Killer Whales Not All That Bad
By A Staff Writer
My research gave me a terrifying picture of Orcinus Orca, the killer whale. Then I met him in person at San Diego’s Sea World and found him not bad at all!
“THE appetite of a hog, the cruelty of a wolf, the courage of a bulldog, and the most terrible jaws afloat.” That is how one reference work described killer whales. Up to 35 feeta in length, some weigh 18,000 pounds.b Some 50 teeth the size of a man’s thumb line their jaws and interlock like the teeth of a steel trap. They hunt in packs and attack and devour huge whales 20 times their size. Dolphins and seals are swallowed whole. In one stomach there were the remains of 13 dolphins and 14 seals; in another 32 full-grown seals. Also on their menu: many kinds of fish, squid, sea birds, sea otter, sometimes sharks and occasionally octopus. When they see birds or seals on an ice floe, they dive deep and charge upward, crashing into and breaking ice three or four feet thick and spilling their victims into the sea.
No one preys on the killer whale. It does not know what fear is. Formidable, fearsome monsters—that’s the picture my research gave me.
Then I went to San Diego’s Sea World to meet these ferocious killers, and I found them to be overgrown pussycats. I leaned over the side of their pool and one called Kandu rose up out of the water and into my arms for a hug. When my wife leaned over, Kandu kissed her on the cheek. Well, John Spafford, head trainer of the killer whales they have, would say it differently: “Kandu touched her cheek with her tongue.” And, of course, he would be right. In our interview he repeatedly stressed the danger of being anthropomorphic, that is, “ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman things.”
Upon our arrival at Sea World, we were received by public relations representative Diane Taramasco. She escorted us to Shamu Stadium, where John Spafford and the other three trainers were working with Kandu to get her to perfect the backflip she was doing when she shot up out of the water. It was the opportune time for my first question:
“How do you teach them these tricks, if that’s the right term?”
“We call them behaviors,” John explained. “These are adaptations of their natural behaviors, so we call them behaviors. Training comes in two steps. The first is letting the newcomer become accustomed to his environment—how to use his echolocation in an oceanarium instead of an open ocean, how to cooperate with the other animals in our four connecting pools, learning to eat the fresh frozen fish given them instead of catching live prey on their own, and so forth. This takes several months, even a year, but by now we have an alert, interested animal ready to interact with the trainers. So at this point we work with him for, oh, a year and a half to train him in the behaviors we have in a show.”
“Do you vary the training according to the personality of the individual whales?” I asked.
“Definitely. We don’t work with killer whales; we work with personalities. Each whale indicates its own interests, the things it enjoys doing most. And we don’t set deadlines. We let each animal say how fast and how far it wants to go.”
“Specifically, how do you get them to do some of these amazing tricks . . . excuse me, behaviors?”
“You’re learning,” he smiled. “The training itself is pretty basic. I hate to say this but it’s true: It’s not much more complicated than training your dog. We use what we call reinforcements. At first it’s food. They do something you like, you give them a fish. We start with food. Later on, there are other reinforcements—touching, rubdowns, the whistle and games.
“To enlarge on the training process: I’ve said that basically it’s not much more complicated than training your dog, the use of reinforcements, and so forth. But there is this difference that complicates matters. You can take hold of your dog, put him in a sitting position, speak sharply and hold him up again if he comes down. The whale, however, is out in the water and you are on land. He’s too big for you to manipulate manually. You can’t scold him, dominate him. He must do things naturally, and when it’s something you want to use in a show, you reinforce that behavior. The real challenge with whales is to make things interesting, stimulating and exciting. He must be having fun.”
Previously I had seen a whale show in the morning, then saw it again in the afternoon, and the show was not the same. The trainer said they had to vary the performances or the whales would become bored. John enlarged on this.
“If we use a set sequence at every show the whales know what’s coming next, anticipate it and do it on their own routinely. The quality of behaviors would decline without the trainers’ constant input and reinforcement. But more than that, the whales would become bored. These are very intelligent animals and their interest must remain high for them to cooperate with you. So we don’t get them in a rut, but change the sequence, change the trainers around, change the physical environment, keep things different to keep them thinking, on their toes, watching for what’s coming next. There are a dozen techniques we use to create a stimulating environment so they don’t get bored.”
“Before you mentioned the whistle as a reinforcement. How does that work?” I asked.
“Let’s go over here where Mike is working with a young three-year-old female. This is day-one training. Mike has the whistle in his mouth and wants her to come to be touched. The only reinforcement she knows at this time is the fish, and Mike is trying to create new types of reinforcement—the touching, the games, other interesting things. When she comes for touching and gets the fish, Mike will blow the whistle. Soon she will learn that when the whistle blows she will get the fish. Eventually she will recognize that the whistle says she has performed well and may expect a reinforcement. Later the whistle itself becomes a reinforcement.
“Remember when you came in we were working with Kandu on a backflip. She wasn’t bringing her flukes up at the right moment, and her approach route was not right. We didn’t use the whistle. We sent her back without any reinforcement and tapped the target. She still approached wrong, but did bring her flukes up. When she did, we blew the whistle and reinforced her. Later when she gets the route right also, at that instant we will blow the whistle for that. The whistle is an invaluable tool. With it we can reinforce the specific part of a behavior we approve.”
