Changing Strategy

Sealand of the Pacific was Marine Park in British Columbia, Canada. It opened in 1969 and became a popular tourist attraction. The park became famous for having killer whales in captivity that would perform tricks for the paying audience. The first orca they had was a bull they called “Haida” who had been captured in 1968 at around five years of age. A year later a partially albino (Chediak-Higashi Syndrome) female was captured and became a mate for Haida. The new orca was called “Chimo”. A third orca was captured alongside Chimo and was called “Nootka”. She stayed in the park for a short period before being moved to California. Chimo died in 1972 and is till date still the only (partial) white killer whale ever to be in captivity.

Due to pressure from anti-captivity protesters, Sealand decided to release Haida back into the wild. However, only a few days before the planned release Haida died while still being in the park. Over the more than 20 years Sealand was in business, they had several killer whales held in captivity. Probably the most famous orca that was held there was a bull named “Tilikum”. He came to the park after being captured in the water of Iceland in 1983. Tilikum was captured together with 2 other orcas. One was a female who was called “Samoa”, the other a male who received the name “Nandu”. While Tilikum was sold to Sealand, Samoa and Nandu were sold to a park in Brazil. After Nandu died in 1988, Samoa was sold to SeaWorld where she died giving birth to a stillborn calf in 1992.Tilikum was placed with two other Icelandic orcas named “Nootka IV” and “Haida II” both female.

Killer whales in Iceland have a good taste for herring. The way they hunt these is as a team. They will drive the herring up into a big ball of fish by producing a high pitched sound. When the fish are all close together, the orcas will then slap their tails at the school of herring bedazzling many fish who then become a silver snack for the killer whales.

Sealand was, different to other marine parks, not an inland park. It was a floating structure in South Oak Bay near Victoria, Canada. Due to this the animals in it were swimming in natural water which was also home to a lot of wildlife. The pool the orcas were in during the day was sealed underwater with netting. This would prevent them to escape their enclosure while still letting the Canadian water run through. After closing time the killer whales would be lured into a module where they would remain until staff of the park arrived the next morning. This was to make sure activists could not free the orcas while the park was closed. The nets in the pool allowed small marine life to swim into it and often one or more of the orcas could be seen playing with an eel or small rockfish. Some year’s big schools of herring would swim through South Oak Bay and so it would make their way into the pool of the killer whales. While at first Tilikum, Nootka and Haida would see the silver shiny fish as a fun toy to chase around, it didn’t take long for their hunting instincts to kick in.

One day they were observed by supervisor Steve Huxter while they were chasing the small fish around the tank. Previously the orcas would hunt individually with small successes as a result.That day however, Steve noticed a change of tactics. While they would usually chase the herring at high speed the killer whales now moved slower through the pool. They also seemed to work together, coordinated and staying in formation. They would not just launch at the school of fish but seemed to be herding the herring. Steve looked on as the 3 orcas slowly moved the school of fish to a corner of the pool before diving into it, mouths open. At that time he could not tell if they had a bigger success hunting together but soon he would find out how their change in strategy would remain the same with new schools of herring that entered the pool. Tilikum, Nootka and Haida most likely perfected their techniques every time these fish would enter their territory. Adjusting their speed and formation until they became the perfectly coordinated hunters.

Then one day, during a show, Steve and two colleagues approached the stage. One of the orcas came up to them, chinned up over the edge and spewed a huge mouthful that spread over the stage like a mini-tsunami of wriggling little fish. According to Steve it was at least 5 pound of fish that was now lying in front of them.

I watched them repeat their team efforts and was struck by the coordination and efficiency of their fishing technique. It was a circumstance that neither of the three had encountered before so how did they learn that they would have more success if they worked together? It was as though they realized that their individual efforts were showing limited success and they had a conversation among themselves with Haida, the matriarch, saying: “Listen, this isn’t working, we’re catching diddly-squat here. Let’s team up. Tilikum, you take the right, Nootka the left and I’ll take the centre position.” It notched up my appreciation for their intelligence and ability to communicate, by quite a few degrees. The seals and sea lions enjoyed the same benefit of the herring getting into their pools but, their efforts always remained individual, there was no attempt at teamwork. It was only Haida, Nootka and Tilikum who improvised and learned to hunt more efficiently.

-Steve Huxter

It seemed that the orcas, like their wild relatives, had started learning themselves how to hunt.And while the killer whales in Iceland use their tails to slap the fish, Tilikum, Nootka and Haida adjusted their strategy to their surroundings. The pool provided them with corners in which they could drive the herring before feasting on them.

Different strategies of hunting can be found among orcas all over the world. While the Icelandic ones slap their fish, the Canadian ones seem to stun their salmon with sound waves. The mammal eating species that are found around the world also have different tactics to get their food. Whales, penguins and seals are all caught in perfectly planned attacks. This makes the orca the apex predator in the world’s waters.