Out in that wind-and-current-driven squeeze of sea that separates the Hawaiian Islands of Oahu and Molokai, a historic drama was played out in almost complete obscurity on a bright June afternoon in 1971. Its principal actor was a handsome, 19-foot-long, black and white male killer whale named Ahab. Its supporting players were two Navy scientists, Clark A. Bowers and R. Scott Henderson. Their stage was a 72-foot torpedo recovery boat—and the Pacific Ocean itself. Their audience was limited to an occasional passing fisherman or yachtsman, none of whom knew what he was seeing or, indeed, that he was seeing anything at all. When the play ended, there was no applause for Bowers or Henderson and only a handful of fish for Ahab. The next day the local press carried only a short account.
At almost exactly the same time, and nearly 3,000 miles away, a quite different drama was being presented at Sea World, the big San Diego oceanarium. It was billed as the "world premi√®re" of a new aquatic show starring a female killer whale named Shamu, who might have been Ahab's sister. Searchlights stabbed the sky and some 5,000 people crowded the grandstand that overlooks Shamu's 125-foot-long, one-million-gallon show pool. The presentation was titled "Shamu Goes Hollywood," and in truth Hollywood had gone Shamu. Debbie Reynolds and Steve Allen were there, and so was Robert Wagner, along with many lesser luminaries. There were fanfares, fast and corny patter from Shamu's trainer, and even a chimpanzee and a trained dog in support. The whale's performance brought repeated bursts of applause culminating in an ovation, and critical raves in the press.
Poor Ahab? Lucky Shamu? Not necessarily. Except for the trappings, both whales were doing somewhat the same things: demonstrating the metamorphosis of the king of the sea—only six years earlier as dreaded in his own domain as the lion is on land and the eagle is in the sky—into a seemingly docile, trainable animal. And when the lights went off in San Diego and the dark descended on the Naval Undersea Center at Mokapu Point on windward Oahu, both the star and the unknown had gotten roughly the same reward: about 150 pounds of fish. What had each done to deserve so bounteous a repast?
Ahab, holding in his jaws a mouthpiece shaped like an enormous denture, had dived on signal 850 feet to the ocean floor and had fastened a "grabber" attached to the mouthpiece around a dummy torpedo. He had then returned to the boat, presented the mouthpiece sans grabber to his trainer, received a few fish and followed the boat back to his pen. During the dive Ahab had held his breath for seven minutes and 40 seconds. Shamu, for her part, had performed a number of flashy stunts that included leaping high out of the water, carrying her trainer around the pool on her back and allowing him to put his head in her mouth.
August 4, 1974
As recently as 1965 only a few scientists and one or two romantic laymen felt certain that the killer whale—if one were ever captured alive and unhurt—would be receptive to the training techniques that had established the porpoise (or bottle-nosed dolphin) as an animal idol of humanity. The killer was generally considered a cunning and ferocious carnivore that preyed on much bigger whales, devastated fisheries, gobbled seals and sea lions and, worst of all, sometimes dined on the lovable bottlenose. There were authenticated reports of killer whales attacking small boats, and even knowledgeable marine biologists suspected that if the killer was not a man-eater, it was only because he hadn't caught one.
The elevation of the porpoise to the status of love object is itself a fairly recent phenomenon. "If someone had conducted a survey 30 years ago to determine which of all the animals was considered smartest and friendliest and most highly respected by man, there is little doubt that the dog would have received the most votes," Forrest Wood, a senior scientist of the Biosystems Research department at San Diego's Naval Undersea Center, wrote last year in his excellent book Marine Mammals and Man. "Today a similar poll would almost certainly show the porpoise in first place."
This waxing popularity was given a tremendous and enduring boost by the publication of the theories of Dr. John C. Lilly, a neurophysiologist who concluded, after studies in the Virgin Islands and Florida, that the dolphin emitted enough separate sounds to constitute a language. In his book Man and Dolphin (1961) Lilly projected an imminent breakthrough that would enable a human being to talk to the animals—in either his language or theirs.
