Call him Ishmael ……. A tribute to Orcas

Call him Ishmael…

Just as our killer whale rises from the ocean, I have divided this article, loosely, into: sinking, rising emerging and zenithing to metaphorically explore a relationship with Orcinus orca.

I grew up knowing them as killer whales, I liked that they were killers, and I tend to call them that. Many people now prefer to call them orcas but, for an animal that has been found with 13 porpoises and parts of 14 seals in a single individual, that kills and eats whales bigger than itself as well as ponies and dogs off pack ice and that torpedoes itself onto beaches to catch sea lions from the land, I think you can safely use either name.

Magnificent, iconic, awe-inspiring and terrifying lords of the ocean, it is difficult not to be impressed by killer whales or orcas. I was impressed from a very early age and, when Dudley Zoo advertised ‘Cuddles’ the killer whale on TV; I think it said, “he’s waiting for you at Dudley Zoo,” I could think of little else. So we went to the zoo.

Sinking – The underworld of humanity and orca

The reality was confusing. The orca was indeed impressive but his pool was little more than a puddle. It didn’t seem right but the zoo were proud of it, the crowd loved it. Cuddles wasn’t waiting, he was languishing in boredom and squalor. I was later to work at Dudley Zoo (by then in new hands with a conservation remit) and heard the story of Cuddles’ declining health in what was clearly too small a pool even to a 7 year old. I heard how the staff, people who cared about animals, had had to do the best they could with inadequate facilities because the owners wanted to make money out of killer whales – shame on them. The Curator told me of the heart-breaking shock of finding Cuddles dead in the ‘puddle’; grim poetry indeed.

Cuddles was captured in Yukon Harbour in 1968 and lived another 5 years before dying of a combination of infections, most likely brought about by the stress of confinement, loneliness and boredom. We didn’t go back to see Cuddles but, by chance, I got to see Winston (from Iceland) at Windsor Safari Park and Ulises (also from Iceland) at Barcelona Zoo.

Hollywood Star!

Perhaps worse still is the story of the star of Free Willy  – that is, the captive orca who played the part of Willy (known as Siggi, then Kago, then Keiko) –  who was eventually freed but was presumed starved and certainly only survived a year. This whale, caught in Icelandic waters moved through a range of grotty aquaria from Iceland through Canada to Mexico ending with media and Hollywood hype being spent along with $20million on an emission rich publicity rich, futile attempt to set him free. Free, in the sense of leaving a baby alone in the woods and hoping it will do OK. Let’s hope it’s a global lesson learned. All three whales had more space than Cuddles (though temperature control wasn’t always that great) but lone killer whales in concrete pools cannot be right.

Appendix 6 of Eric Hoyt’s book ‘Orca – a whale called killer’ makes depressing reading but there are a couple of listings of escapes. One escape is Ishmael, a 5 metre long male caught in Yukon Harbour along with Cuddles – it’s possible they were siblings.  Ishmael was held by the US Navy for 2 years before escaping in Oahu leaving another whale from the same capture, Ahab, behind, well sort of; Ahab was chased for 50 miles before his recapture. The navy apparently dubbed killer whales ‘uncooperative’ but they learned some good stuff from them, out there in ‘Project Deep-ops’. The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats tells me that they were trained to find torpedoes and missiles and attach flotation devices to them. Ahab made a recorded dive of over 250 metres, staying under for over 7 minutes. But whilst they accepted the training, co-operating in the open sea, they did not like discipline or monotony and had little respect for the navy gadgetry they were made to carry; the Navy’s not for everyone, and things turned sour.

Ishmael had his challenges back in the wild, far from home, but my depiction is of him, free at last, heading home. I’ve straightened his dorsal fin.

Rising – confounding humanity

Among my favourite childhood reads were the accounts of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition encountering orcas attempting to dislodge their dogs and ponies from ice flows. The men had clearly never come across such bold and fearsome foes. They describe the orcas working as a team to break the ice and tip the ice sheets to slide the prey into water or waiting mouths. The orcas are not described in flattering terms at all and one of the heroes of the expedition resorted to killing ponies with a pick axe in order to prevent them from being eaten alive by the orcas. Perhaps a pony god looking down decided that ‘the pick axe dude deserves to stay here for eternity’. Perhaps the orca god blessed him for preparing the meal so it wouldn’t kick and bruise their delicate chins and cheeks. What I loved about it was that resilient ambitious men wanting to stick a flag in the bottom of the World (read that as you wish) were faltering against nature and not just nature, animals.

