The Science of Sustainability

Why Killer Whales Don’t Eat People: Where Science and Legend Meet

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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.

See the related Video, Science on the SPOT: Sound Waves – Listening to Orcas:

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Category: Biology, Environment

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Ethan Morris

About the Author ()

Ethan Morris is the Senior Producer at KCTS where he oversees local broadcasts including weekly programs, specials, town halls and investigations. Before coming to KCTS, he was the Senior News Producer at KOMO-TV in Seattle and a special commentator for ABC’s World News Now on Northwest news stories and issues. He has won three Emmy Awards, three regional Edward R. Murrow Awards, and the National Edward R. Murrow for coverage of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake. In his spare time, Ethan is pursuing a law degree from Seattle University. In his spare, spare time, you’ll likely find him training for his next half-marathon.
  • http://beamreach.org Scott Veirs

    The artwork on Val and Leslie's guesthouse wall is a depiction of the story of Natsiclane by artist Odin Lonning who is based on Vashon Island. You can see more of his great work at http://www.odinlonning.com/ as well as in the orca section of the Seattle Aquarium.

  • HASSAN

    i just wanted to prove to my my mom that orcas dont eat each other

  • Anonymous

    I don't see how the author came to the conclusion that orcas don't eat people out of a cultural convention. Yes, they're intelligent and observe cultural customs (as MANY animals do), that doesn't have anything to do with leaving humans alone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sabastious Alex Strait

    I would say that that there has been enough interaction between the species of the Orca and humanity for them learn the consequences of killing humans. Sure, maybe an Orca can kill a group of humans on a boat or easily best a single human, but the exchange is ultimately not worth it. Humans are smarter and have the capability to target and destroy entire species based on prejudice. Think of how a tribe would react if an Orca made a meal out of the chief's daughter? Imo, the Orca intuitively know the risk vs reward of killing other humans and that's why they don't do it. Somehow that awareness got programmed into their genetics, maybe because of an ancient Orca/Human war which would have just been a slaughter in favor of the humans. Our brains cannot be matched, that's why we are the dominant species on the planet. Don't kill, or capture, our young, because there WILL be consequences.

    • John G

      That is an interesting theory and who knows there may be some truth to it. I mean think about it. There is strong evidence to suggest that mammoths are extinct because of man. The American lion is extinct and so is the Saber tooth cat. Most of these can easily kill a man, but no doubt because of our intelligence we were no doubt instrumental in their extinction.

      So maybe as you say there was a 'war' between these two 'intelligent' species, and maybe perhaps it was a draw. And the peace treaty commenced.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ravenbo39 Raven Bo

        Saber booth was very specialized so tooth will hamper killing a human.
        Also, I bet orca think of us as we think of rat. Could be eaten on survival, but not when they have way more then enough food to be picky.

        Other than that, they probably communicate over time that humans are generally not fat and tasty. Also they figure humans are no longer threat and very smart with technologies.

      • lupusposse

        Intelligence is a rather poorly-defined term.

        The Orca brain, by the way, is over 5x the size of human; human brains in turn appear to have shrunk somewhat in the past 10,00 years. We know that orcas separated from their group for over 30 years grow excited in unique ways when hearing recordings of their relatives. We also know that dolphins invent games, even when starved and imprisoned in human exhibits. They grow bored and in the case of human fatalities, have a limit on how much mistreatment they will tolerate.
        The largest-brained land mammal is the elephant. Another highly social predator is the Humpback whale, with a brain about Orca-sized.
        The world's largest brain is the Sperm Whale, and we know extremely little about what it does with it, having only, like ticks or other ectoparasites, used a larger species with bigger brain for human consumption.

        Large brains, aside from their relationship to body mass, may be greatly involved with social coalition, complexity of symbolic communication, and other variables in mammals.

        Humans have evolved a complex manipulative ability, which is by no means equaled in cognitive skill. There are other human traits at odds with a definitive assessment of intelligence. Our symbolic communication has the defect of allowing deception, and this may be why our brain is enlarged in certain ways. If deception and the ability to detect it within our species is intelligence, it might be considered that that is a woefully limited description of the concept.