If that image has suffered any loss of luster, it is only because of the highly improbable emergence of the killer whale as Flipper's principal rival for human affection. In the nine years since the accidental capture of Namu (SI, July 12, 1965, et seq.), the first unmutilated killer ever shown in captivity, the whales have proliferated throughout the world's oceanariums. They have proven the equal or superior of the bottlenose at learning show-biz tricks, emit just as many varied and tantalizing sounds and are almost as endearing. They don't smile, but they have the lugubrious charm of a linebacker hoping for a passing grade. The flamboyant marking of the whales, their awesome size and the anthropomorphic promotion given whale shows as oceanarium attractions have tended to obscure—and sometimes obstruct—a more important aspect of their brief period of captivity, the scientific study of their physiology, their habits, their so-called "language" and their adaptability to complex behavior conditioning. Ahab's 850-foot dive to the Navy's dummy torpedo, for example, got hardly any newspaper or magazine attention although it represented a far greater attainment in human-animal collaboration than anything achieved in oceanariums before or since.
Ahab was one of two male killer whales—the other, surprise! was Ishmael—and one pilot whale, Morgan, which participated in a Navy experimental program called "Deep Ops"—Deep Object Recovery with Pilot and Killer Whales. Deep Ops—Navyese for deep operations—was the natural outgrowth of a program begun in 1963 at the Navy's bioscience facility at Point Mugu, Calif. under the direction of Forrest Wood. Before Wood took the Point Mugu job, he had been the curator of Marineland's research laboratory and before that had run Michael Lerner's pioneering laboratory on Bimini. Among the projects at Mugu was one in which porpoises and sea lions were taught to "mark" lost objects in the open sea at depths down to 150 feet. The logical next step was to attempt to train much larger animals not only to dive deeper but to actually recover such gear. "We had good reason to think this would succeed," Wood said recently. "Arthur McBride, Bill Schevill, Winthrop Kellogg and Ken Norris had demonstrated that porpoises had echolocation systems and extraordinary underwater directional hearing. We suspected that killer and pilot whales shared these capabilities—in fact, we think all toothed whales do."
Toothed whales? Is little Flipper a toothed whale? The answer is yes. Scientists categorize all whales as members of the mammalian order Cetacea, which means "wholly aquatic, carnivorous, warm-blooded mammals." There are two kinds of Cetaceans—huge baleen whales like the blue, the gray and the humpback, which sieve their food through complex screens, and toothed whales, which bite. Each suborder has several families, and each family embraces one to 50 species. The most populous toothed family is called the Delphinidae—dolphins and porpoises—and its Don Corleone is the killer whale.
Besides teeth, what all these animals have in common are their echolocation capabilities and their exceptional hearing. Echolocation is what we called sonar when it was invented during World War II. We didn't know then that toothed whales had been doing the same thing for tens of thousands of years. They still do it better. These whales can beam sounds containing frequencies that range from the lower capacity of the human ear to many times above it, to an object that has excited their curiosity and can interpret the returning echoes with astonishing exactness.
However, the mission of Deep Ops was not to test the echolocation abilities of the killers and pilots, but rather to discover how deep they could go, whether they would be able to hear and locate "beeping" targets and attach "grabbers" to them and to see if they would respond to orders in the open sea—or just take off. Navy sea lions and porpoises occasionally had gone AWOL, but most had returned, apparently preferring the safety, ample table and light work load of the welfare state to the dangers and the unremitting struggle for food in oceanic free enterprise (porpoises often are the object of shark attacks as well as unwelcome attention from uncousinly killers). But would the powerful killer respond to training discipline if he could go free in the seas he knew he ruled?
The Deep Ops killers, Ahab and Ishmael, were captured in Puget Sound in October 1968 and flown to Point Mugu; Morgan, the pilot whale, was snared at about the same time in Catalina Channel. Ahab was the biggest of the three at 19 feet and 5,500 pounds, and was thought to be the oldest—nine or 10 years. Ishmael was two feet shorter and 1,000 pounds lighter, while Morgan was a shrimp—only 12 feet long and 1,200 pounds. "We had certain definite expectations for these whales," one Navy scientist says, "as well as uncertainties. We thought Morgan would be the deepest diver, because pilot whales like squid, and that's where the squid usually are—as much as 200 fathoms down."
