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Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, February 12, 2001

Killer whales dislike
taste of humans

WHEN you read this, I will be on a ship in the Falkland Islands heading for Antarctica. Lots of people ask me why I would ever want to go to such a cold, forbidding place, but I have a good reason: Besides its natural beauty, the coastlines, islands and waters of the Antarctic region are a paradise for marine animals and marine-animal watchers.

A wealth of wildlife inhabits the southern ocean because cold water is oxygen and nutrient rich, especially now during the austral summer when temperatures are above freezing and it's light out nearly 24 hours a day. Such conditions cause the ocean to bloom with algae. This feeds swarms of shrimplike krill, which are food to other animals and so on up the food chain. As a result, Antarctica is currently teeming with marine creatures, from sea spiders to penguins to killer whales.

Because my ship drives passengers around in rubber dinghies to see the wildlife up close, a letter I received from Honolulu reader Peter Galvez last week was timely. "Do you know if orcas, or killer whales, in the wild attack humans?" he asks. "I've always been curious about this."

Good question. Killer whales got their name from sailors who saw these top predators attack and eat seals and other marine mammals, staining the water red as they fed. This must be an extraordinary sight because orcas hunt in coordinated, cooperative groups like wolves and sometimes play with their food.

One series of pictures I have shows a pod of orcas chasing and closing in on a harbor porpoise. The whales then played with the doomed porpoise for over 30 minutes, lifting it from the water and pushing it back and forth among members of the pod. Finally they ate it.

Orca pods also attack and kill other whales including the enormous blue whales and even other orcas. And in some areas, killer whales make astonishing leaps from deep water onto beaches to grab a stray seal from the shore.

With these behaviors, it's easy to see how people might think orcas are ruthless killers that will attack anything in the water, including people. But it's not so.

ORCAS eat almost every marine animal in the world's oceans but have no taste for land creatures, such as us.

And they get plenty of opportunities. In 1977, an orca, with no warning, struck a racing boat off the coast of Brazil. The boat sank in 15 minutes, leaving some crew members in a life raft and some in the water.

The four or five orcas there did not attack either the swimmers or the raft, and all sailors survived. The collision with the boat was likely an accident on the whale's part.

Countless other incidents show that orcas have no inclination to hurt humans.

Still, because they eat fish, some anglers view orcas as the enemy and have been known to shoot them.

Such antagonism toward the species is not new.

In 1960, people in British Columbia were so upset about killer whales eating their salmon and posing a threat to boaters, they installed a machine gun on the Campbell River to shoot marauding orcas.

Public attitude about killer whales changed dramatically when in 1964 and 1965, two orcas, Moby Doll and Namu, were captured, tamed and presented in shows.

These friendly and intelligent orcas, typical of the species, led the way for the admiration and protection orcas have today.

On this trip, I'll have a chance to see these magnificent animals -- and numerous others -- up close in a beautiful, pristine environment.

That's why I go to Antarctica.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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