How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Great­est Preda­tor

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight -

Ja­son M. Colby, Ox­ford Univer­sity Press (JUNE) Hard­cover $29.95 (408pp), 978-0-19-067309-3

“As a boy, I saw my dad cry on only three oc­ca­sions,” writes Ja­son Colby. “One was his fa­ther’s fu­neral. The other two in­volved dead or­cas.” Colby’s fa­ther had been in the busi­ness of cap­tur­ing and sell­ing killer whales for sale and dis­play, but he, to­gether with pub­lic opin­ion, turned against whale cap­tiv­ity. “Tell some­one to­day that your fa­ther caught or­cas for a liv­ing and you might as well de­clare him a slave trader,” Colby writes.

What turned the tide? Strangely enough, it was cap­tiv­ity. Or­cas, also known as killer whales or black­fish, are the ocean’s great­est, most ef­fi­cient preda­tors, and had long been hated and feared. The Latin name Orci­nus orca can be trans­lated “de­mon from hell.” As far back as 79 CE, Pliny the El­der de­scribed the orca as “an enor­mous mass of flesh armed with teeth.”

But cap­tive or­cas gave sci­en­tists and the pub­lic a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Trained to re­spond to hu­man di­rec­tion, they have en­ter­tained au­di­ences world­wide with their in­tel­li­gence, beauty, grace, and power. They were found to be com­plex so­cial be­ings with their own cul­ture and di­alects, strong fam­ily bonds, a so­phis­ti­cated method of biosonar, and a cetacean ver­sion of ul­tra­sound that al­lows them to “see” in­side the bod­ies of other an­i­mals. They teach their young hunt­ing strate­gies, and wild or­cas have even co­op­er­ated with hu­mans in the hunt for baleen whales.

Through in­ter­views, pub­lic and pri­vate archives, of­fi­cial records, and pre­vi­ously un­avail­able in­for­ma­tion that in­cludes his own fam­ily’s in­volve­ment in the con­flicted, bloody his­tory of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­mans and or­cas, Colby shines a light on how lit­tle we un­der­stand of these mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures. His book gives a glimpse into a mys­te­ri­ous yet strangely fa­mil­iar world, brought to life in a story that’s tragic, heart­break­ing, and fi­nally hope­ful.

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