By early January 1970 all three whales were in Hawaii and had learned to answer underwater "recall" buzzers, to follow training boats in enclosed waters, to retrieve objects, to allow (and apparently enjoy) handling, to take prescribed stations, to swim through gates and to hold their breath and exhale on acoustic command. In the ensuing months Bowers and Henderson rehearsed the whales in Kaneohe Bay and taught them two "behaviors" no whale had ever been asked to learn. One was to wear backpack harnesses supporting radio transmitters; the other was to grip the mouthpieces that would carry the crab-claw grabbers. None rebelled against work or captivity. "The whales never tried to escape from their pens," Bowers says, "although at high tide the fences were only about one foot above the water."
Confronted now with the challenge of describing what must have been a supreme moment—both in their lives and those of the whales—they laconically observed in their official report: "By mid-September 1970 Morgan, Ahab and Ishmael had all attained open-ocean reliability and thereafter were taken to sea five times a week for deep-dive and deploy training."
This was a little like summarizing one of Don Shula's football seasons by saying: "The Miami Dolphins, having attained on-field reliability, were taken out once a week to beat the bejesus out of their opponents." The metaphor is less incongruous than it may seem. In both porpoise and whale training, the secret of the intricate feats often performed by these animals is "chained behavior," which simply means combining several individual stunts in a sequence, something every defensive tackle is expected to do. In oceanariums these composites often depend on "secondary reinforcement," another jargonistic expression that stands for interim reward—or a fish snack.
The most spectacular public example of chained behavior is the wild ride offered by Sea World's latest Shamu, a/k/a Kilroy. To begin it, Shamu is "recalled" to the training stage by a high-pitched dog whistle, which goes 20,000 cycles per second and is barely audible to humans. A loop about the size of a hula hoop is offered him, and after he has thrust his head through it he is rewarded with a couple of fish. The loop is designed to fit just ahead of his flippers. Trainer Gary Priest then boards the whale, sitting astride him and gripping the top of the loop. In response to that, Shamu swims to the end of the pool and dives, rider and all. Some 30 feet down, at the bottom of his plunge, he hears a tone, which signifies "jump." He bursts from the water like an astronaut's rocket, Priest clinging to the loop, and then dives again, soars skyward, dives once more and leaps for the third time. After the last leap Shamu knows that if he returns to the shallow area of the pool he will get a whole handful of fish—"primary reinforcement," or a good whale's just reward. Only the whale and his trainers know that Shamu has not performed one "behavior," but about six.
As fantastic as the triple-jump ride appears to the Sea World onlooker, it is a less sophisticated and difficult behavior chain than those required of the Navy whales in Hawaii. On a typical training day in the Molokai Channel, Ahab (or Ishmael or Morgan) was harnessed, then released and invited to follow the training boat down the narrow, two-mile boat channel blown out of Kaneohe's fringing reef. Along the way he got an occasional fish. When the boat reached the work area in the open sea, the target with recovery line and buoy was dropped overboard, and the boat and whale made a slow, 220-yard circle around the buoy. Ahab was expected to keep in close touch with the boat, which he could identify by means of a continuous, pulsing 5,000-kilocycle "pinger" installed below the waterline. The pinger told the whale not to wander away to investigate the tall sails and sleek hulls of passing yachts or the chugging engines of fishing sampans. When it was time for the dive, Ahab was offered the mouthpiece, with practice grabber attached. That indicated to Ahab that he was now to concentrate on the target, which also was "pingered," but at a different frequency. In the next five to seven minutes Ahab dived to the target, aligned himself so that the grabber arms would close on it, pushed it home, thus detaching it from the mouthpiece, and returned to the boat and offered the mouthpiece to his trainer. Then he got a substantial reward of fish. The significant point, and the measure of the Deep Ops achievement, is that all these linked behaviors—from Ahab taking the mouthpiece until he returned it—were accomplished without secondary reinforcement by the trainer.
