The worst-named animal in the world.

As far as names are concerned, few animals have had it as bad as the Orca. Popularly known as “killer whale” – a connotative appellative if ever there was one – they don’t fare much better from a scientific point of view either: Orcinus Orca, as they are indeed known, means “Of the Orcus”, the Roman god of the underworld, punisher of broken promises. Quite how it became the name for a marine mammal is something that only Linnaeus can answer.
– § –
Olafsvík was in the midst of a snow-clearing campaign. Two tractors fitted with huge blades were pushing mountains of the stuff away from the thoroughfares and into the harbour so that the little port had, by the time we arrived, assumed a Siberian je-ne-sais-quoi. We were early for our tour and had little to do but to idle about on the pier, eyeing our fellow tourists and watching the crew shovelling the snow off the boat that, we surmised, was going to have the honours. Typically, it was the tiniest in the whole port.
No, it was neither of these two.
– § –
Evidently not satisfied with just giving orcas a whole host of bad names, the western world never really managed to build a decent relationship with the animal. Pliny the Elder, the Roman commander and Attenborough precursor, began the smear campaign with lines dripping with vitriol, effectively calling them savage murderers. Fast forward to the modern age and orcas have alternatively been used for target practice or were kidnapped to toil away in our aquaparks.
– § –
The crew working on the boat was as Icelandic as a Sigur Rós album: nice, courteous, wool-hatted and completely no-nonsense. A name check was followed by the distribution of padded, waterproof overalls. Transformation into Michelin men completed the sailors corralled us, shuffling like beached penguins, onboard. Soon after we were chugging out of the harbour and into the deep, cold waters of the fjord.
Our sea-faring skills ranged quite a lot: we had the lonesome guy, Moby Dick tattooed on the knuckles, who drank builder’s tea out of a flask the size of a submarine as he stood on the top deck, oozing comfort and savoir-faire. On the other side were those sad bastards whose knees and stomachs had already started trading places. If you’re wondering on which end of the spectrum I was, well, I’ll have you know that when Maria the guide found me I was already cowering in the lower deck, doing my best impersonation of an abandoned puppy. With well concealed pity she suggested I headed to the stern of the boat, stood up and looked at the horizon. Thinking it the stupidest idea ever I complied.
– § –
As years went by science managed to disprove the cliché of the evil and bloodthirsty orca that had held sway for so long. What Pliny described as a ruthless killer is now widely recognised as an incredibly intelligent animal with one of the most complex social life in the sea. Orcas have been found to live in a multi-layered social order run matriarchically, using a varied vocabulary that includes dialectal inflexions which they employ to organise some of the most astonishing hunting parties ever seen in the animal world.
Orcas have been observed teaching their calves a curriculum that includes both language and hunting skills: the pods living off Crozet Island in Argentina, for instance, coach their young on how to catch seals when they are wading through half a meter of water. Families in Antarctica would repeat attacks on Weddel seals – performed by triggering tidal waves that break the ice floes upon which the seals are resting – time and again until the calves can recite their part by heart.
– § –
Far from being stupid, Maria’s suggestion turned out to be a stroke of genius: as soon as I wrapped myself around a sturdy pole, breathing in the cold breeze (and occasional whiff of diesel exhausts) I felt immensely better. For starters, the weather was gorgeous: clouds sailed by, urged on by a lively breeze, so that sun and shade were trading places amiably and the whole world was either gold or dark blue. A fishing trawler bobbed in the sea and, on the northern horizon, the white cliffs of the Westfjords beckoned. “People think it’s Greenland” smiled a crew member.
The feeling of unease quickly washed away and I was getting used to the rhythmic rising and falling of our boat as we steamed out of the fjord, pointing east towards the open sea. In our wake were dozens and dozens of squawking seagulls: for a while I thought that we were following them in the hope to be guided towards the shoals of herring and the orcas, but then it became apparent that they were betting on us getting them to the fish. The whole thing was pretty ironic and even if it meant that we wouldn’t see any orcas I still felt good about being able to overcome my fears.
Precisely at that moment the blower came to life and Maria announced, “Good news everyone”.
– § –
Throughout the world, Aboriginal cultures nurtured views of the orcas that differed from the beliefs of the West under every aspect, views that – as scientific research intensified – were vindicated however posthumously. The First Nations that inhabited the Pacific coast of America from Alaska down to Oregon called orcas “blackfish” and considered them to be the most powerful fish in the ocean, reincarnation of famous chiefs or of drowned people. Almost every tribe considered their appearance to be auspicious for human activities. Yupik people living on the Chukchi peninsula, where Siberia ends in the Bering strait, offered orcas gifts as a way to ensure their support during walrus hunts; whenever they found an orca carcass beached on the coast they’d celebrate a funeral in its honour.
– § –
I remember the day – cold, wet and miserable – when I saw my first blue whale off the coast of Sri Lanka. I remember the feeling of sheer, unadulterated awe that swamped me as soon as the beast came to the surface not far from our boat, how it nullified the discomfort of that journey. I often wondered if I’d ever experience something like that again and what would cause it. The sight of an orca pod off the Snæfellsnes peninsula did it.
The pod was swimming west, commuting behind the shoals of herring that constitute their main staple, their fins – tall and straight were the males’, arced like scimitars the females’ – emerging at regular intervals. Often their heads would pop out too, perhaps checking out this boatload of excitable bipeds.
Click or tap on any photo to start the slideshow.
For the next two hours we were to accompany these beautiful animals in their meanderings. We were to encounter three pods and, our resident researchers said, a total of 30 orcas, each and every one of them recognisable because of the white patch behind their dorsal fin. We were to see them from afar and up close, from above and from below too when our boat was sinking in the through of a wave and they were riding its crest; we saw adults, juveniles and even calves. In one happy moment I caught a fleeting image that will remain with me forever: an orca’s silhouette, pectoral fins extended, the delicate interplay of blacks and whites running across her body perfectly visible, as she swam inside a wave of green water illuminated by the shining sun.
Click or tap on any photo to start the slideshow.
Some around us were cold, some were feeling sick and some hadn’t quite finished vomiting since we’d left the harbour but, thankfully, we didn’t. The sheer beauty of nature kept us warm, happy and sprightly as Duracell bunnies.

