National Geographic : 2015 Jul
Dolphin Culture 87 preserving the pod’s memory. “I don’t know how they communicate this. Maybe they just lead the others away when they hear a boat’s motor. But they have some way of telling them, Look out—that’s bad, that’s dangerous.” One day, after seeing orcas spouting on the far side of the fjord, we motored across the two- mile expanse of sea into a calm lagoon. “It’s a whale Eden,” our guide proclaimed as orca pods surged nearby, their dorsal fins riding like sails above the sea, and humpbacks lunged for fish. One pod’s calves playfully surfed in the wake of our boat and then, when the motor was idling, popped up nearby, like prairie dogs, to spy on us. Although these orcas weren’t streaming through the sea, as they’d done on our first day, they still weren’t carousel feeding. Similä admired the way each orca had a role in the hunt. She’d seen how adults guided younger ones, how calves imitated their mothers’ tail slap- ping, how pods sometimes made long journeys to the herring ’s spawning grounds, apparently to keep track of the fish. By attaching satellite tags to several of the orcas, she and her colleagues had mapped some scouting missions. “One of the orcas traveled so far and so fast—hundreds of kilometers in one day—we thought he was being pulled away by a ship,” she said. “Now I just laugh at myself for thinking such a thing.” Similä tells an orca story that shows how little we know about them. In 1996 the team spotted a calf with a spine and dorsal fin that had been severely injured, probably from a boat strike. “ We named him Stumpy because of his dam- aged dorsal fin,” Similä said, adding that she doesn’t actually know whether the calf is a male or a female. “He’s not like other killer whales. He can’t hunt, and they care for him.” Instead of living with a single pod, Stumpy swims with at least five different ones, all of which feed him. Once, Similä watched as two females came dashing through the waves, each carrying a large herring for Stumpy. She thinks the orcas understand that a boat injured him, because they keep him away from boats. “Stumpy is the biggest mystery to me. I don’t know what will happen when he becomes sex- ually mature,” Similä said. “But the other orcas know he needs help, and they help him.” Some researchers have suggested that an orca pod has such tight social bonds that its members respond to other animals and their environment as a single-minded group. That may be why entire pods strand when only one sick member heads for shore. And why some males die after the death of their mother. Per- haps it’s also why so many orcas help Stumpy. When you’ve spent much of your life around beings that live in cooperative societies, remem- ber their past, and care for their weakest, you learn to be open to what else they might be ca- pable of. So Similä entertained the idea that the orcas had joined with the humpbacks and fins to hunt the fish. She later changed her mind. “No, they’re not working together,” she told me in a phone conversation after I’d returned home. “Those humpbacks are just spoiling everything the orcas do. Every time the orcas get the herring organized, the humpbacks wreck it. The fin whales are taking advantage too.” The orcas didn’t seem to mind. They nev- er made any effort to escape the freeloaders or fight them or chase them away. Maybe this equanimity was evidence simply of the abun- dance of herring in Andfjorden that winter— more than enough for all. j CRISTINA MITTERMEIER MARTEN VAN DIJL, AFP/GETTY IMAGES BORN TO BE WILD Missed the May and June stories in this series? Find them on our digital platforms. ONE MORE THING ngm.com/more No stranger to brutal temperatures, Paul Nicklen grew up in the Canadi- an Arctic. This assignment had him diving in frigid waters up to 50 times a day—a job that might have been easier had he not had pneumonia.