Everything did not always go smoothly. Sometimes the Molokai Channel kicked up 12-foot seas the training boat could not navigate. Sometimes there were hardware failures, and in February 1971, when a target's recovery line broke at 750 feet, Ahab went down twice and attached real recovery grabbers only to have both mouthpieces fail to disconnect. Can such malfunctions make a whale depressed? The Navy doesn't think so—but something sent Ahab into a month-long sulk. He would neither eat nor train, a strike that coincided with a period of rut in Morgan during which, as Bowers and Henderson soberly reported, he refused to follow the boat out to sea and tried "to copulate with any large object in his enclosure, such as the rubber raft, the training platform and the transporter pen." The trainers prudently stayed out of the water.
It was a bad month all around. In the last week Ishmael, after performing a 500-foot dive, angrily spat out his mouthpiece and slapped the water with his flukes and flippers. Then he departed for the open sea and, to the Navy's horror, his transmitter failed. Scratch one whale. Was Ishmael really in flight, or was he just showing the independence that has been noted in many killer whales? The Navy scientists like to think he would have returned, if contact could have been maintained, and this view is bolstered by Ahab's sudden bolt in July, only four days after the whale's historic dive described earlier.
Ahab carried a greatly improved transmitter, and the training boat was able to follow him as he headed northwest toward Kahuku at Oahu's northernmost tip. But the trainers couldn't turn him around. "Through the next 14½ hours," Bowers and Henderson reported, "he would answer the recall and follow the boat only if the crew's plans followed his." But finally Ahab did return, after a three-hour nap off Kahuku. When he awakened he responded to the recall and followed the boat, docile as a lamb, all the way back to his pen. He had covered 50 nautical miles on his spree, and seemed glad to be home.
Not much has been said here about Morgan, but it should be noted that the dingy little black pilot—lacking the charisma of the bottle-nosed dolphin and the fearful reputation and flashy coloration of the killer—behaved about as expected, except for his sexy solstice in February. Although he was a slow learner, he was steady, generally reliable and, as the Navy had suspected, a truly deep diver. On two occasions he went down to 1,654 feet to deploy the practice grabbers.
During most of Deep Ops, traffic in the ocean work areas was fairly heavy, but no one ever asked what killer whales were doing in the Molokai Channel. This blackout was fine with the Navy, which had two good reasons for not wishing to publicize the project. Not least was the desire to keep the work areas clear—two or three hundred spectator boats ringing the target buoy would have turned the channel into a howling, acoustic wilderness. The other reason was more or less subjective. Naval scientists were still smarting (burning would be a better word) over charges first made in 1966 that they were training "Kamikaze porpoises." These accusations stemmed from a journalistic misinterpretation of a scientific paper on the ability of porpoises to discriminate among certain metals, and were inflamed by Dr. Lilly's well-remembered speculations in 1961 that porpoises might someday be trained as suicidal, self-directing weapons. Caught in the general credibility gap of the period, the Navy was unable to allay these suspicions. Since critics usually equated "military applications" with the development of weaponry, nobody was eager to invite a new onslaught.
Deep Ops certainly involved "military applications," but these were entirely limited to recovery of lost objects. As Forrest Wood points out, its discoveries have many civilian uses. Oceanographers often need to recover recording devices, and many industries must maintain and service equipment in deep water. Whales, porpoises and sea lions can be used to photograph the ocean floor at depths far below the capacity of human divers, and (as they have proved at Sealab II off San Diego) porpoises can provide a fast and efficient delivery service to manned habitats. The recorded cries of killer whales already have been used to scare off white or beluga whales that were raiding Alaskan salmon runs and were in danger of being shot by enraged fishermen.
Tom Dohl, assistant to Dr. Kenneth Norris and research associate in Cetacean behavior at the Coastal Marine Laboratory maintained by the University of California at Santa Cruz, believes a porpoise or killer whale conceivably could be trained to locate an enemy submarine and deliver an explosive charge—but only if "all our own submarines were rebuilt of acoustically differentiated material. The animal might then select the one that is different." A submarine under water does not really "run silent, run deep," but generates a considerable amount of noise. "It would not be difficult for a whale or porpoise to move toward it acoustically before turning on its echolocation equipment," Dohl says, "but the reliability factor of even a highly trained porpoise or whale would be so slight in the open sea that it seems silly to suppose that the fate of a nation might hang on the vagaries of animal behavior."
