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Woo-woo; Whale Magic?

“When you lock eyes with them, Ken Balcomb says, “you get the sense that they’re looking at you. It’s a steady gaze. And you feel it. Much more powerful than a dog looking at you. A dog might want your attention. The whales, it’s a different feeling. It’s more like they’re searching inside you. There’s...

Killer whales. Credit: Carl Safina
Killer whales. Credit: Carl Safina

“When you lock eyes with them, Ken Balcomb says, “you get the sense that they’re looking at you. It’s a steady gaze. And you feel it. Much more powerful than a dog looking at you. A dog might want your attention. The whales, it’s a different feeling. It’s more like they’re searching inside you. There’s a personal relationship that they set up with eye contact. A lot transmits in a very brief time about the intent of both sides. I’ve sometimes come away with a real ‘Wow!’ feeling. Like I’d just seen something above and beyond.”

Like what?

“In those looks I’ve felt—,” he hesitates to say, “—appreciated. But of course,” the scientist quickly adds, “that’s subjective.”


Ken started the research that became his life’s work way back in the 1970s. It was right after the courts ordered SeaWorld to stop catching baby killer whales. “Within a year or so,” Ken says, “If someone in another boat started chasing the whales each time they surfaced, or began aggressively circling them, they would often come over and just stay around our boat. The whales understood that we weren’t going to be involved in high-speed chases. We weren’t going to be shooting any darts and tags. They saw,” says Ken, “that we were cool around them. Which implies, y’know, a consciousness of what’s going on.”

Could that consciousness encompass a sense of Ken’s good will? After everything they’d been through with the captures, could they have appreciated Ken? Enough to return a favor?

Ken has stories like this one: “For days we’d been following all three pods. They’d come in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, up the west side of San Juan Island, through Boundary Pass to the Fraser River, gone back down to Rosario, into Puget Sound, around Vashon Island, then back up here. One morning they were headed into a dense fog bank. We followed them. This was in the 1970s. No GPS or anything, just a compass. We got lost down near the entrance to Admiralty Inlet; socked-in fog, about 25 miles from home. I knew the approximate compass bearing. We put away all the cameras and prepared to run. I started to head along that compass bearing at about 15 knots. We’d only gone for about 5 minutes when whales just came porpoising in from all directions until they were right in front of the boat. So I just slowed down and followed wherever they went. I had about half a dozen of them right in front of our bow at all times.” Ken followed them 15 miles. When the fog opened, he could see his home island up ahead. “Well,” he says, “I do have the feeling that they knew absolutely that we had zero visibility. They knew exactly where they were. It was the year after the captures ended. They’d seen lots of boats and been subject to a lot of aggressive behavior. But there they were, and as far as I can tell, they were guiding us. It was very touching.”

It gets, if anything, more touching. And much stranger. The fact is, killer whales seem capable of random acts of kindness. Acts that defy explanation. Acts that make scientists consider some pretty far-out possibilities. It can seem that killer whale behavior falls into two categories: amazing behavior and inexplicable behavior.

Researchers hoping to attach satellite tag to killer whale. Credit: Carl Safina
Researchers hoping to attach satellite tag to killer whale. Credit: Carl Safina

Fog-guidance can seem like an exclusive service that killer whales feel inclined to provide—to people who work to protect them. Once, Alexandra Morton and an assistant were out in the open water of Queen Charlotte Strait in her inflatable boat when she was enveloped by fog so thick she felt like she was, “in a glass of milk.” No compass. No view of the sun. Flat calm; no wave pattern to inform a guess. A wrong guess about the direction home would have brought them out into open ocean. Worse, a giant cruise ship was moving closer in fog so reflective Morton could not tell where its sound was approaching from. She imagined it suddenly splitting the fog before it crushed them.

Then as if from nowhere, a smooth black fin popped up. Top Notch. Then Saddle. And then, Eve, the usually aloof matriarch. Sharky was suddenly peeking at her. Then Stripe. As they clumped close around her tiny boat, Alexandra followed in the fog like a blind person with a hand on their shoulder. “I never worried,” she recalled. “I trusted them with our lives.” Twenty minutes later they saw a materializing outline of their island’s massive cedars and rocky shoreline. The fog opened up. The whales left them. Earlier in the day the whales had been unusually difficult to follow, and had been traveling west toward open ocean. The whales had taken Morton south, home. When the whales left they changed direction toward where they’d just come from, where they had been headed.

