Thursday, February 25, 2010
February 25, 2010
I have a deep connection with Orcas. I saw them at Sea World in Orlando, and I just knew that it was the equivalent of meeting a prisoner of war and trying to imagine what he’d be like if he was at home, being a human being. So, twice in as many years, I flew out to Sea-Tac, rented a car, drove to the north end of Vancouver Island, and hired Dennis Richards to take me out to meet wild orcas. Dennis is unique. As a kid, he used to climb out of a window at school and go out on Johnstone Strait in a small boat. He mostly guides groups of kayakers, but I hired him to go out in his Zodiac, just the two of us.
When I arrived at the Port McNeill marina, I telephoned Dennis. A fellow in a tiny aluminum boat stood up, turned and waved at me. I walked down the dock and we shook hands. Then he explained that some British soldiers had borrowed his Zodiac and torn it badly on a rock…so we would be using the cockleshell of a dinghy he was standing in. And, he was struggling to get the little Merc motor to work. How reassuring. It was also on the very end of the season, being the first week in October, and he informed me that most of the resident pods had already left for the winter. Great!
Next day, I awakened in my motel room to the sound of roaring wind. I called Dennis and he reassured me we were going nowhere near the water as long as it kept up. I explored and at one point, I visited Telegraph Cove, where I was able to get eyes on a view looking down the strait. I saw 50 foot salmon boats taking green water over their bows as they bucked heavy seas to get to places where they would begin a fishing season the next day. FYI: in B.C. and Alaska, wardens open seasons over the radio, and close them again as soon as they feel the feeding frenzy has scooped up a suitable haul.
The following dawn brought sunshine and calm winds. The little Merc sputtered to life and we headed out into the wilds of British Columbia. It was an awesome feeling. And, we searched…and searched….and searched…for a pod. Nothing. We camped that night at Dennis’s ‘float camp’, an actual house that had long ago been plopped on a huge raft made up of logs about five feet in diameter. It was anchored in a cove on the back side of Hanson I. and Dennis warned me that things would get noisy when it settled on the mud at low-tide during the night. He was right; it sounded like every joint in the house was being flexed when that happened.
Morning found us out on the strait again. We found a cliff near Robson Bight—the famous ‘rubbing beach’ where orcas come to use the black stone gravel as a massage tool—and we settled in to glass the strait. Half an hour later, at the very limit of visibility to the south, I saw a spout….then another, and another. It was a pod, still miles away, but coming up the strait. When they were about a mile away, we got in our doughty wee craft and headed out into the middle of the crystalline jade water. As they came closer, Dennis chided me to put my camera away. I knew he was right; I didn’t want to spend the next minutes looking at these creatures through a lens. He positioned us in the path of the pod and as they approached, breathing at regular intervals, sending clouds of spray with each ‘WOOSH’, a large male took a breath and submerged, passing directly under the boat. As he did so, he turned on his side and our eyes met, at a distance of about 8 feet. I could have jumped right out of my skin. It was an intentional meeting. He wanted to see me as much as I wanted to see him.
Despite the fact that I had looked into the eyes of the largest carnivore and predator on the planet, I felt nothing but a powerful sensation of awe. It even brought tears of joy and a swelling feeling in my chest. There was no fear, no “Holy Sh*t! He could flip the boat if he wanted to,” moment. He was magnificent and he was benign. Prior to that trip I had read all I could find about orcas. I was especially impressed and amazed by the research findings of Paul Spong. He had a research lab not a mile from where this stunning encounter happened, and I would meet him that afternoon. I am also privileged to know Roger Payne, one of the top cetologists in the world and the man who discovered that humpback whales compose 30 minute songs that they then sing, verbatim, again and again. And the following year they use those songs as the bases for the new composition for that year. Both men have made cetaceans their life-long passions. Both men are utterly convinced that we DO NOT know what cetaceans use their huge brains for.
Roger will tell you that this is the all-time leading question for anybody who studies whales. He will also remind you that evolution does not provide such massive brain-power unless there is a reason to do so. It is a response and an adaptation….but to WHAT?
Orcas—and all Odontoceti, toothed whales-- have a pro-limbic node in their brain that utilizes both auditory perception and conceptual input. Some suppose that it indicates that they can send pictures—yes, like television—with their sounds. At any given moment in a burst of sound, a dolphin or whale is sending about 20,000 times as much information as can be transmitted by the human voice. Apparently, they can distinguish a cod from a salmon, sixty feet away and in the dark. Hmmmmmmm.......
Believe this: WE ARE NOT SMART ENOUGH OURSELVES TO KNOW WHO THE WHALES REALLY ARE. They are 30 million years older and a lot of evolution has taken place in them that we cannot comprehend at this point. Neither will we find out who they are by putting them in tanks and pretending that we are their masters. When you see a pod of orcas swimming free, and you begin to understand how complex and refined their society is, you might also begin to believe that we cannot actually capture any orca that doesn’t volunteer to be captured. They could easily jump out of the pens that have been used to transport them in most cases.
So, in the wake of an orca killing a trainer at Sea World, what I really want you to understand is this: if somebody put you in close confinement, in what constitutes essentially an ‘echo chamber’ and kept you there indefinitely, treating you as if you were stupid, asking you to perform inane tricks that mostly served to demonstrate their complete mastery over you……about how long to do you think it would be before you were insane?