        Intelligence might be usefully defined as an organism's fitness within its niche or habitat. Since both large-brained organisms like humans, and smaller brains as cockroach (a surprisingly intelligent and responsive social animal, having found commensal skills, and so not itself needing to modify habitats, as its best partisan does the work) are successful, any arrogation of intelligence to one's own species could be shown to be in error.

    • Claudia Peters

      Humans are smarter??
      CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON: Well I think that intelligence can be defined in many ways. I happen to believe that intelligence is best to find by the ability to live in harmony with the natural world, to live within the context of the basic laws of ecology, and by that criteria human beings are not that intelligent.

  • Hawaii Dave

    If Orca's are that smart, they might have figured out that we are slaughterers of anything we choose to annihilate. I also think we are not their normal food. Unless they have special powers of telepathy, most Orcas never cross paths, and it would be difficult to tell each other to stay smart, stay safe, and leave those crazy humans alone. So it is probably a combination of several things.

  • http://twitter.com/joey89924 joey

    it would be difficult to tell each other to stay smart..
    MC34063

  • Barbara

    It certainly isn't because they found us worthy of coexistence, they have no trouble killing their cousins, the dolphins.

  • http://www.facebook.com/howard.garrett1 Howard Garrett

    Orcas don't seem to act according to hard-wired instinct, but rather according to traditions transmitted over the generations. One of those traditions that is apparently universal among all orcas is that humans should not be attacked or eaten. For contrast, sharks kill 4.4 humans per year worldwide according to news media, so sharks, acting out of instinct, make no distinction between humans and marine mammals or fish. Orcas are generally very specific about what they will eat, depending on their community's dietary traditions.

  • Peter Limburg

    There was a case some years ago of two orcas deliberately smashing and sinking a sailing yacht in the Pacific, although they did not attack the humans on board. One of the survivors wrote a book about it.

  • Prepper

    I knew this was going to turn into another whacko environmental TREEHUMPER article!

  • Tango&Cash

    I'd say it's because they are smart and realize we're even smarter. They've seen the boats, the fishermen. They recognize us from their travels at sea. They see us as a danger as do most animals because they've seen how effectively humans hunt much larger animals.They also see us as a source of food. We chum the ocean in search of fish. That draws their prey to a centralized area. They can use us to hunt their prey because they know we can find the fish.

  • Jill of NY

    Humans don't live in the Ocean, so were not on the Menu.

    • Michelle Lloyd

      tell that to just about everything else in the sea lol

    • batvette

      Orcas are well known to eat deer.

  • Diana G

    Yeah I agree we don't live in the ocean, that probably has something to do with it. Can you imagine a Lion eating Jelly Fish or Squid if it showed up in its territory? We are probably just as weird to them. Check out the site Psychicsbyphone.com if you have time.

  • Live_Love_Teach

    Ethan, This is a nicely well written article of the Tilingit history of Orcas. Thank you for sharing it. Such an interesting perspective. I will probably share it with my students this year, when we do a unit on global perspectives.
    I don't know if your article was at all related, but the documentary film Blackfish (about whales in captivity) was just released. Looks thought-provoking and certainly speaks to some of the points folks have made about whales in animal parks.

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  • Counterculturalist

    If orcas had thumbs and walked on land we would definitely be screwed :(

    • josh

      no, theyd be screwed.

      • Counterculturalist

        how?

        • TheEvilGenius

          Humans are the most successful animals on land because no species is better at slaughtering the competition.

  • darwinski

    How about the kid eaten on youtube June 9th 2013.Looks pretty freakin' real to me!

  • batvette

    It seems the conclusions here were reached more on ideology than science, specifically:

    " It may very well be that within “orca culture” there is a social norm not to go after people."

    Sounds like someone has been to the Timothy Treadwell school of animal research.

    It is logical to assume we aren't as tasty as a sea lion pup or salmon. I think currently it has as much to do with this as anything- the latitudes orcas call their habitat have water that's cold enough that no humans enter the water without wetsuits or similar gear. Neoprene not only tastes awful, it has a pungent smell. A wetsuit in an orca's digestive system probably makes him sick or could even be fatal. Especially with other scuba gear. Since we know they communicate and learn, the few orcas unfortunate enough to try and dine on a wetsuit wearing human probably passed the word that that seal in the neoprene wrapper wasn't good eating.

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