Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator by Jason M Colby; Spying on Whales: The Past, Present and Future of the World’s Largest Animals by Nick Pyenson - review by Charles Foster

Charles Foster

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Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator


Oxford University Press 394pp £20 order from our bookshop

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present and Future of the World’s Largest Animals


William Collins 322pp £20 order from our bookshop

Whales are older than us, know the world better and have made better choices.

All life began in the sea. Later, the common ancestors of humans and whales crawled out and began to stomp. And then, some fifty million years ago (about twelve to eighteen million years before hominids diverged from gibbons), whales the size of sheepdogs went back into the water. They chose the deep blue; we chose caves, fields and cells.

We’ve always felt inferior, and quite right too. Whales wander the world; we shuffle around our parishes. Many of them live longer than we do, if we let them. A bowhead whale alive today, its brain full of flame retardants and pesticides, might have reared up two hundred years ago opposite King William Island and seen John Franklin’s men eating each other. They have sophisticated languages, subtle dialects, nuanced cultures and the sort of passionate communitarianism associated with the most obviously thriving humans. They chat companionably and have babysitting groups. They know, and vocalise, the pain of bereavement and separation. If a killer whale matriarch dies traumatically, the psychological scars can be seen for decades in the rest of the pod. They show selflessness inexplicable by mere kin or group selection or reciprocal altruism: they draw fire, for instance, to save wounded friends. 

When humans feel inferior, the first tactic is to demonise and belittle. Humans turned whales into devils and dog food. The biblical Leviathan and the sea in which he lived were metaphors for chaos, destruction and death. Good and God were defined as those who triumphed over them. It was another iteration of the old conflict between settler and hunter-gatherer. At some level we know that the hunter-gatherers are an elite category of being, and therefore must be killed to preserve our fragile sense of dominion.

The demonisation of killer whales (orcas) was literal and complete. Their scientific name, Orcinus orca, translates roughly as ‘demon from hell’. They can only be described, said Pliny the Elder, as ‘an enormous mass of flesh armed with teeth’. Something so monstrous deserves no quarter, and from ancient to modern times none was given. ‘They ought to bomb all them dumb whales out of here,’ growled a man at a boathouse in Port Angeles, cited by Jason Colby in Orca. And so they did. A US Navy publication of 1956 boasted that every year US forces destroyed ‘hundreds of killer whales with machine guns, rockets, and depth charges’.

Orca is a chronicle of de-demonisation. The thesis is simple: between the early 1960s and now, killer whales have been rehabilitated in the public gaze. They are rigorously protected. They have become the icons of the Pacific Northwest, to be found on every other key ring and mug in tourist shops. This happened, says Colby, because the public came face to face with captive killer whales, and suddenly the whales became persons. 

It rings true. Every sensible tyrant knows that you should refer to the oppressed and persecuted as abstractions: always ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘Jews’; never, ever, as ‘Mohammed Sadiq’s family’ or ‘Anne Frank’. Let them have faces and you’ve lost. It’s far harder to point a gun at a face than at an idea.

The personisation of killer whales began in 1961, when Ted Griffin, later to keep orcas in his own Seattle aquarium, had an epiphany. He saw orcas swimming around a kelp bed near his home and rowed out to them. The huge dorsal fin of a big male towered over him. The whale seemed to him ‘like an executioner’. But the orca dived beneath the boat, taking a long look at Griffin. Griffin was never the same again. ‘I’ had met ‘Thou’.

Many others were transformed by the sight of the animals living wretched, truncated lives in captivity. ‘Who’s experimenting on whom?’ asked Paul Spong, a biologist who studied Skana, an orca at the Vancouver Aquarium. He concluded that he, not Skana, was the main subject of enquiry and spent the rest of his life agitating for the release of the prisoners.

Since they first appeared ten million years ago, killer whales have driven the evolution of many species. Grey and humpback whales, for instance, calve in the tropics at least partly to avoid orcas. And orcas seem to be driving our evolution too. Those captive orcas, Colby convinces us, have birthed not only Greenpeace (in Vancouver, significantly), but also a new-found appreciation of the personhood we share with much of the non-human world.

Colby is a real expert: he’s a historian at the University of Victoria and has worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. Such expertise is necessary for his meticulous marshalling of material in Orca. But the undoubted expertise of Nick Pyenson is, in Spying on Whales, something of a handicap. He’s the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and his genial book is a cabinet of curiosities. We learn that, thanks to the large number of fossils to have survived, the early evolution of whales is better attested than that of most other creatures; that the first whales (distinguished from other mammals by a fan-shaped surface on the outer ear bone) had noses on the tips of their snouts and four perfectly functioning legs; that DNA analysis shows that hippos are the closest living relatives of whales; that modern baleen whales (ten thousand times the size of their earliest ancestors) are as big as they can be, and that they became big only very recently (in the last four and a half million years) in order to be able to feed on the highly seasonal swarms of zooplankton that emerged at the start of the age of alternating glacial and interglacial periods in which we still live. It’s all fascinating, and Pyenson is splendid company, but his commentaries have about them the slightly disconnected feel of museum captions.

The great whale writers are all terrified of their subject. Melville knew that if you chase whales too hard, they eat you. Philip Hoare, knowing the dangerousness of his own hubris, tiptoes reverently to the water’s edge. There is none of this in these two books, and they cannot be ranked alongside the immortals. But they are significant, kind books that will quietly take their place in the canon.

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