Featured Image Credit: visitsanjuans.com
By Shelby Hoover
Orca whales have a bad reputation.
Orca whales are top predators in the ocean preying on much larger whale species. Because of this, ancient sailors referred to them as “whale killers” or killer whales.
The term caught on and continues to give orca whales a name that often evokes fear.
However, Ken Balcomb, the founder of the Center for Whale research, would like to challenge the negative reputation of orca whales.
While Orcas are top predators, they are far from the vicious “whale killers” that ancient sailors once thought them to be.
Balcomb argues that “killer whales are more loving than deadly.”
Studies of orca whale brain scans are showing what Ken Balcomb had already witnessed while studying orca pods near the San Juan Islands. Which is that these intelligent creatures possess an incredible amount of emotional capacity.
Orca whales have complex and massive brains. Within their large brain, orca whales have an enlarged limbic lobe. In humans, the limbic system is associated with emotions, behavior and memories. While humans have only one limbic lobe, orca whales have three separate lobes.
In addition, studies have also shown unique cellular characteristics that give clues into their ability to express emotions. Spindle cells are associated with the limbic system and process social organization and empathy. The spindle cells were once thought to be unique only in humans and great apes; however, recent studies show that the spindle cells are abundant in cetaceans, including orcas. In fact, the relative number of spindle cells in orca whales is larger than that in human brains!
Ken Balcomb is not surprised. He has seen these behaviors first hand before the brain scans were discovered. This behavior can be seen in the strong bonds orcas have between mother and child. Offspring are shown to stay with their mothers for their entire life- leaving to mate and then to return to their mother’s pod. Balcomb has also witnessed orca whales empathizing and mourning the death of those in their pods. The love of orca whales is maternal and shown to form strong bonds.
Orca whales have proven to show their emotional capacity. Few are lucky to have experienced seeing this themselves.
Have you seen orca whales in the wild? Tell us your experiences and help us show orcas some love!