Insights from an Orca Expert
Hanne Strager, the author of The Killer Whale Journals, shares insights about these fascinating creatures—with some of her stunning photos—since she began researching and working alongside orcas decades ago.
"When an orca submerges below the surface of the sea, it enters a world where the light quickly fades, and vision plays only a minor role. Orcas are highly social animals. To communicate with each other, they rely on hearing instead of seeing. As a group of orcas moves through the water, they vocalize and emit melodious whistle-like calls. Sounds travel very well in water, and the orcas can communicate even if they are miles apart.
Hearing these sounds was one of my first encounters with orcas, and it changed the trajectory of my life. It is hard to imagine a realm that is more different to ours than living in a cold, dark, three-dimensional watery world. To realize that orcas—just like us—stay in touch, call out for each other, and use vocal communication as a way of keeping their closely knit families together was a revelation to me. I understood that even if their way of life is very different from ours, we also share something important.
Knowledge about orcas—how they live, how they catch food, how they communicate and how they are organized socially—is key to their conservation. Orcas have been hunted and persecuted, and thousands have been killed either because they were seen as competitors in the fishery or because they were simply seen as evil monsters. When people in areas where orcas live learn more about their behaviors. they also change their attitudes about them. Realizing how much we share with orcas creates a strong connection to these misunderstood predators.
As a marine mammal biologist, I have met hunters and fishermen who thought that orca populations should be “controlled” and that there were too many of them. But I have also seen how these attitudes can change over time and be replaced by a different, more nuanced view.
Orcas can be found in all the world’s oceans, but most of the orca populations in the world are small, consisting of just a few hundred individuals or less, and many of their populations are threatened or endangered.
Part of what makes orcas interesting is also what makes them vulnerable. Orcas are specialists. Some populations, like those found in the Pacific Northwest, have specialized in eating salmon, while others in the same area eat seals and sea lions. Some orcas in Brazil and Gibraltar eat tuna, while in Norway and Iceland, orcas eat herring. These specializations are learned behaviors, and it takes a great deal of skill to catch prey. These skills are socially transmitted from generation to generation. Along with the orca populations’ dietary specializations, groups of orcas have different, specific vocal dialects that are maintained through social learning. Because these behaviors are transferred from individual to individual through learning, biologists call them animal cultures. Orcas, along with sperm whales, humpback whales, and some species of dolphins, all have their own specific cultures.
Therefore, losing a population of orcas can also mean losing that population’s unique culture. Just like human cultures, animal cultures are valuable and unique. They are part of the intricate pattern of biodiversity, which is a pattern that transcends species."