SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
August 05, 1974
Once dreaded as the most ferocious marine mammal, the killer whale is now performing exacting diving tasks for the Navy and is the chatty, endearing star of oceanariums
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August 05, 1974

Run Noisy, Run Deep And Go To Work

Once dreaded as the most ferocious marine mammal, the killer whale is now performing exacting diving tasks for the Navy and is the chatty, endearing star of oceanariums

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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.

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.

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