The exaltation of the killer whale and its investiture with all the virtues previously attributed to the bottle-nosed dolphin dates from July 1965, when a 22-foot, 4½-ton male became entangled in a fisherman's net near the tiny town of Namu in northern British Columbia. Ted Griffin, a 29-year-old aquarist, bought the whale for $8,000, named him Namu and towed him 450 miles south to a quickly improvised pen adjoining his privately owned wharfside aquarium in Seattle. The saga of the journey, fraught with more perils than Pauline ever imagined, was embellished by Griffin's vocal and physical demonstrations of confidence in his huge new pet. Although Griffin held no degrees—had not, in fact, attended college—he loved animals and had read widely in marine biology. He knew enough to recognize the killer as a big dolphin, a member of the Delphinidae family and a cousin to the bottlenose, but he did not know—or did not believe—that Dr. Lilly's theories of dolphin brainpower were no longer taken seriously by the scientific community. "You can communicate with killer whales," Griffin told the press. "They have more brains than porpoises. Killers are the smartest things that swim. This whale will be very valuable for research projects. We'll tape his vocabulary!"
In support of another seemingly rash statement—"like the porpoise, the killer whale has friendly feelings toward man"—Griffin got in the water with Namu, rubbed and fondled him, taught him to roll over and eventually persuaded him to answer a recall buzzer. For about a year both Namu and Griffin were folk heroes in Seattle. Then Griffin's love for animals betrayed him. In response to demands from oceanariums all over the world, he and his partner, Don Goldsberry, formed a whale collection agency. On one of their first ventures, they snared a killer cow and calf in Puget Sound. The cow somehow became entangled in the net of their purse seiner and drowned. The calf went on to become Sea World's original Shamu, the most famous whale in the world. "Ted made a mistake after that incident," says Dr. Mark Keyes, research veterinarian and veterinary medical officer of the marine mammals division of the National Marine Fisheries Service Seattle branch. "He felt so shamed that he had lost an animal—even though it was not his fault—that he told the press the whale had escaped and made arrangements to have it sent to a local rendering plant to be examined by scientists. One of the papers caught him at it, and he went from hero to villain overnight. Then Namu's death really did it."
Namu died almost a year to the day after his capture. From that time on, Griffin and Goldsberry and Namu, Inc., their collecting firm, were blasted by the media each time they lost a whale. (Every animal collector, from Frank Buck to the neighborhood kid with his butterfly net, suffers occasional accidental losses.) Four years ago an embittered Griffin sold his interest to Goldsberry and, in effect, disappeared. "It's a shame he was driven away," Dr. Keyes says indignantly. "It's my opinion that Ted Griffin did more good for the conservation of killer whales than all the marine biologists and protectionists put together because he brought about a whole new public attitude toward killer whales."
Although Griffin has gone into seclusion in eastern Washington, many of his intuitive conclusions about whale behavior and potential have proven correct. Perhaps his only serious mistake was to impute so many human values to the killers that obtaining one has become prohibitively expensive. Dolphins, including killers and pilots, are not considered endangered species, but in 1973 a Congress that obviously believed these animals are "cousins to man" passed a Marine Mammal Protection Act, which not only forbids speculative collecting but requires prospective buyers—including the government's own scientists as well as oceanariums—to spend thousands of dollars on paper work just to prove their right to approach a collector. The act specifically forbids importation of animals from countries with less restrictive laws.
What has been learned about the killer whale as a consequence of collection—and was it worth learning? Moreover, does man have the right to imprison an animal of equal or superior intellect either for scientific inquiry or oceanarium display? How one votes on these questions depends pretty much on who one believes—Dr. Lilly and his followers or the marine biologists and zoologists who dispute them. There seems little doubt that many Americans believe—or want to believe—that porpoises are smarter than we are.
