National Geographic : 2005 Apr
reflecting on how our understanding of orcas has shifted around like a sandbar: "I've been coming out here 30 years, and I'm still working with some of the same whales. Old friends, you know? So little was known about them at first that we kept looking for comparisons. Are they like lions? Canines? Hoofed animals? None fit. They're like killer whales. But then we find dif ferent types. Maybe the best analogy is: They're like humans. Different tribes, different dialects different cultures, if you like." From time to time, as many as 60 killer whales traveling in a swarm appear near the continent's Pacific coast. The animals are smaller than either residents or transients, their dorsal fins are more often ripped and nicked, and they seldom stick around long. By the 1990s Ellis and others finally felt certain that these constituted a third major type of killer whale in the region. The research ers labeled them offshores, on the theory that they spend most of their time well out at sea. Little else is known about their lifestyle. Since offshores are very vocal, they probably don't dine on mam mals. Whatever they do eat seems to wear down their teeth. Guesses include sharks, which are taken by killer whales elsewhere. The orcas off North America's Pacific coast may be the world's best studied, but it remains to be seen whether they can serve as models for the species elsewhere. The harder scientists look, the more killer whales they turn up with differ ent physical traits, travel patterns, social group ings, call patterns, and learned traditions. The division between fish-eaters and mammal hunters generally holds up for killer whales around Antarctica and Norway. But those that prowl the subantarctic Crozet Islands for south ern elephant seal pups apparently turn to fish after the rookeries empty. Though data from much of the world is spotty, it appears that some populations make their meals mostly of tuna. Others include squid. Still others live up to the old name of whale killers. Contrary to the pop ular vision of pods tearing apart victims with In Alaska, young Auriga surfaces next to the photographer's boat. Some calves are shy and stay close to their mothers. Others, like Auriga, are more independent. "One factor may be that his mother, Tutka, is very boat friendly," says Eva Saulitis, an Alaska based orca expert. "A whale expresses its personality to humans only in rare instances, like snapshots. Auriga exemplifies the fact that killer whales have distinct personalities." XOnce assumed to be harem bulls, the adult males in resident pods are more like big momma's boys that never leave .their family.