Book Buzz: Of Orcas and Men

of orcas and menOf Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us by David A. Neiwert

The recent sighting of four orcas in Bellingham Bay raises the question “why don’t we see them more often?”

Imagine having southern resident orcas as regular visitors to Bellingham’s revitalized waterfront. What can we do to encourage that future? In Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, investigative journalist David Neiwert’s exploration of orcas provides just the right blend of cultural history, environmental reporting and scientific research to inform this vision.

The Southern Resident orca pods tend to travel around the inland waterways of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and southern Georgia Strait. They are the only killer whale population listed as endangered; as of April 2016, there were 83 residents in the J, K, and L pods that make up the southern residents (or 84 if Lolita, the L pod orca confined at the Miami Seaquarium, is included). Learn the names and histories of individual whales at http://www.Orcanetwork.org, which maintains information about pod structure, family histories and births and deaths of southern residents.

Neiwert interviewed scientists, advocates, environmentalists and caretakers about the factors most impacting southern resident orcas health and well-being. Chief among them is the availability of Chinook salmon these whales focus on almost exclusively as a summer food source. Improving onshore salmon habitats, dam reversals like the Elwha, and a commitment to sustainable fishing are all actions that improve chances for our local orcas.

Toxins represent another major threat; Northwest killer whales are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, with high levels of the insecticide DDT, PBDEs (used in flame retardants), and PCBs found in their tissues, sometimes in such high concentrations that deceased orcas must be disposed of in hazardous waste sites. Toxins reduce immune function, making them vulnerable to disease, and can impair their ability to reproduce.

Underwater noise and harassment by vessels are other factors found to be stressing native orcas; with summer boating season underway, it is a timely reminder that Washington state law makes it unlawful to approach within 200 yards of a southern resident whale.

Why is it that this particular type of whale has captured human interest and emotional connection? Orcas have inspired reverence and informed the myths and stories of people native to the Pacific Northwest for more than 1,000 years. Consider the popularity of killer whale exhibits and attractions at water theme parks like SeaWorld, and the resulting interest in protecting orcas from such a fate raised by popular films like Free Willy and Blackfish.

Neiwert writes that orcas “challenge the longstanding belief that humans are the planet’s only intelligent occupants,” and that they share an emotional intelligence similar (and perhaps more refined) than that of humans.

Which brings us to the subtitle—what can killer whales teach us? Orcas are hard-wired for social life at a level that dwarfs the comparatively loose social ties of humans. Orcas stay with their mothers for life. Pods travel, eat and sleep together.

Because of this close reliance, Neiwert points out that empathy becomes an “evolutionary advantage” for orcas. In the words of Temple Grandin (bestselling author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human), “Human beings need to learn from and understand the cooperative nature of orca society. Everyone who is interested in both animal and human behavior should read this remarkable book.”

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 15, 2016)