– § –
Years of activism have succeeded in turning the idea of capturing juvenile orcas to turn them into attractions as despicable as the act of selling cigarettes to eight-year olds. Far from being killers, researchers will point out that no fatal attacks on humans have ever been recorded. Stories such as the remarkable one captured by South African photographer Rainier Schimpf – of a mutilated orca, unable to fend for herself – being supported for years by her pod sisters are, instead, the new anecdotes being employed when describing these animals. If ever there was a species in need of a rebranding orcas are them. Perhaps we should call them blackfish. 
– § –
Suddenly the ‘home time’ marker was upon us. It must’ve come as welcome news to the sickest amongst us; for me, though, it was a farewell that I wished I could postpone. We turned east as the orcas kept on swimming nobly to the east. Their future is fraught with danger – climate change, overfishing, pollution, plastics – but, at least, everywhere they’ll go people will now meet them with the same respect and awe that our aboriginal ancestors tribute to them.

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26 Responses to The worst-named animal in the world.

  1. How glorious! The photos are great but I know they only capture a fraction of what you experienced. I once drove along the coast of California and saw a whale – I don’t know what kind – a very large one – spouting and riding the waves, twisting through the water playfully. It was from a distance but it yanked on my heart. Really one of the most incredible sights – I was too was profoundly moved. Thanks for this and the reminder of my own experience. They are grand creatures.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. richandalice says:

    Great narrative and a great adventure. We see humpbacks every year in Hawaii and have seen so-called “false orcas” (which is actually a species of dolphin) in Costa Rica, but I’ve always wanted to see orcas in the wild.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Well according to Wikipedia orcas are cousins of dolphins… Anyhow, they’re apparently quite numerous in the Seattle/Vancouver area, perhaps worth a stop on your way back to Hawaii? I, for once, would love to see a humpie breaching.

      Like

  3. A beautiful post about a beautiful animal. Living on Canada’s west coast I’ve never thought of orcas as being anything other than magnificent – so the rebranding has been affective. I’ve seen pods a couple of times travelling on the ferry between Vancouver and the Island. The ferries always slow right down – the backlash if they hit one would be titanic! They also announce where they are so we know where to look to see them. Whale watching bonus.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  4. J.D. Riso says:

    How awe-inspiring. Interesting how some creatures get branded as bad, and it takes so much to change that image. But it’s quite possible that many people equate them with Sea World, goofy Shamu shows. Anyway. Watching the horizon has never ever helped When I’ve been seasick. Another lie that needs to be dispelled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      I suppose so, but I’ve never been to one such show so can’t say. So seriously looking at the horizon has never helped you? I don’t know if it was a placebo effect but it surely did the trick for me!

      Like

  5. Bama says:

    As much as I love taking such a journey to see the wildlife, I’d probably end up vomiting. It happened to me several times: the first time was after I snorkeled at one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been, and the other one after seeing manta ray for the first time. Despite my stubborn motion sickness, I will never say no to this kind of experience. As for orca’s name, maybe we should call them sea pandas? Because panda is perceived as a kind creature which helps its conservation efforts, and of course because of the colors.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lexklein says:

    I’ve only seen whales from the shore but would love to have an experience out at sea with them. (I totally believe being on deck with a view of the horizon helps with seasickness! The only times I’ve ever felt queasy on a boat were when I was below-deck.)

    Like

  7. Ahhh, how wonderful!! I’m so glad to be able to do it through you, observe them like that. I think at one point I saw whales somewhere between Trieste and Patras in Greece but it could have been the beer. And one dolphin when waking up on the beach in Croatia. And one sword fish exiting straight up from the sailing boat near the island Hvar.

    Oh, and it helps me to observe clouds when riding in the back on the car on curvy roads, I don’t know why the horizon wouldn’t do the trick as well. It’s the illusion of control, isn’t it?

    Thank you for all the info on the blackfish as well, not just for the glorious images. Good to know.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dave Ply says:

    Sounds like a terrific experience, to see so many of them, and for so long. They’re surprisingly big, aren’t they? I’ve only had one relatively short, close encounter with a small pod of Orcas, from the deck of a dive boat off the west coast of Canada. It was impressive. I may have seen them from a distance, not as memorable.

    I think there’s validity to the idea of looking at the horizon line, and standing in the middle of the boat where the roll isn’t quite as pronounced. If your brain sees something that isn’t bouncing around, it helps override what the inner ear is telling it. On the other hand, standing downwind of diesel fumes is not conducive to a happy stomach.

    For what it’s worth, I just posted a whale watching story/pictures too, on humpbacks. (Sorry, no breaching.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Oooh, going to check the humpie story right now, thanks Dave!
      And you’re right; in water it’s hard to understand dimensions properly, but when they got really close we realised how HUGE these beasts were.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wonderful photos and so much interesting information. Thank you for this delightful post. What a wonder and a treat to see animals in their natural habitat. We saw whales in Santa Cruz California years back and boy did I get sea sick. It is not easy to enjoy the beauty while throwing up and feeling so off.

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

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