I don’t want either me or my dog to be swallowed by a killer whale, nor for that matter would I wish it on Scott or his dogs and ponies, but I like the humility that their ability to do it can bring to humans not armed with the appropriate technology. Orca epitomise the power of nature for me in a single animal.

a tribute to orcas

Whale watching

I have never seen a live wild orca and I may never see one and I’m sure no orcas have any desire to see me. I’m happy for other people to see them and shall be glad if I do see one, but really I am happy to know they are there and hope for a chance encounter – hopefully not like Scott’s where I lose my cool and kill my dog or a companion. Without a pick axe, it would have to be a paddle or my camera that I bashed them to death with (in fairness I think Birdie Bowers knew where to hit the ponies to kill them with a single blow but it must have been a pretty gob-smacking sight for men, orcas and the waiting ponies).

I don’t think my need is great enough to warrant contributing to the emissions from Heathrow or other airports nor do I have any desire to chase whales (animals sensitive to chemical and noise pollution) in a motor boat. This may seem gloomy advice for anyone who really, really, really wants to see an orca because, perhaps, they love them? I love orcas and the best way I can think of to help them, if you really love them, is to make the oceans a better place, to adopt a wild whale to aid their study and conservation (preferably remotely rather than chasing them in noisy polluting boats) and to tell people about them. Perhaps you could lobby for whale watching companies to return to sail or oar, perhaps in replicas of Viking long-ships, as long as the Vikings (the punters rowing their own transport?) can keep quiet. I have seen the evidence that whales and dolphins actually approach boats by choice; well whoopy! I’ve seen people approach junk food restaurants, bars and tobacco stands by choice but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them and with the noise of a motor in the water, as a snorkeler, I am pretty sure they can’t concentrate on anything else until it has gone.

Noise and movement attracts the curious instinctively, just as light attracts moths and large floating objects attract things that want to hide behind them and things that want to eat the things that are hiding. Look how many people were attracted to the Titanic, not their best ticket. Mallory was attracted to Mount Everest, Scott to the Antarctic, Pliny to Vesuvius and perhaps most importantly, native peoples to settlers. My advice to cetaceans, keep your distance, don’t accept their treats, hopefully, for your sake, they’ll go away.

This is undoubtedly a double edged sword as many whale watch boat companies are funding conservation and important research, but not all, and I hope every one of them is bettering themselves for a better ocean. Better oceans mean more whales and a better chance to see them from cliffs and quiet boats. Humans are resourceful animals and it is now possible for all of us to see, hear and know much more about orcas than has ever been possible before getting closer than we are ever likely to in the wild without intrusion or pollution. Admittedly, seeing and hearing isn’t touching or feeling but really, is it that important that people get to touch whales? We don’t invite people we don’t know to touch us or our children so why is it so important for whales? Does it benefit the whale? I say this not because I want to deny anyone their aspirations, but just to think. Eager friendly missionaries went trundling into the new world with gifts of smallpox and measles, whilst giving the impression that all folk like them were friendly folk. In this age of ‘bucket lists’ many people choose, off the shelf bucket list ideas instead of actually thinking of their own and, frankly, in conservation and environmental terms, many bucket lists should stay in the bucket. For me, there is no greater pleasure than sitting in the garden with my family, watching birds and butterflies come and go freely, no chasing. £2000 or whatever, spent on a whale watching holiday could be £2000 given directly to their conservation, without contributing anything to noise and pollution and probably with a more rewarding feeling and longer lasting effects. Just don’t let them spend it on a bigger, faster boat!

