to convince Tilikum he was making a mistake and he could have ignored her? The more we learn that we share with Orcas, the more mysterious they seem to become in our minds.

 A remarkable gift of intellectual prowess, almost totally hidden existence from the average person, and a complex form of communication within pods as well as with other species like humans keeps the Orca whale at the forefront of our intrigue and yet keeps us far removed from our ability to comprehend the actions and emotions of the so-called Killer Whales.

The Official Blackfish Movie Trailer

Whatever side of the controversy over whale captivity you fall on, favoring an end to what may only be described as maltreatment of Orcas or advocating the incredible contribution to our understanding and ability to help protect them that human custody has given us, the Orca whale has and will for some time yet hold a distinct place in our collective imagination as a beautiful and brilliant, terrifying and tortured creature.