Killer whales are smarter than we know. Not only do they have their well-documented senses of humor and empathy and mischievousness, they also have a part of their brain that is beyond the understanding of human scientists. It's called a paralimbic cleft, and it's a highly developed set of lobes that "may enable some brain function we can't even envision because we lack it," David Neiwert writes in Of Orcas and Men, his breathtaking survey of orca science, folklore, and mystery. "Scientists who examine their brains are often astonished at just how heavily folded these brains are."
The more wrinkles and folds a brain has, the more data it can handle and the faster it can process stuff. This dense folding is called gyrification, and orcas have "the most gyrified brain on the planet." Their gyrencephaly index is 5.7 compared to human beings' measly 2.2. The paralimbic system is believed to have something to do with processing emotions. Scientists have also found highly developed parts of the orca brain they believe are associated with emotional learning, long-term memory, self-awareness, and focus.
And are you aware that killer whales can see through things? Because they have a sixth sense—echolocation—they "see" not just with their eyes but also with sound waves. "Sound is actually capable of penetrating objects better than light," Neiwert points out. Therefore, scientists have established that orcas can "detect the nature and shape of objects hidden inside opaque containers." He goes on to say that orcas have been observed "acting differently" around female trainers, "leading the trainer to later discover she was pregnant." It's possible their senses are so developed that they can tell a woman is pregnant before she can.
And orcas are the only apex predators besides human beings that have culture. Groups of orcas are so different from each other that they're now regarded not as one species, but as a species complex. They are discrete populations with distinct languages, hunting rituals, hobbies, habitats, and food. When humans started capturing orcas from Puget Sound in the 1960s and 1970s (for the sole purpose of entertaining humans), they didn't know they were critically endangering a tiny, unique population of orcas that have their own particular ways of doing things. These southern resident orcas hang out near the San Juan Islands for most of the year and eat mostly salmon, 80 percent of which is Chinook (fancy!). Their dining habits alone make them distinct from transient orcas, which also pass through these parts and which eat all sorts of mammals, including seals, sea lions, dolphins, sharks, and adorable horned narwhals. (As Neiwert writes, transients "have even been observed taking down moose that were swimming.") And unlike human beings, who cannot stop going to war with each other, wild orcas are not known to attack other orcas, or even human beings. Ever. They're chill.
Of the 58 southern resident whales captured and put on display before the practice was outlawed in Washington State and Canada in 1976, there's exactly one that's still alive. Her name is Lolita. She's in a tank in Miami, and her mother is still alive in the wild. She still uses her pod-specific calls in her tank, although it's unclear if Mom can hear them. As the only official endangered orca species on the planet—there are only 81 left—southern residents are now listed under the Endangered Species Act, which gives a wide range of people in Washington State standing to sue the marine park that owns her. As Neiwert pointed out at a reading of Of Orcas and Men at University Book Store last week, such a lawsuit has just been filed.
Neiwert is an unpretentious and well-informed investigative journalist, and it's worth seeing him read in person, if only to see his full-color slides and hear his recordings of southern resident orca calls. The book is filled with black-and-white photos, most of them taken by the author, occasionally from his own kayak. If I have a critique of the book, it's that Neiwert is not much of a prose stylist; whatever goofy impulse led to the title Of Orcas and Men also led to a few goofy sentences inside ("Orcas live a dream of man. They soar effortlessly, free of gravity, like birds or fairies through the air..."). But once you're into the book's depths, the science and the history take over and you can't stop reading. It goes so many unexpected places, from what Native tribes thought of orcas (some believed them to be human ancestors) to the relationship between salmon scarcity and orca stress to how noise pollution in Puget Sound affects communication between orcas. For anyone recently radicalized by Blackfish, there's plenty about orcas in captivity, too.
At the reading, which happened to fall on a day when yet another video had just been released of an American cop killing an unarmed American citizen, what came across most was Neiwert's awe at these creatures that "challenge that we're the only intelligent species on the planet." They have been around for six million years and "they don't ever act aggressive with each other. They have remarkably cooperative cultures." Someone asked about the SeaWorld trainer deaths in Blackfish, and Neiwert called it "a testament to how strong-minded these creatures are, and how patient they are, that we haven't seen more of these incidents."