Morton felt changed. “For more than twenty years, I have fought to keep the mythology of the orcas out of my work. When others would regale a group with stories of an orca’s sense of humor or music appreciation, I’d hold my tongue…. Yet there are times when I am confronted with profound evidence of something beyond our ability to scientifically quantify. Call them amazing coincidences if you like; for me they keep adding up… I can’t say that whales are telepathic—I can barely say the word—but… I have no explanation for that day’s events. I have only gratitude and a deep sense of mystery that continues to grow.”

Male killer whale. Credit: Carl Safina
Male killer whale. Credit: Carl Safina

My friend Maria Bowling was snorkeling in Hawaii when—freak coincidence—several killer whales suddenly showed up. She wrote to me, “I heard a very strong clinking sound, like metal on metal, like two scuba tanks hitting one another. It was a very high vibrating sound that did not feel uncomfortable but it did feel incredibly strong!!! It went right through me. It was the strongest energy that I have ever felt. A wave of energy, like transmitting. It was like a portal opened, or an introduction to another possibility of communication. After the encounter I was so elevated and activated by the power of the event that for days I was a bit dazed. I felt lighter, more integrated, very hopeful, light-hearted and full of joy. This is not very scientific I know, but it’s more of a somatic experience than that of the mind or intellect.”

A small party of scientific people left shore to go whale-watching in a small boat. When they returned, their German shepherd, Phoenix, was not on the island. He’d apparently tried to follow them out into the big water and powerful tides of Johnstone Strait. The people searched the Strait until 11p.m. No dog. The dog’s owner was sitting on a log, crying, when he heard the blows of killer whales. He was suddenly horrified at the thought that they might have eaten his beloved dog. He could see the whales coming closer because the turbulence of their swimming caused the sea’s phosphorescent creatures to glow. Just after the whales passed, he heard splashing. Suddenly, there stood his sodden dog, weakened and vomiting saltwater. “I don’t care what people say,” he declared. “Those whales saved my dog.”

Not an isolated case. At a different research camp, a person went kayaking and when he returned, his dog, named Karma, was missing. Similarly, she’d probably tried to follow. The researcher was mourning the loss of his faithful companion late in the night when some whales passed. The dog appeared on the beach, soaked and trembling and near collapse. “I was there,” said the person who related the story. “There’s no doubt in my mind; those whales had pushed Karma ashore.”

There are more weird stories. In the early 1980s, a marine amusement park wanting whales to train for shows started asking for permission to resume captures of British Columbia killer whales. Captures had been banned in ’76, but talk turned to capturing a certain small family: the A-4 group. That family had already suffered. In 1983 someone—they were let off for lack of photographic proof—shot the whale A-10 and her youngster. Whale-watchers heard the shots and went right over. One of the witnesses said, “A-10 pushed her wounded calf to my side of the boat. We could see the wound oozing blood. It really seemed that she was showing us: Look what you humans have done.” Within a few months, both whales died.

Killer whales in British Columbia. Credit: Carl Safina

The mere suggestion of capturing these whales she’d often seen—years after the capture ban—set Alexandra Morton’s blood boiling. At a meeting, even her own friends had to calm her down.

Over the years there was only one major waterway where Alexandra Morton had not seen killer whales: Cramer Passage, where Morton lived. Two days after the meeting where she’d spoken so passionately against their capture, Morton was following Yakat and Kelsey—who were sisters of the dead whale A-10—and a youngster called Sutlej. In front of the inlet to Cramer Passage the whales started milling around. Morton drifted with them. Then they “trapped” her, with the two sisters on either side and the youngster broadside at the front of the boat, all inches away. Each time she started the engine, they started buzzing around, keeping her trapped. They reminded her of whales hunting a sea lion and it unnerved her. But then they turned, leading her into Cramer Passage—the one place she’d never seen them go—and traveling up and down Cramer three times.

She allowed herself to wonder: were the whales trying to communicate something after she’d defended their family? She’d spoken at a meeting (not even out in a boat, where whales—if they were fluent in English—might have overheard her). “Sometimes I don’t know what to believe with whales,” Morton said. Reading her thoughts while she watched them would mean true telepathy. That, she knew, “flew in the face of reason.”