A tribute to Orcas

Keen to celebrate my love of the orca I never considered the possibility of seeing or affording to see orcas in the wild but simply decided to draw one and then to make a model. My first free-hand sculpture. To do this I took known measurement of orcas and transferred them to paper. I then worked out the other dimensions by measuring photographs. From that I produced sketches, a model and finally the image of Ishmael.

a tribute to orcas


a tribute to orcas

a tribute to orcas


I should confess at this point that I did become a passenger on a whale watching boat, twice. Visiting family in New England in 1991 it was considered to be something all visitors must do; to go and see the humpback whales. On the first trip there were only distant glimpses but on the second we went with a more reputable company. The presenter told us over the deafening tannoy that whale watching must be conducted sensitively and within the law. Boats must not approach whales directly and must stay a certain distance away. If the whales approach the boat, well that’s OK. We cruised into a whale hot spot and drew up near a humpback whale, blowing through her blowhole and splashing her giant fins. Then in the distance we all, including the Captain, saw a whale breach about half a mile away near another large whale watch boat and another smaller boat. Despite what the presenter said on the tannoy, our boat swung around and headed straight over to the commotion, the presenter was uncharacteristically silent. The smaller boat was a power boat driven by some young guys, trying to get as close to the whale as possible. There were actually many around us including a minke whale. The presenter told us, and all at sea for at least a mile around, that the power boat dudes were acting outside the law and with no regard for their own safety or that of the whale. They were very close; I couldn’t keep them out of my photo. From what I have seen most whale watching is a bit like this… companies desperate to do the right thing, skirting close to the fringes of law and what they know is right or perhaps a little wrong but, ‘just this time’.

a tribute to the orca

A small rant from me

Here’s a true, if slightly dull story that has happened more than once. I am sitting on the cliff watching the dolphins and sea birds and listening to the calls and whooshes from blow holes which mingles with the buzz of bees, the call of song birds and the washing up of waves on the shore. It is the ideal soundtrack for a relaxation recording. Then I hear a deeper hum in the distance. Coming around the cape, two miles away is a long red power boat. Through my binoculars I see it is crammed full of people. Its 10 o clock, the first boat load of tourists. The noise of the engine fills the air and seems to vibrate the entire sea which in turn seems to vibrate the air and my seat on the tranquil cliff is now more like my kitchen with the spin dryer going.

The dolphins seem to move a little further out to sea, as do the gannets but it may simply be that they seem further away because I can no longer see them. Then the tannoy bellows out. The earnest young woman speaking is telling the passengers about the birdlife and jellyfish and the delicate web of nature. She needs the tannoy in order to be heard above the drumming sound of the engine. They reach the dolphins and the noise drowns out everything else now. The people aboard sit pretty much stock-still; there are  grandparents with  grandchildren and parents in between. The formerly blissfully peaceful coastal path is empty all the way along.

What seem to be happening here is that the people have climbed aboard a floating TV lounge to go out and see real dolphins, as if on TV. It’s probably on their bucket list to see dolphins and there they are, in a bucket, seeing dolphins, yay! I like that they want to see nature, I’ve been in a similar bucket, but it would be nice if they could hear nature too and I worry for the sensitive ears of the echolocators who are probably more intelligent than I am.  The boat turns and follows its oily slick back to harbour passing another out-coming boat on the way. The stock-still people prove for a moment that they are not toys or crash-test dummies by waving to their contemporaries on the other boat which the tannoys explain are sister ships. Back in harbour the same people who waved, walk past each other without even a glance. I muse that those boats would be much lighter without their engines, light enough for the crew or passengers to row, perhaps they could afford more crew if they paid nothing for fuel. The boats frequently pass sculling teams or rowing clubs without them looking at each other. Couldn’t the rowing team even tow the tourist boat? Just for some quiet above and below the water. Surely there’s some HLF money just waiting to be spent on a silent, or sonically sensitive, whale watch.

It is perhaps a little unfair of me to snipe at whale watch boats. They are probably in most cases more important as guardians and educators than they are harmful, but if even the guardians are causing a problem it feels to me like the only way is down.

Whale watchers around the world… please be innovative for the environment, for the whales and all our sakes.