On the available evidence marine scientists do not believe that toothed whales possess human—let alone superhuman—intelligence. Although brain size is not irrelevant, they think it likely that porpoise and whale brains are substantially composed of neural tissue needed to operate their highly complex echolocation and acoustic systems. Given these interpretations, they see nothing illogical or immoral about further study of the animals. The incontrovertible fact is that we have learned more about killer whales, thanks to their brief captivity, than had been discovered in the previous 2,000—or two million—years.
A decade ago there were just about as few marine mammal veterinarians in captivity as whales. Now there are more than 100, and Dr. Sam Houston Ridgway, head of the NUC San Diego Biomedical Division, a Ph. D. in neurobiology as well as a D.V.M., is one of the most accomplished. "Before Namu's capture we had made considerable headway in porpoise medicine," Ridgway says, "but nobody knew if it also would work on whales, despite their familial relationship. It does, and now we can vaccinate against the clostridial infections—pulpy kidney—which killed Namu and is common in sheep; and blackleg, a muscle-destroying infection common to cattle that has been found in marine mammals. We also have a vaccine for erysipelas, and we are working on preventive measures against many diseases including Asian flu and anisakiasis—all diseases that are shared by humans and marine mammals."
Marine physiologists also have discovered how whales can dive to 3,000 feet or more with no ill effects, while the best we can do is about 200. Thanks to an adaptive mechanism evolved in prehistoric times, whales can store a great deal of oxygen in their blood and muscles and in deep dives can channel most of it to the brain and heart, thus incurring a huge but quickly repayable oxygen debt. Another extraordinary porpoise and whale capability, discovered at Point Mugu by Ridgway, is the collapsible thorax. When a diving whale reaches a certain pressure point, his chest folds in instead of being crushed. This traps lung air—including nitrogen—and his system switches to muscle-blood oxygen. As a consequence, whales don't get "the bends" and will never know, in Captain Cousteau's romantic phrase, "the rapture of the depths."
To extend medical research and to investigate other aspects of whale behavior, scientists need captive animals. At present the Navy has no whales, but people in the bioscience research areas stress that they could be obtained if higher-priority projects did not exhaust limited research funds. The layman may wonder, however, why the Pentagon cannot find funds in its $87.7 billion budget for a couple of successors to Ahab and Ishmael, which cost $3,000 apiece.
In his Deep Ops report Clark Bowers recommended attempts to test the sonar abilities of killers and pilots in locating nonacoustic targets, which cannot be done with untrained whales in the wild. (Civilian scientists unaffiliated with the Navy believe some such experiments may be in progress with porpoises.) The effective range of so-called "click trains," which all dolphins emit for echolocation purposes, has not been established, and we do not yet know how far such transmissions can go and still send back usable information. As Tom Dohl says, the sea is rather like a noisy cocktail party. Both humans and porpoises can screen out extraneous sounds, and it is presumed whales can, too, given the extreme frequencies at which they can pitch their click trains and at which their sensitive cars will pick up the descriptive echoes. Both oceanarium trainers and marine biologists feel that techniques of implanting behavior trains have advanced only a few steps beyond the point, say, at which Ben Franklin found electricity at the end of his kite string, and that the animals may prove capable of far more sophisticated maneuvers.
None of these informational needs will seem important to people who believe there should be no oceanariums, no aquariums, no zoos or any other restraints on animals. This seems an appropriate place, however, to drop a word of reassurance to antivivisectionists, who often have joined the forever-free groups in opposing capture of whales and porpoises and the subsequent scientific study of the animals. No marine mammals are being used in painful laboratory experiments intended to provide medical benefits for either man or the animals. Ironically, the only recorded painful procedures ever-imposed on porpoises were Dr. Lilly's early electrode probes, and during his own—and others'—search for an effective anesthesia technique (the latter was perfected 10 years ago and is used for necessary curative surgery). The whales have gone scot-free, and they have never been fed anything but fish—no smiling porpoises or winsome seals have been sacrificed to the killers' supposed lust for warm blood. Nor is there any "negative reinforcement"—the doublespeak word for physical punishment—of animals that prove recalcitrant or sluggish in training.
