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Killer Whales: Not Whales, but Definitely Killer


Killer whales are in the news this week. Kasatka, a killer whale at SeaWorld, suddenly dragged her trainer to the bottom of the Shamu tank in the middle of a performance. Everyone is okay, but biologists are arguing about Kasataka’s true intentions. All this controversy got us thinking about the name “killer whale” and what the creature is really capable of. KPBS reporter Andrew Phelps spoke with renowned killer whale expert Richard Ellis, who says that a killer whale, also called an orca, is not actually a whale.

Ellis: An orca is the largest of the dolphins.

Okay. So why the nickname “killer whale”?

Ellis: The old whalers, when they would drag other kinds of whales alongside, the killer whales would come and take bites out of them. And so the assumption was that these whales – the black-and-white ones that we’re talking about – were whale killers. And the name just stuck. There was a movement several years ago to, sort of, eliminate the name killer whale because we like them.

But Ellis sees bigger priorities. The federal government lists some orca populations as endangered. A shame, because Ellis considers the killer whale an extraordinary creature.

Ellis: If a spaceship landed in the middle of the ocean, and they said, “Take me to your leader,” the chances are that the fish would head straight for the nearest orca. Orcas are the predominant, apex predator in the ocean. In other words, they’re the toughest guy on the block. Nothing attacks killer whales.

So if Kasatka were really trying to attack her trainer, she would have simply sliced him in half. Kasatka weighs 5,000 pounds. Her trainer weighs about a buck-65. But Ellis says it’s not only attack capabilities that make the creature so impressive.

Ellis: These are very smart animals, and quite often it has been said – and I’m sure it’s been said in the discussion of what happened in SeaWorld – that every once in a while you get the feeling that the whales are training the people, rather than vice versa, because the whales, you know, sit in their little tanks and they say, “This is such a cool life! All we have to do is jump out of the water every once in awhile and they feed us forever.

Ellis says marine biologists don’t really know the capacity of a killer whale’s brain. He wishes people would show more respect for the creature’s intelligence, rather than dangling some fish in front of a hoop. But that routine works very well for SeaWorld, which introduced Shamu in 1966. More than 80 percent of SeaWorld’s visitors see the Shamu show. Ellis tries to explain the show’s popularity.

Ellis: It shows human beings that we are in charge. It shows them that we are in charge of the biggest, meanest, nastiest carnivorous animals on earth. And what has just happened suggests that maybe we’re not in charge all the time.

Kasatka’s frightening behavior this week happened in the middle of a routine stunt. Ellis says we may never know what ran through Kasatka’s mind. Maybe she just got bored.

For KPBS, I’m Andrew Phelps.

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