First things first: the orca or killer whale is actually in the dolphin and porpoise family. Like us, it’s a mammal with a spine, some hair and is the only other species in which females go through menopause, sometimes living decades after they’ve finished breeding. Unlike us, they have highly developed eyesight, great hearing and an elevated sense of touch. In fact their echolocation abilities help put this animal at the top of the food chain in their world.
Like humans, ‘family’ is what orcas are all about. Unlike any other species we know about, offspring live with their mothers their entire lives, and these groups, called ‘matrilines,’ create an exceptionally stable group. Individual orcas only leave for a few hours at a time to feed or mate. I wondered about genetic inbreeding, but DNA tests show that resident orca males nearly always mate with females from other groups.
So, there are ‘matrilines’ with half a dozen orcas in each one, and these groups are bonded with other pods with a similar vocal language and maternal heritage that are called ‘clans’. Bigger yet, sets of clans can get together to commingle as large gatherings. This entire structure is so similar to the way our society works that it makes these creatures seem almost human, or at least due our utmost respect – something we haven’t done very well with.
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work can be seen in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com