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The Hidden Orca Behaviours You’ll Only See in the Wild

January 27, 2016

For Rachael Merrett, it’s difficult to put a finger on the real reason she’s drawn to the Orca whales of the pacific northwest and British Columbia’s coastal waters.

“It’s partly selfish,” Rachael says. “I simply need to go see them. There’s a connection that I’ve always felt, and I’m only satisfied in my career when I get to learn and experience these creatures in their natural habitat.”

I’ve talked to Rachael before about her various contributions to marine sustainability and conservation in BC, but for someone so heavily invested in the future of these animals, it’s important to understand the origins of that obsession.

“The other part is education. When you can take people out who really identify with killer whales with what they’ve seen in documentaries or in captivity, and to look deeper into their personalities is so important. “Hey, this is Blackberry, or that’s Polaris and Polaris has a sister and an uncle that’s younger than her daughter,” these types of connections made within the family unit humanize the whales and helps the public understand how intelligent and caring they are.”

Their social structure, language, feeding habits, how they’re specialized into distinct populations that don’t interbreed with other populations; these elements are all part of Rachael’s message to the public, because the more people care about something, the more likely they’ll be willing to help protect it, either with action, words or simple awareness.

Here’s the rest of my interview with Orca Spirit’s Rachael Merrett.

Kelvin: What are some of the typical orca activities human beings can only experience close up in the wild?

Rachael: Everything.


(Laughs) But really, there’s no replacement for the experience in the wild. When people see a killer whale interact with their offspring, with their children or their extended family, that’s something they won’t experience anywhere else but the wild. We’ve had killer whales slip out of the water with salmon in their mouth and head over to a family member who ripped off a big chunk, so we’ve seen them actually sharing their lunch. These are wild creatures driven for one purpose: food. Right? Well, maybe not, not if they’re sharing their food with others.

Another fascinating activity is watching them sleep. It might sound boring, but one of my best memories was watching 41 members of L-pod lined up in a perfectly straight line sleeping. It was right next to Race Rocks, they were all making psychical contact with the whale next to them. To watch 41 dorsal fins come up at the same time and then submerge in this rhythmic behaviour was just… I can’t explain it. It was mesmerizing.

Everyone loves the classic behaviours too, the breach is one of the most powerful acts of wildness you’ll ever see. People love the spy hops and tail flaps, too. People love the action.

For the new observer, seeing that action is what they’ve come to expect, but for yourself, it’s almost the hidden behaviours that strike more of a chord.

I’d say so, but I love it all. I remember watching a baby play with bull kelp. She was a three year-old named Joy, she’d hold one end of the kelp in her mouth and the other in her tail, and she’d stretch her body out and breach and breach, probably thirty or so times with this big string of bull kelp stretched across her belly. It was hilarious. So that was a little bit of everything.

When it comes to the differences between the wild and captivity, it’s clearly a different life, a different world altogether.

Yes. Every single behaviour is different. The biggest factor is that every behaviour in the wild is done by choice. Killer whales in captivity don’t vocalize the same way because they don’t need to. There’s no one to talk to anyways, and they’re in a tank so the sound just reverberates off concrete. If you put a hydrophone in the ocean when you’re on a boat it’s a never-ending symphony of clicks, beeps, and whistles. Constant chatter. It’s fascinating just to hear them talk back and forth.

Studies have shown that most killer whales stop vocalizing in captivity, and a lot of scientists believe it’s because the vibrations and noise coming back from the concrete is simply irritating. I don’t want to slam aquariums entirely, but facts are facts. You’re never going to see them hunting in captivity, you’ll never experience the thrill of watching that transient family preying on a sea lion or seal. You feel bad for the seal, but at the same time, it’s an orca whale, that’s the food chain. You feel like you’re in a National Geographic documentary, it’s incredible, and captivity just isn’t their natural environment, so these natural behaviours are prohibited entirely.

Captivity used to serve an educational purpose. Are we past that now?

I think the entire system of capturing whales and dolphins is collapsing and on its way out for good. Will they be around in ten years? Not in the capacity we see now, but I can see a pretty strong push from that industry to hold onto the whales they have until they die. But at least they’ll stop capturing new ones. In North America, there’s laws against importing animals from other parts of the world already. It’s going to take a while to phase out. Even Sea World in California is going to stop doing performances.

It’s happening slowly but surely, and the more people who appreciate what these animals bring in the wild, in our back yard, the more pressure there is to speed up that process.

With people like you contributing so much time and energy, Rachael, it can only help the process. Thanks so much!

You’re welcome.



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