If one concedes that people are being pretty nice to killer whales, a corollary question arises: Are whales being nice to people? Was Ted Griffin right when he described the killer as "friendly to man"? The answer is a tentative yes. No human being, so far as is known, has ever been killed by a whale, in captivity or in the wild. Only two open-sea attacks have been reported, and they seem to have been accidents. A surfer off Santa Cruz had one leg mangled by a killer, who seized him—and then let go. The same thing happened to a diver in the vicinity. Both were swimming among or near sea-lion herds, and Forrest Wood suspects that is what the whales thought the swimmers were—"errors that were quickly rectified."
The most famous whale incident occurred at Sea World in 1971. A secretary, Anne Eckis, fell off the original Shamu while she was riding her for a movie crew. Eckis, whose orange and hot-pink bikini may have intrigued Shamu, was butted several times as she tried to swim to the show-pool stage. The whale finally took her leg in its mouth and more or less delivered the frightened girl to trainer Kent Burgess. Eckis suffered minor puncture wounds but in the hospital said, "Shamu was just playing...if she had wanted to she could have bitten my legs off."
Navy scientists agree with that evaluation, but oceanarium whale trainers are wary. At Marineland of the Pacific, in Palos Verdes, Calif., Tom Otten said, "We don't get into the water with them much." Sea World's Gary Priest agrees, and goes further. "These animals are dangerous to be around," he says. "If we are upset on a ride, we've learned one thing: never try to swim to safety. Flight seems to trigger a chase mechanism in killer whales. You become prey instead of the friendly trainer." Sea World's whales are never encouraged to bite anything—"Next time it might be you," Priest says.
The Navy's Bowers disagrees with Priest on several points, including the "trigger mechanism," and Wood wryly notes that flight also triggers chase in fish, dogs, cats and small boys. Bowers says the trainers often were in the water with Ahab and Ishmael in Hawaii and were not molested. However, Bowers did report in Deep Ops on the whales' occasional temper tantrums, and Priest experienced one such outburst while riding a whale named Ramu in 1971. "He tossed me off, and then bit me, or tried to," Priest says. "He certainly wasn't trying to eat me—it was more like he was saying, 'Don't fool around with me—you're in my territory.' I didn't dare swim in front of him, so I tried to sneak around behind him. No way. He backed up, and with those big flukes knocked me out of the water right up on the stage."
Even though the killers seem to have no taste for man (actually, they have no sense of smell or taste, at least as far as we understand those terms), they do eat seals, sea lions, porpoises and big whales—don't they? The overwhelming weight of marine scientific opinion is that they surely do, a belief based in part on the findings of a 19th century biologist named Daniel Frederik Eschricht, who reported finding fragments of 14 seals and 13 porpoises in the belly of a 16-foot killer. Sam Houston Ridgway doesn't believe it. "I don't think they eat anything but fish," Ridgway says. "I was present for the capture of Ishmael and Ahab, and for a week divers worked among the 25 whales we had in the net, making selections. Even though the whales weren't fed, they showed no inclination to attack or eat the divers. Although there is documented scientific evidence of marine mammals in killer whale stomach contents, I have yet to find anyone who has actually seen a killer whale eat a seal, a sea lion, a porpoise or another whale. At Point Mugu one of our sea lions found a way to sneak into the whale tank and browse the bottom for food. The whales certainly knew he was there but they not only didn't attack him, every now and then they'd drop him a fish!"
Dr. Keyes, Ridgway's friend and colleague, takes pained exception to this view. "Our laboratory people have seen them eat all the smaller mammals Sam mentions," Keyes says. "In fact, they believe that between salmon runs these animals are the principal part of the whales' diet in coastal waters of the eastern Pacific." The Ridgway theory is hard to square with the "mistaken identity" attacks off California, unless the whales were just indulging in some rough play. Even if Ridgway is right and the animals do not eat other mammals, a recent and convincing eyewitness report indicates that they do, indeed, kill for sport. Last Jan. 8 Stephen Leatherwood, NUC San Diego's marine-mammal specialist, saw two killers—a male and a female—deliberately destroy a 4,000-pound elephant seal within 45 seconds in three separate attacks off Baja California, and then swim away without even taking a canapé from the bloody carcass.