John explained other techniques to us. There’s a speaker in the water that transmits different signals to the whales. One beep means to make a raspberry sound, more beeps may mean to do some jumps, another series may mean come here, and so forth. A young whale may know that the tap on a target means to do a certain behavior, but the trainer wants it done merely by pointing. So the point precedes the tap, and soon the whale is doing the behavior on the point alone, without the tap. One three-year-old would eat fish but not squid. She repeatedly spit out the squid and opened her mouth for fish. She got no fish. Then one time she swallowed the squid, and immediately got her fish! She learned she must eat squid as well as fish. It reminded me of a parent making his child eat the spinach before getting the ice cream.
“John,” I asked, “how long have you been working here?”
“Diane explained that beginners start out cutting fish. Did you do that?”
“Basically, yes. It’s not glamorous, but it’s part of the job. We do what’s necessary to keep the animals healthy.”
“Do you take their temperatures?”
“Thermometers can be used, but this other method is also effective. We put our hand over their blowholes and can feel the warmth of their breath on our skin.”
“Do you call in a doctor at times?”
“We have a doctor and two vets.”
Namu, the big male, interrupted by leaping out of the water and sliding up on the pool decking and raising his tail. “That’s what we call a slide-out,” John explained.
I had read that in the wild they slide up onto ice floes to get at seals. “How much does Namu eat?”
“He’ll get 200 pounds of squid, mackerel and herring today. He’s 22 feet long, weighs 9,000 pounds, and is only two thirds grown.”
“Is there a difference between training killer whales and training dolphins?”
“Killer whales are easier. They are totally without fear and approach you immediately, whereas the dolphins are cautious at first. Also, dolphins have more social problems, interacting with one another, yakking and fussing with one another. Their attention span is shorter. The killer whale is the most intelligent animal in the ocean. Some who have worked with both killer whales and chimpanzees rate the whales as more intelligent. This is in relation to each one’s environment; that is, killer whales are more intelligent in their environment than chimpanzees are in their own environment, in our opinion.”
“I’ve read that a seven-ton elephant had a brain of 12 pounds, whereas a young one-ton killer whale had a brain of 14 pounds,” I commented.
“We used to have Kandu spend about 20 seconds with a person from the audience,” John said. “Then we would put this person and two others on platforms, and Kandu would pick out the one she had met nine times out of ten. I challenge a person to be with one killer whale for 20 seconds, then pick that whale out from two others.”
“Don’t ask me! They all look alike to me,” I cried. “You previously mentioned games. Please enlarge on that.”
“We try to make their performances like games, to keep them interested. Then they invent their own. Here’s an example. We have electronic buzzers underwater that we use as signals. The whales play with them, roughly at times; so we take them out at the end of the performances. The whales make a game of it. A diver goes down for the buzzer and a whale covers it with his body. The diver pretends to be doing something else and the whale swims away, but watches like a hawk. The diver makes a move toward the buzzer and the whale is over it in a flash, ahead of him. It’s a game they both enjoy.”
“Any additional general information, John?”
“Well, let’s see. We think they have no sense of smell, maybe taste, a highly developed sense of touch, no vocal cords, but sounds are made through their blowholes and they hear by receiving vibrations with their lower jaw and ears. Highly developed echolocation—in some shows the whale will find a small plastic ring floating in the water and return it to us while he has on eyecups blocking his vision. Tremendous power. Shamu, after a very short run, shoots his whole body clear out of the water to hit a ball suspended 24 feet in the air.”
My research had revealed this power. They can leap 40 feet through the air, and the National Geographic had a picture showing a whale, with a blow of his tail flukes, hurling a sea lion weighing hundreds of pounds about 30 feet into the air. They can dive over 1,000 feet deep.
“Do you get attached to them, John? Think about them when you’re away?”
“Definitely. All the time. I miss them when I’m on vacation. We feel intensely about our whales and respect them as such. We don’t try to present them as having human traits. We don’t dress them up in hats. They’re whales, they’re wonderful. Let’s present them as whales.”
Killer whales are wonderful. They do kill to eat, to live. But remember, their victims do the same thing. None of them are vegetarians either! When their appetites are satisfied, they are like overgrown pussycats. In the show a seven-year-old girl rubbed the tongue in one of those great mouths, to its owner’s delight. And our delight was complete, with Sea World, with our reception, and especially with Kandu when she let us hug her and when she—excuse me, John, I must say it—when she gave us a kiss.
I LEFT SEA WORLD in a reflective mood. The psalmist’s words came to mind: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions. As for this sea so great and wide, there there are moving things without number, living creatures, small as well as great.” (Ps. 104:24, 25) From microscopic plankton to mammoth whales—without number!
Man, I reflected, was first put in the garden of Eden “to cultivate it and guard it,” and relative to animals the commission was given: “I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals.” (Gen. 2:15; 1:28 Today’s English Version) What a trust! What a wonderful work assignment from our Creator! To care for the earth, its plants and animals—not just puppies and kittens but all creatures, “small as well as great.” Even those awesome yet spectacularly beautiful killer whales!
This and more went through my mind as I reflected on the marvels in store for obedient mankind in a cleansed paradise earth under God’s kingdom, a “new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.”—2 Pet. 3:13; Isa. 45:18; Eccl. 1:4.
a One foot = .30 meters.
b One pound = .45 kilograms.
[Blurb on page 18]
She must eat the squid to get the fish, like a parent making his child eat the spinach to get the ice cream
[Blurb on page 19]
“The killer whale is the most intelligent animal in the ocean”
[Blurb on page 20]
“We try to make their performances like games, to keep them interested”
[Full-page picture on page 17]