Bookmonger: Learning capacity for tolerance from whales

“Of Orcas and Men,” David Neiwert

When I was young, I went with my family to see Namu the killer whale swimming around in his pen down on the Seattle waterfront. It was an entertaining spectacle – like going to the hydroplane races, or riding the roller coaster at the fair – and then we all went back to our lives.

Everyone, that is, except the whale.

Namu was the first in a long line of orcas that have been captured and exploited for their star power at marine parks around the world. A species that had been greatly feared in the Western world for centuries, as reflected by both its Latin name, Orcinus orca (rough translation: “demon from hell”) and its common name, killer whale, these whales had an image reboot in the 1960s – suddenly they were perceived as something like a water-based panda – photogenic, docile, and clever enough to perform stunts in the pool!

But as Seattle-based author David Neiwert points out in his new book, “Of Orcas and Men,” this image is as false as the old one.

Orcas are an ancient species – they’ve been around for nearly six million years – giving their huge brains plenty of time to evolve in response to their environment. The dominant predator of the oceanic realm, they have developed different languages and cultures, and their faculty for echolocation provides an additional way of comprehending the world.

Neiwert cites researchers who caution that it is wrong to make direct comparisons between human and whale intelligence – as humans, we may not have the capacity to understand the orca brand of intelligence and how deep it goes.

This book, however, provides intriguing insights into the research to date. It also spotlights the impact humans have had upon these whales, far beyond the ethically dubious captive orca industry.

Over the last century, the damming of rivers and diminishment of salmon runs has significantly impacted the Southern Resident orcas of the Salish Sea.

With the bustling – and growing – traffic in and out of the ports of the interior waters, the clamorous underwater noise of shipping lanes through orca habitat is believed to interrupt not only the whales’ communication but also their ability to hunt. As well, the threat of a major oil spill is real and could be lethal to the compromised numbers of the local orca pods.

And the poisonous dangers of water pollution already have been revealed in the necropsies of dead whales washed up on beaches around Puget Sound.

The subtitle of this book is “What Killer Whales Can Teach Us.” Neiwert suggests that one of the most profound differences between humans and orcas is not legs versus flippers. Rather, it’s the capacity for tolerance.

As one orca advocate puts it, “The most striking aspect of orca culture… is the sheer absence of internal strife and the predominance of cooperation…. the prevailing ethos of their culture keeps them from harming each other.”

That alone should be enough for us to want to learn more.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.