Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's the best team up between man and whales?

Dig this illustration of a glowing orca that someone made for the official website to my favorite whale story ever! {Take that Wreck of the Essex and Mocha-Dick (snicker... the historical whale Moby-Dick was based on, for real).} The full story can be explored on that website, or on Wikipedia, but here's the gist:

For over a hundred years (between 1830 and 1930), every autumn a particular pod of orcas would return to the town sea near the town of Eden on Twofold Bay on the southern tip of Australia, and invited the Davidson family to come hunt baleen whales with them. The orcas would swim into the mouth of the kiah river and breach and hit the water with their tails to get the Davidsons, who then followed them out to sea. On moonless or cloudy nights, the whalers would follow the bio luminescent trail the killers made (so you see, that illustration makes sense now, and is even more awesome). It seems that sometimes one of the killers might even have helped tow the row-boats out. Once they were out there, the whalers would go about whaling the traditional row boat and hand held harpoon way, while the orcas would go about trying to kill the whale the traditional orca way, by biting fins and trying to drown the whale. Once the baleen whale was dead, the whalers would put an anchor and buoy on the dead whale and leave it over night or for a couple of days. The killers would eat the tongue and lips and the whalers would haul in and process the rest. This was called The Law of the Tongue, which is one of the better names for a rule.That's Old Tom, the most famous of the killers. When a human "vagrant" (hobo?) killed one of the killers with a large knife, the pod left and only half returned. Old Tom was one of them. He stuck around until the end. He was the friendliest to people, and was the one best known for towing boats around for fun. There's even a story that says that towards the end, somebody tried to drag in a whale without following The Law of the Tongue, and Old Tom grabbed the rope and tried to stop the motor driven boat, possibly causing extra damage to a tooth and leading to a fatal tooth infection (that information is from the Nature documentary on the subject). One of the old timers in the Nature documentary also claimed that as Old Tom was ailing, he came into shore and the Davidsons fed him fish until he died in the shallows of the river mouth.
I remember the Nature documentary saying that there's evidence to suggest that native people had done this sort of thing before with the whales, though that's not included in what you can get on youtube.

I do find this story a little mind blowing, but as the Killers of Eden website points out: "Some people find it difficult to believe that over a 100+ year period of inter-species contact, encompassing many generations and with the mutual rewards of greater efficiency and food , orcas and humans could develop a co-operative relationship whilst hunting the same prey. Yet those same people have no trouble accepting that with no prior contact with humans, wild orcas placed in aquariums within months will interact with humans, eventually allowing them to ride on their backs or perform huge leaps with humans standing on their snouts."
I guess the mind-blowing part is that the whales would choose to reach out and interact with us. We're used to animals working with us on a food based or dominance based level. I think we think that Sea World whales do the tricks because they have nothing else to do, which is really sort of sad. The whales know they can kill a trainer if they want, they just usually choose not to.

The new book "Deadly Kingdom," by Gordon Grice, explores our relationship with deadly large mammals pretty well for the first half of the book and then peters off into listing the effects of snake venoms and how rabbits enjoy biting. But the first half is good and describes how dogs choose to see us a leaders of packs, and maybe push the boundaries of that by biting a kid or two. It also illuminates the difference between making a lion do tricks and a tiger do tricks. He leads towards an understanding of human animal interactions, including those that put us in the role of prey, that can be more complex than who sees who as food.

So really, that's what I think is important about The Killers of Eden: animals legitimately inviting us to share their world with them, in this case, in a very technical and complex way. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go see if my cat will jump in a box for the internet.

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