The lovable orcas featured in Free Willy and locked up at Sea World tend to make us forget the “killer” in “killer whale.” These massive sea mammals are metal as hell, as a pod of orcas in Western Australia asserted on Saturday. Giving a boat full of tourists a gruesome show, the squad chased down a Cuvier’s beaked whale and murdered it in cold blood.
As Australian news site ABC reported on Wednesday, the whale watchers in Western Australia’s Bremer Bay caught a lucky glimpse of a Cuvier’s beaked whale, a species that are widespread over the globe but are rarely seen since they live in very deep waters. Unfortunately, they only saw the beaked whale because it was frantically fleeing for its life. Close behind it was a pod of 50 orcas porpoising — swiftly slipping in and out of the water — in an attempt to make a kill. Within moments, a flock of birds appeared overhead, encircling the bloom of blood in the water below.
There is nothing terribly surprising about this, of course. Orcas, actually a species of dolphin, had been observed killing other whales by ancient fishermen, who called them ballenas asesinas, or “whale killer.” Semantic confusion over the years created the misnomer “killer whale,” which stuck. Scientists now know that Orcinus orca does indeed prey on larger whales, in addition to seals, sea lions, fish, squid, and seabirds. It does so with the help of four-inch-long teeth, as well as hunting squads with the same killer instincts as a wolf pack.
Cuvier’s beaked whale sightings, meanwhile, are rare because they’re the deepest-diving animal in the sea. In fact, 2016 marked the first year that scientists, writing in PLoS One, officially documented orca predation on the elusive species. But in an interview with ABC on Wednesday, Naturaliste Charters marine biologist Bianca Uyen said there had been three confirmed predations in a year on the elusive species in Bremer Bay. It’s not clear, however, whether that represents an uptick in attacks or whether there are simply more people watching the seas.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Uyen acknowledged that the bloody event was “exciting” but revealed an even uglier subtext: the dead Cuvier’s whale had a plastic bag in its stomach, a symbol of ever-worsening pollution in the seas. “We need to all see this as a lesson and an urgent call to reduce plastic usage as much as possible,” she wrote.
Killer whales — that is, dolphins — may be hard to sympathize with, especially as in recent months they’ve been spotted scheming to commit infanticide and sexual assault, but, like all life in the sea, they deserve our protection. Murder may be a normal part of marine society, but that doesn’t mean humans should be a part of it.