Wondering if my concerns about noise have any real foundation in fact I performed a very quick internet search… “noise from whale watch boats” and found a paper by the Fisheries and Oceans institute of Canada in Marine Mammal Science (as long ago as 2002) raising concerns that noise from whale watching boats isn’t just intrusive, but is loud enough to cause deafness in killer whales. Please, look it up for yourselves and do the right thing. Further down there are bigger concerns than whale watching boats. The Salish Sea population of orcas off the North American west coast is down to 75 animals (under the stewardship of two of the World’s wealthiest countries) and they are said to be “drowning in noise” due to ever increasing sea traffic. Politicians and public alike have been warned by the International Commission on Climate Change that urgent, immediate action is needed to cut emissions. All this noise, deafening marine mammals, is the noise of emissions.

a tribute to orcas

Emerging – Humanity learns about Orcas

Cuddles, Ishmael and Keiko (Willy) were part of a surge of whale captures that began in the mid-1960s after a harpooned killer whale survived in captivity for a year and became a celebrity. ‘Killer’ suddenly seemed a bit fierce. Seattle Aquarium, Canadian fishermen and others began a commercial fishing and distribution system which led to about 40 aquariums exhibiting them. Some were praised and popular but some, combined with deaths at capture sites, caused an outcry. This may have been a good thing out of a bad because before they were familiar to the public, in 1956, the US Navy destroyed hundreds of killer whales off Iceland who were blamed for destroying fishing nets. They used machine guns, rockets and depth charges but they were not alone, there was a pretty much global shoot on sight policy among mariners for many years after.  Now those who loved the aquarium shows loved killer whales and those who hated the aquarium shows and capture of whales also loved killer whales and in order to appease one side, the other performed research and even conservation to reduce public pressure. The name orca began to be used in preference to killer. We began to get to know them.

A tribute to Orcas

Sometimes growing to over 9 metres long (just over 30 feet or about 9 of your strides), the largest of the dolphins, the two-tone, 6 ton majesty of the orca is iconic of ‘the other world’ on Earth. The dorsal fin alone can be over 5 feet tall; the tallest in the animal kingdom. Imagine yourself standing on Ishmael’s back with his fin reaching chest height or higher. The female has a hooked, dorsal fin like that of a dolphin but the mature male’s is tall and triangular and difficult to confuse with any other species. Orcas are also amongst the fastest swimmers, cutting through the water at about 30mph. Probably the most widespread of all mammals; Orcas are divided into races and sub-species with diverse behaviours and needs. The IUCN cannot effectively give them a conservation status because work on taxonomy and distribution is so sketchy. We don’t know if there is one orca with different races or behaviours or two or more orca species. I have a poster illustrating 10 types. Although there are thought to be 50,000 or more worldwide (roughly equal to the human population of Clacton on Sea or the workers in a single strong beehive) they show problems linked to human activity, especially pollutants and sheer lack of prey due to over-fishing. If we simply divide (for convenience) our 50,000 whales by 10 we’re left with 5000 of each type. That’s not a fact, there are less of some and more of others but suddenly the distinct populations don’t look so viable. That figure, 5000, is less than the population of Sumatran orangutans which are classified as Critically Endangered and the better off Bornean orangutan with over 100,000 individuals is ‘Endangered’ and not ‘Data deficient’.

It gets more complex than that too. I recently read that the virtual eradication of sea lions and fur seals in the north pacific forced orca to prey on smaller species, notably sea otters, which once lived a fairly undisturbed existence, but crashed in the face of the Orca’s predatory efficiency and desperation. A crash in sea otter numbers leads to a rise in sea urchin populations which strips the coast of seaweed and reduces available habitat and hiding places for many other species… ecological collapse for the sake of fur and blubber. The biggest known threat to orcas at present are PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls). They were widely used in the middle of the last century and banned in the 1970s and 80s across Europe and North America. But they are still in the environment and currently hitting apex predators such as the Scottish orca population.

The Zenith – realising what we can do

I don’t have the time or the information just now to try to describe how orcas are doing. But take a look at the information for individual populations and you will see they have trials and tribulations. My best chance of seeing orcas with minimum ecological disturbance is to go to local sites of reported sightings such as Strumble Head, Mwnt or the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales. Maybe I’ll be lucky? But my concern lies with the UK’s only resident population of Orcas. Thanks to pollutants which cause infertility, the population has not produced a calf in over 20 years and appears likely to never do so unless other orcas join the group. Is there hope? Well, in the bigger picture, yes but it requires diligence and action. We can’t undo what has been done but we can reduce our use of harmful chemicals, reduce our consumerist tendencies dramatically and think of the environmental consequences of anything we do before we do it, not just we, humanity, us, every one of us a little bit more. This way our habits change and it becomes easier to do thing better the next time rather than just thinking things must change or vowing to do it at some time in the future. There’s no time like the present.