As Ken Balcomb might say, Alexandra Morton was deep into “woo-woo” territory.

She knew she was. She wrote, “I know this has no place in science (or even a sound mind perhaps), but could our parameters on reality be set just a little too tight?”

Killer whales in British Columbia II. Credit: Carl Safina
Killer whales in British Columbia II. Credit: Carl Safina

Decades earlier while watching two captive whales named Orky and Corky swim around their Marineland pool one day, Morton had asked a trainer to show her how one teaches a new idea to a whale. (Corky was the captured child of Stripe. Many years later Stripe would help lead Morton home in the fog, in the incident mentioned above.) Neither Morton nor the trainer had ever seen either captive whale slap its dorsal fin on the water. They decided they’d work on that trick the following week. “Then something happened,” Morton later wrote, “that has made me careful of my thoughts around whales ever since:” Corky rose and slapped her dorsal fin on the water’s surface. She did it several more times then charged around the tank, exuberantly smacking the water with her dorsal fin.

“That’s whales for you,” said the trainer, smiling. “They can read your mind. We trainers see this kind of stuff all the time.”

When a very young killer whale named Springer mysteriously showed up near Seattle, she had just recently been weaned and her mother had been missing. Ken found her playing with a small floating tree branch, pushing it around. “I picked it up and threw it and she’d go after it, very playful. I started slapping the water and she started slapping the water with her pec fin. Then I looked at her and for some reason I just made a circular motion with my finger, like a ‘roll over’ signal—and she rolled over! I just went, ‘Wow!’ To get a dog to do all that, you have to work on training them to do that trick. I mean; she knew what I had in mind, like her consciousness was just sort-of linked with mine. There are no words for something like that.”

Rolling when he moved his finger in a circle required an understanding that his finger represented a generalized geometric concept of ‘motion around an axis.’ Plus it required an ability to apply to her body the concept she understood in the motion of his finger. It required an innate desire to engage with another life form, a capacity for play and, it would seem, a sense of fun. And, she couldn’t do what he had in mind unless she indeed inferred that he had something in mind.

It was astonishing behavior.

In other words, Springer was just being a killer whale. Killer whales simply seem to specialize in acute consciousness. They don’t seem to be astonished by us; they take us matter-of-factly. We don’t need to continue being astonished at their behavior. Instead, we might simply fully accept them—and be astonished by one thing about ourselves: how long it’s taken us.

Corky with trainer at SeaWorld in San Diego, California. Credit: Leon7 (Wikimedia Commons)
Corky with trainer at SeaWorld in San Diego, California. Credit: Leon7 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1960s, Karen Pryor discovered that rough-toothed dolphins could understand the concept, ‘Do something new.’ She rewarded them only if they did something they’d never been taught and had never done. Then at a specific signal they, “thought of things to do spontaneously that we could never have imagined, and that we would have found very difficult to arrive at.”

When the Hawaiian bottlenose dolphins Phoenix and Akeakamai got the signal to “do something new,” they would swim to the center of the pool and circle underwater for a few seconds, then would do something like: both shooting straight up through the surface in perfect unison and spinning clockwise while squirting water from their mouths. None of that performance was trained.

“It looks to us absolutely mysterious,” researcher Lou Herman emphasized. “We don’t know how they do it.” It seems as if they confer using some form of language to plan and execute a complex new stunt. If there’s another way of doing it, or what that might be, or whether there’s some other way to communicate that humans can’t quite imagine—dolphin telepathy?—no human knows. Whatever it is, for the dolphins it’s apparently as routine and natural as human kids saying, “Hey let’s do this…”

During several decades of research on free-living dolphins in the Bahamas, Denise Herzing got familiar with particular individuals. Apparently the feeling was mutual. After being gone for eight months each year, the researchers would return and all would reunite. “Joyous is probably the word I would use to describe it,” wrote Herzing, “And even though I am committed to studying and understanding the dolphins scientifically, I have no problem also feeling like they are friends, of another species, but clearly aware, with feelings and memories, and this was a reunion of friends.” At the end of multi-week research trips, she writes, “The dolphins seemed to know we were leaving and gave us a grand send-off. I have often wondered how they knew.”

