The slap, slap, slap of a tail on the bay’s surface was loud enough to wake the whalers sleeping in a bunkhouse along the coast. The men would struggle out of bed to their rhythmic alarm, load up the boats and let the killer whales tow them out, trusting that they were being guided to a baleen whale they could harpoon and bring back to shore.
A group of male hunters in Eden, Australia, would routinely give up their autonomy to another species, letting their whale compatriots drag them out, in the dead of night, without a hint of where they were going. For an industry that’s all about man conquering nature, in other words, they let nature take the lead.
They were like favorite poodles, except they were these 25-foot mother***king killer whales.
Filmmaker Greg McKee
Back in the mid-19th century, and continuing until 1930, a group of whalers in Australia’s Twofold Bay worked with a pod of killer whales to catch and kill baleen whales. They’d share the work of bringing down the giant cetaceans, which can grow to be 79 feet long, and share the spoils as well: The orcas would get to eat the lips and tongue of the beast before the whalers brought the rest to shore. “The orcas were like members of the family,” says filmmaker Greg McKee, whose research and interviews were made into a documentary about the whales called Killers in Eden.“They were like favorite poodles, except they were these 25-foot mother***king killer whales.”
It’s the only documented case in the history of whaling where whalers and orcas have worked together like this, but the origins of it aren’t puzzling. Aboriginal tribes in the area, which were strongly represented in whaling crews, believed that the spirits of their dead ancestors “jumped up” into orcas. Legend had it that during the ice age, when the sea level was lower, warriors had hunted in what was now the sea. The ancestors were still there, the logic went, still hunting, but in the form of killer whales. The kinship with the whales meant the crews refused to kill orcas, or even to drive them from the bay — and that’s how Australian whalers figured out what an asset a friendly pack of orcas could be.
“Killer whales are the ocean’s top predator,” says zoologist Danielle Clode, whose book Killers in Eden formed part of the basis for McKee’s documentary. “There’s nothing that bothers a killer whale, and they’re highly adaptable hunters.” Orcas can hunt anything and adapt their hunting strategies based on whether they’re going after herrings or seals, while also teaching their children all their old tricks. They very rarely attack humans, though, except in theme parks. “My theory is we don’t taste very good,” says Clode.
It was a bad deal for the baleen whales, but it served both orcas and humans well. The Davidson family, Scottish immigrants who became whaling tycoons in Eden thanks to this unique partnership, caught their eight or so whales per year after the orcas herded the baleens into the bay. The killers would bite, harass and tire out the baleens until they could be harpooned, at which point the Davidsons would strap a buoy to the corpse and leave the orcas to eat the face. Afterward, the whalers would return to tow the corpse inland to be harvested for blubber.
It’s by turns a gross and heartwarming tale of man and animal working together to kill defenseless cetaceans. “The orcas really are black and white, great and scary,” says McKee, who’s been fascinated since childhood by the beautiful, nurturing creatures that nonetheless “slaughter these other whales.”
By all accounts, there was real compassion on both sides, face-eating aside. When sailors toppled out of their boats, for example, the orcas protected them from sharks, while the whalers would free orcas that got stuck in the ropes. The Eden whalers knew every member of their orca pod by name — in fact, Old Tom’s skeleton is preserved in the local whaling museum — and when the whales died, they’d have wakes for them, mourning them as they would a fellow sailor.
Eventually, the killers moved on from Eden. They were being shot and killed by conventional whalers who weren’t teaming up with them, and some suggest that their food supply in Twofold Bay was dwindling. Today the pod is gone, and no other group of whalers has ever attempted to team up with killer whales, possibly because so many countries observe the 1986 International Whaling Commission ban on commercial whaling. Now only Japan, Norway and Iceland still cruise for whale flesh, and they don’t ask killer whales for help. “I think it’s actually humans that aren’t very open to cooperating with other animals,” says Clode. If not for the myths of their aboriginal whalers, the Eden crews might never have realized what an asset the killers could be.