Our products

Having harped on a bit about consumerism I should now explain why I am selling Orca T-Shirts and Orca notebooks. How might our T-shirt help? You can of course do much more for orcas than wear our t-shirt but (and this is our aim) by wearing it or any with a depiction of something you care about, you massively increase your chances of starting a conversation about whales and dolphins and of swapping news and information and a communal feeling of motivation to do something positive.

I believe that imagery is emotive and important and changes how we think; evidence of this abounds from prehistory to the present day. Just as cigarette smoking cowboys on Marlboro ads convinced people it was cool to smoke and Che Guevara’s image has become an Iconic motif of revolution. For me a portent image from our far past, almost as old as art itself, are birds painted on a cave wall in southern France. They are widely considered to be great auks and it is difficult to imagine that they are anything else. They were obviously important to have been painted. Accepting that they are great auks I dwell on the fact that this recently extinct bird (the largest of its genus) had very similar markings and a similar sounding name to the Orca (the largest of its family) and may have hunted very much like orcas, though on a Lilliputian scale.  I wonder how the IUCN would have categorised the great auk in 1819, just 200 years ago and only 25 years before its extinction… ‘Data Deficient’?  Whether they meant to or not, prehistoric cave painters speak to us today through their art, of what they loved, what was important and of many species now gone that they experienced without a bucket list or perhaps even buckets.

great auk

Imagery of the great auk speaks too of a lesson learned but not yet fully heeded. What would the cave painters (our distant grandparents) think or say if they could visit us today to learn that their grandchildren lost the mammoths, the woolly rhinos and the Irish elk and even later the great auk and that the hunting grounds are almost empty of species they revered and the oceans poisoned, but that their pictures survived. They would probably, I think, take the news badly and then turn to their paints and pigments and paint a sea of skulls. Perhaps that is why they painted then and why we paint today… just to express; “This is beautiful I want to preserve it forever,” “This is important to me, I want you to know about it.”  I suspect that the cave painters would barely recognise the world today and think they were in The Underworld yet to be invented but (using a Richard Dawkins visualisation) if we could link hands with our parents and they with our grandparents and they with our great grandparents and so on we would be little over a mile from the cave painters in an unbroken chain. The orca is not on the brink of global extinction (not yet at least) but it is, symbolically, a figurehead of the ocean and even as an apex predator – a species with no natural predators – it has suffered at our hands and through our unintentional actions.

Call him Ishmael

Herman Melville’s Ishmael in ‘Moby Dick’, in eloquent swarthy pros, relates to us the futility of fighting nature and the tentative grip we, or our souls, have on existence. Our Ishmael, the orca, rises from the ocean to warn us and perhaps to plead with us to look after the environment that covers two thirds of our rather ill-cared for planet. The Roman god, Orcus, after whom the Orca is most probably named, was a god of the underworld and the punisher of broken oaths. Humanity has made many oaths, as have many of us as individuals,  to do the right thing and protect wildlife, many of them broken so perhaps the  Orca, rising from the underworld is a poignant portent in all its magnificence.

Before I close I’d like to add another species or even family of whales and not the false killer or the pygmy killer whales. You know that the killer whale is the largest dolphin, it can swallow a porpoise whole and you will also know that the largest toothed whale is the mighty sperm whale which itself falls prey to orcas sometimes but the orca is not the second largest toothed whale. The rarely mentioned and quite elusive beaked whales straddle that in between accolade with the Baird’s beaked whale at 12 metres or so being about one bottle-nosed dolphin longer than the largest orcas. The Arnoux’s beaked whale and the northern bottlenose whale (found in British waters but not to confused with its namesake dolphin) are a similar size to orcas at around nine metres. If you are not familiar with them, I urge you to take a look at the 20 or so beaked whale species, hopefully after ordering your orca T-shirt.


Thanks to George for pointers on Salish Sea Orcas and races of Orca and to Kerry  for info on Scottish orcas.


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