Although folklore is full of stories about unprovoked attacks on boats by whales, there is only one verifiable case of major destruction. It was a beauty, though. In 1971 Dougal Robertson, his wife Lyn, their three children and a crewman, Robin Williams, were sailing the 43-foot, 19-ton schooner Lucette from Panama to Australia. They suddenly were set upon by a pod of killers that sank the boa; in exactly one minute but, astonishingly, showed no interest in its human cargo. The Robertsons and Williams endured 37 days of misery on a life raft before being rescued.
Dave Butcher, a Sea World trainer, believes he knows why the whales attacked the Lucette. "I think a boat in strange waters is just something in their environment they don't understand or enjoy and want to get rid of," he says. His theory is echoed by Dr. Keyes, who notes there has never been an incident in Puget Sound, which is full of both boats and whales. Tom Otten at Marineland provides lateral support. "I don't know about boats," he says, "but Orky, our biggest killer whale, is skeptical of strange forms in unexpected places."
Orky is a pretty independent whale even in training. During a recent visit he refused to make a second 23-foot leap to touch a suspended ball, first "standing up" in the water and circling the target, then swimming away. This seemed to demonstrate Forrest Wood's cautious generalization: "People who have worked with porpoises, pilots and killers feel that the latter often are more independent—and thus less reliable—in performing certain behaviors." He emphasizes, however, that every individual is different. Clark Bowers says that "killers are less nervous and easier to handle," an opinion shared by Gary Priest and Dave Butcher, who think that whales learn more quickly than porpoises. "That's partly because the porpoise must first be reassured that he is not in danger," Priest says. "This never seems to occur to the whale."
Assessing animal intelligence is a tricky business at best. There are great differences among individuals in a single species (some chimps are chumps), and some species seem to excel at "oddity learning" (selecting a triangle from two circles, for example), while others react more quickly to reversed stimuli. To approach human intelligence, however, a species would have to possess both insight and the ability to solve connected abstract problems, and thus far no dog, chimpanzee, porpoise or whale ever has. Scientists think an organized language capability may be essential to more advanced accomplishments, and only Dr. Lilly and his supporters believe other mammals possess it. Wood, who was host to Dr. Lilly during the latter's early dolphin experiments at Marineland of Florida, was dismayed when he read Man and Dolphin. "Moving into the unfamiliar fields of behavior, bioacoustics and linguistics, Lilly seemed to lose whatever critical acumen and scientific skepticism he possessed," Wood wrote in Marine Mammals and Man.
Right on, says Dr. Lilly, who since 1964 has been tripping on LSD in an effort to raise his own consciousness to the level he feels exists in toothed whales. In a remarkable interview in Penthouse last September, Lilly talked darkly of oceanariums as "concentration camps," and said he had abandoned dolphin research in 1967 because man's own belief systems "are so entrenched and so anti-life—anti his own life, anti other life in the universe—that this isn't the time.... The zoologists have the ear of government, and they've been put in powerful places. They are practical people, 'the engineers.' They are not scientists."
Even though he is no longer working with animals, Lilly feels he is getting closer to them. "A big sperm whale who has finished mating and gotten his family over with has lots of time for meditation," Lilly told the interviewer. "He's got six times the brainpower for meditation that we have.... It's probably a much higher form of consciousness than any we can conceive of, and it's probably extremely alien to us. I've gotten into some spaces with acid in isolation that probably resemble some of the spaces they've been in." Perhaps someday Dr. Lilly will peak and realize his ambition to talk to a sperm whale. The question then may be: Will the whale talk to him? As Lilly himself has said, explaining his loss of interest in chimpanzees, "Why waste your time on small-brained animals?"
Meanwhile, the "engineers" will continue seeking data on toothed-whale intelligence on less celestial levels; oceanariums and collectors will continue their rescue efforts; and Americans will remain enraptured by these delightful animals and will forgive them their failure to speak out against inflation and to negotiate world peace.