Seemingly “telepathic” behavior occurred in a more somber incident. At the beginning of a research trip, as Herzing’s vessel approached the familiar dolphins that she’d been studying, they “greeted us but they acted very unusual,” not coming within 50 feet of the boat. They refused invitations to bow-ride, also odd. And when the captain slipped into the water, one came briefly nearer and then suddenly fled. At that point, someone discovered that one of the people aboard had just died during a nap in his bunk. Spooky enough. But then, as the boat turned to head back to port, “the dolphins came to the side of our boat, not riding the bow as usual but instead flanking us fifty feet away in an aquatic escort… they paralleled us in an organized fashion.”

Bottlenose dolphins. Credit: Carl Safina
Bottlenose dolphins. Credit: Carl Safina

After attending to the sad necessities ashore, when the boat returned to the dolphin area, “The dolphins greeted us normally, rode the bow, and frolicked like they normally did.” After 25 years with those dolphins, Herzing never again saw them behave the way they did when the boat had a dead man aboard. Perhaps, in a way we don’t understand, dolphin sonar lets them can scan inside a boat and somehow realize and communicate among each other that a man in a bunk has a heart that is still. Perhaps they detected that a human had died using another sensory system, one that we humans neither possess nor suspect. And what does it mean for dolphins to become solemn in response to a human death?

Me, I am most skeptical of those things I’d most like to believe, precisely because I’d like to believe them. Wanting to believe something can bias one’s view of facts and events.

But the whales leave us with questions so puzzling they are unsettling, unshakeable, at times even disturbing. Why would these beings declare unilateral peace with humans and not with dolphins and seals, whom they hunt and eat? Why would they single us out to give assistance? And why no grudge? Why, after the chronic harassment, capture, and disruption we’ve visited upon them, no learned and handed-down fears of humans such as wolves and ravens and even some dolphins seem to teach their young? The dolphins of the vast Pacific tuna grounds have such fears. Tuna nets used to kill them by the thousands; they still flee in panic from a ship several miles away if it pivots toward them, or if its engine merely changes pitch. I have seen that myself, in person. The dolphins’ hard-learned fear of ships makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is: gigantic mega-brained predators color-patterned like pirate flags who eat everything from sea otters to whales and spend hours batting thousand-pound sea lions into the air specifically to beat them up before drowning and shredding them; who wash seals off ice and crush porpoises and slurp swimming deer and moose—indeed, seemingly any mammal they come across in the water; yet who have never so much as upended a single kayak and who appear—maybe—to bring lost dogs home.

Bottlenose dolphins II. Credit: Carl Safina
Bottlenose dolphins II. Credit: Carl Safina

On Argentina’s coast killer whales sometimes burst through the surf to drag sea lions right off the beaches. You see the video and you think it would be insanity to stroll near the shoreline. Yet when park ranger Roberto Bubas stepped into the water and played his harmonica, the same individual killer whales would ring around him like puppies. They’d rally playfully around his kayak, and come as, by names he gave them, he called to them.

Through the squishy anecdotes runs a hard fact: free-living killer whales treat humans with a strange lack of violence. It’s especially strange when compared with the rate at which humans continue hurting and killing other humans. How to explain either fact? What can explain the whales’ striking forbearance? For the sea’s present-day T. rex to stick their heads up alongside a tiny boat uncountable times, and never hurt a human even in play; that begs an explanation. More crucially, it demands that we find a way to understand. What, in the world, is going on? Is it simply outside our cognition; are their reasons beyond our ability to comprehend? Perhaps one day—.

When breakthroughs happen, they don’t come as confirmation of what we already know. They come as something unexpected, hard to fathom, puzzling, demanding new explanations. They come as things that many people dismiss, or scorn. Until they turn out true. So while I am wary of believing—I’m also wary of dismissing. These stories have pushed me into the “I just don’t know” category. And it’s pretty hard to get me there.

I feel shaken out of certainty. I’ve suspended disbelief. It’s an unexpected feeling for me. Uncomfortable. The stories have forced open doors I had shut, doors to that greatest of all mental feats: a simple sense of wonder.

Science fiction used to imagine wise visitors from outer space wielding huge heads housing vastly superior brainpower. The whales certainly have, at least, very big heads.

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This piece is adapted from Carl Safina’s most recent book, Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, which is newly out in paperback.

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Meet the Author

Carl Safina
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.