How do I look?
How do I look? Ocean Wise Research

Last week there was a bit of a social media fuss over Alder, an 11-year-old killer whale photographed with a fetching new fashion accessory: a dead salmon balanced on the tip of his nose. But the image left many questions unanswered: How did he get the fish up there? Why wear a fish in the first place? Is this the start of some kind of new trend?

Like paparazzi shouting at starlets outside Chateau Marmont, I had to know more about that photograph. So I started asking around.

“We have a program in which we go out every year … and take photos from a drone of whales,” says Sharon Kay, a research analyst at the conservation organization Ocean Wise. “That’s how that image came about.”

The photo was taken in 2018 and recently posted to Instagram by Research Technician Gary Sutton (with a special research permit — you’re not allowed to fly drones close to Orcas under normal circumstances). It’s just one of many unexpected Orca performances that Ocean Wise has captured.

Mom & kid.
Mom & kid. Ocean Wise Research

The researchers at Ocean Wise are currently focused on assessing the health of Northern Resident Orcas. The good news is that the population, which ranges from Alaska down to Vancouver Island, is doing relatively well — or at least, better than the Southern Residents, who live from Vancouver down to California. Ocean Wise has been keeping tabs on all 315-ish of them for many years, and so they were fascinated to see young Alder take up this unique new hobby.

How could they be sure it was even him? “What we look for is a gray patch on their backside,” Kay says, “and every little scratch.”

As for the fish-balancing act, she says, “it was part of a whole — I don’t know whether to call it play or learning.”

Like young humans, cetaceans of Alder’s age are still learning how to handle their food. Orcas are typically fed by their mothers when they’re young; the Ocean Wise drone captured images of his mother, Clio, floating the dead fish in the water in front of her kid, seemingly so that he would notice and interact with it.

“It was part of — almost like a dance,” says Kay. “The mother would drop the fish for Alder, he would pick it up, circle a couple times, pick it up again, balance it on his nose, drop it again. And Cleo would come back, hold it a little longer, wait until she was in front of Alder and drop it again.”

It’s not uncommon to witness social behaviors in Orcas that seem comparable to human interactions.

“You’ll see incredible moments when you see two families come together,” says Kay. “The juveniles from the two different families will go over to a corner and associate. … All the matriarchs split off and have their moment together.” Not unlike human families bumping into each other at soccer practice? Yup, says Kay, “it’s all very coordinated.”

Ocean Wise didn’t send their drones out just to take cute pictures. At the moment, they’re researching the ways that ocean mammals are responding to fluctuations in the availability of salmon (and other prey). They’re also keeping an eye on the dolphins and porpoises that travel alongside the orcas and pick off the scraps from their meals.

But the pics of Alder have triggered some particularly bemused speculation about how Orcas spend their time together — and unanswered questions about their table manners.

“They’ve eaten the tail first, and Clio keeps passing it to Alder and then eventually he eats the head. So there are questions about whether the most nutritious parts of the fish are being eaten by the juvenile or the mom,” says Kay. “There are so many questions in this four-minute interaction.”