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The Verge Review of Animals: the killer whale

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This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

I have good news: despite recent events that have thrown our position on top into question, humans remain the most intelligent animals on the planet. If you’re ever having a terrible day, you can take solace in the fact that you’re definitely smarter than your neighborhood ants, birds, and various pets. To be honest, I find our sustained intellectual dominance rather boring; I’m much more interested in the race for second place. Where can we look to find Earth’s other brainiacs? I’d like to propose a candidate from the marine delegation, an animal with an undeserved bad reputation, a misleading name, and a big heart. Let’s talk about killer whales.

There’s plenty of competition for the title of the planet’s mental runner-up. Pigs can play video games and recognize themselves in mirrors; gorillas can crack jokes, express grief, and talk to us using sign language; elephants can use tools, mimic our speech, and mourn their dead. But the case for killer whales goes deeper than basic self-awareness or more impressive versions of Letterman’s famous Stupid Pet Tricks — they’re emotional, needy creatures, and they share plenty of behavioral characteristics with the humans who puzzle over them, watch them, and fear them.

First, a word about that name: it’s arguably deceptive on both counts. If we’re going to call them "killer" whales, we might as well rebrand ourselves "killer" humans. Like us, killer whales are "apex predators," which means they’re at the top of their local food chain; like us, killer whales have very different diets depending on where they live and what they’re like. (Some eat fish and squid; some eat marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and even small whales.) If you read The Verge’s science team’s recent and thorough dismantling of a piece concerning predators like this, you understand the important role apex predators play in maintaining balance in their environments; take the "killer" out of Orcinus orca, and large parts of the ocean could be thrown into disarray.

The "whale" bit isn’t exactly true, either. There’s a lot of overlap between what we consider whales and dolphins, but killer whales are a lot closer to the latter (friendly, frolicking sea imps) than the former (yawning, transport-truck sized behemoths). If anything, they’re even easier to love: you won’t find killer whales dragging other animals into the water for sport or lapsing into horny, sexually predatory rages.

Captivity might foster killer whale aggression

With that said, there’s a long, unfortunate history of killer whales held in captivity attacking — and even killing — human bystanders and trainers. A 2013 documentary called Blackfish told the story of Tilikum, an orca that has killed three humans since 1991; its attacks inhabit the nebulous space between accidental and deliberate. If you believe Blackfish and other lengthy documents that emerged in the wake of trainer Dawn Blanchard’s 2010 death, killer whale violence isn’t a product of natural aggression or antipathy toward humans: it’s a consequence of forcing them to live in unnatural, stressful settings. Imagine taking someone at birth and forcing them to spend their life in an isolation chamber, only emerging to perform for audiences and take care of basic human functions. That’s not a perfect analog for killer whale captivity, but it’s close enough.

Killer whales are social, familial animals, reliant on intense and enduring bonds for food, comfort, and fun. Their families and societies are matriarchal: female whales live the longest and know the most, and their descendants live with them forever. (I couldn’t help but think of Diane Keaton in The Family Stone, the rock holding a huge and messy collection of oddballs together; I also couldn’t help but think of my own mom.) Families live and hunt together in small groups called pods that hold anywhere from 20 to 50 whales, and each pod uses specific calls. Think of it this way: a handful of observed pods might all speak the same language, but each one will have its own dialect, a specific variant on the larger set of sounds that keeps them all together. In other words, as far as killer whales are concerned, one pod might sound like Sean Connery; another might sound like Kristin Chenoweth.

orca loop gif

(GIPHY)

This is a beautiful, striking idea, and it’s one that anyone with a strong connection to their family can understand. You might not talk to your parents and siblings in a unique or somehow distinct language, but you have a library of shared memories and inside jokes and sore spots and peas under various mattresses; no one will understand you the way they do. Killer whales show each other the kind of empathy we’d expect from our own families. They take it a step further, too: thanks to their migratory nature and sweeping hunts for food, families really are the only homes whales have. "You don’t have a house or a home that is your location," said marine biologist Ken Balcomb as part of a 2010 Outside feature. "The group is your home, and the whole identity is with your group."

Killer whales are creative, curious, and exciting

In this vibrant, socially fulfilling context, killer whales aren’t malicious — they’re creative, curious, and exciting. There are only a handful of reports of wild killer whales attacking humans, and the number that have been documented is near-zero. They teach their young to swim, hunt, and play; they travel, feed, and keep to themselves. Of course, learning to appreciate this side of killer whales means understanding exactly what makes them appealing as performers. They’re smart, cute, physically impressive, and hungry for attention and contact — it’d be hard to design a more appealing animal performer starting from scratch. It’s not a job they’re made for, but it’s a job they do extremely well — and in some tragic cases, it’s cast them in the darkest possible light.

I still don’t know if killer whales are really the smartest non-human animals around, and I’ll probably never know. There’s no easy way to accurately measure intelligence, and that’s true for humans and non-humans alike. We can make rough guesses using figures like brain mass and encephalization quotient, and we can note peculiar or impressive bits of behavior, but that’s about it; we know we’re number one, and that’s the only thing we know for sure. But I’ll say this for killer whales: I can see more of myself and the people I love in them than in anything else on this planet. That’s enough to earn a silver medal in my book.

The Killer Whale

Verge Score: 9.1

9.1

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Almost as smart as we are

  • Keep their environments balanced

  • Love their moms

  • Eager to please

Bad Stuff

  • Dangerous when aggravated

  • Saddled with a misleading name