Law of the Tongue: When Humans and Killer Whales Hunt Together
Tom Mustill on the Unique Relationship Between a Pod and a Whaler
Whales, dolphins, and porpoises all belong to one bunch of closely related animals (an infraorder) called the cetaceans, a name derived from kēto˘s, the Ancient Greek word for “huge fish” or “sea monster.” They are not fish but mammals; like us they have warm blood, breathe air using lungs, and give birth to live young whom they nurse with milk.
Sometime around 50 million years ago, perhaps near modern-day Pakistan, some mammals began to move back into the water. These were the ancestors of all cetaceans. They lost most of their hair and whiskers and became streamlined and insulated with blubber. Their hands and feet turned into paddles. They gradually became so perfectly adapted for living in water that they could not survive out of it. They spread across Earth’s seas from the tropics to the poles, to the bottom of the deepest oceans and up rivers far inland. Today there are at least ninety species of cetaceans. All are carnivores, consuming other animals for the nutrients and water they need to survive. I often use “whale” as a shorthand for all of them—whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
Cetaceans are classified into two kinds according to what is in their mouths. There are the toothed whales, (or Odontoceti, literally, “sea monsters with teeth”); and there are the baleen whales (or Mysticeti, “sea monsters with moustaches”). These split from the toothed whales some 34 million years ago and have replaced their teeth with giant flexible bristly combs made out of a substance called keratin—the same material as your hair and fingernails. The baleen whales tend to take big gulps of seawater, from which they sieve their prey of fish and krill. They’re generally pretty big.
Toothed whales, as their name suggests, have teeth. They can’t feed by filtering massive gulps of seawater, so they hunt animals they can bite. All dolphins and porpoises are toothed. They range in scale from the dog-sized and critically endangered (there are perhaps just ten left) vaquita porpoise, hunting tiny fish in the Sea of Cortez, to the apartment-sized sperm whale, which stalks similarly titanic prey—thirty-foot-long giant squid. A simple way of thinking about the two different hunting strategies that teeth and baleen give whales is that if you filter-feed, you eat small animals in big gulps, and if you hunt with teeth, you tend to eat bigger animals in small bites.
Perhaps the most famous toothed whale is the killer whale, Orcinus orca. Some kinds, or “ecotypes,” of killer whales hunt fish like salmon or herring. Other ecotypes hunt marine mammals, including some that specialize in hunting whales, even enormous species like blue whales. One theory is that their name derives from the Spanish whalers’ term “ballena asesina,” or “assassin whale.” In some parts of the world, people today use the term “orca” instead, feeling “killer” is pejorative.
Baleen whales try to avoid the ecotypes of killer whales that hunt them. But their annual migration routes draw the baleen whales and their young calves through underwater badlands, where killers can lie in wait.
One of these places is the East Coast of Australia, along which southern right whales and humpbacks swim on their journeys to and from their feeding waters. There is evidence for human occupation across much of Australia dating well over forty thousand years, and some modern Aboriginal societies are thought to be the longest continuous cultures on Earth.The killer whales became known as “beowa” (brothers), and the people are said to have regarded the killers “as the reincarnated spirits of their own departed ancestors.”
People here have stayed in the same places, and though they lacked written languages, their oral traditions have proven extraordinarily resilient. In some communities, there are names and stories about coastlines and landscapes that disappeared underwater after the last ice age. Descriptions of places retold in stories today match scientific reconstructions of the landscapes as they were ten thousand years ago, evidence that these tales have been passed down accurately for some four hundred generations.
Among the Aboriginal people of this coast, the Yuin nation, there were many beliefs, practices, and ceremonies linking the people with the whales. The black-and-white-patterned ceremonial dress of warriors resembles the body markings of the killer whales. One traditional cure was to crawl into the body of a dead whale and, but for the head, lie within its decomposing carcass. On the hillsides where people went to learn, instructive rock engravings still show the whales, one with the figure of a man inside.
In what the Europeans named Twofold Bay, by the colonists’ town of Eden, the Katungal (saltwater people) had, perhaps for thousands of years, developed and maintained an extraordinary mutualistic relationship with the killer whales. Between April and November, killer whales would lie in wait for migrating baleen whales (or “Jaanda”), whom they would trap in the bay and devour in the shallow water. Here the Katungal could also more easily spear the baleen whales and use the meat.
One theory is that this was interpreted by the people as the whales bringing them gifts. The killer whales became known as “beowa” (brothers), and the people are said to have regarded the killers “as the reincarnated spirits of their own departed ancestors.” According to oral tradition and noted by early Europeans, the Katungal would reward the killers with the mouthparts of the prey whales, including their massive tongues, which could weigh up to four tons.
One hundred fifty years ago, a whaling settlement was established in the bay. The settlers worked out of small, shore-based whaling boats, ready to feed their societies’ hunger for whale oil. Many of the European whalers considered the local killer whales their competitors, a nuisance. But one family of Scottish whalers, the Davidsons, hired Yuin to work on their boat and paid them a fair wage. They, in turn, taught the Davidsons how to hunt with the killers.
The whalers got to know fifteen to twenty whales by their “saddle markings” (just as modern whale scientists do) and gave them names like Stranger, Skinner, and Jimmy. Many of these would have been female whales. Killer whale societies are not dominated by the males, despite their greater size. Instead, they are matriarchal, led by one or more dominant females and their matrilines: daughters, sons, and grandchildren. Female killer whales, like humans and elephants, experience menopause— it’s thought this allows them to focus on leadership, using their lifetimes of experience to guide their pods.
The present-day southern resident orcas off the North American Pacific Coast, for instance, are led by a female, L25, believed to be at least ninety-three years old. The pod that hunted off Eden was likely no different. Local Aboriginal whaling families and the Davidsons knew many of the killer whales individually by sight and personality. One whale in the pod that the whalers interacted with a great deal in the early twentieth century was a huge bull, Old Tom, who was easily distinguished from the others by his massive dorsal fin and “playful nature.” Perhaps he was taught to interact with the whalers by his grandmother.
The story goes that when the pod Old Tom belonged to encountered humpback and right whales passing by, they would herd them into Twofold Bay, where the Davidsons lived. Old Tom and other whales would break away from the hunt and alert the humans by swimming right to the river mouth by their houses and breaching—throwing and slapping their tails on the surface—at all times, even at night. The Davidsons and their crews would rush out to their boats and paddle out to the killers, who would then guide the men to the prey whale, helping to corral and attack them until the whalers had harpooned and killed their prey.
Sometimes the killers would even help by pulling on the ropes leading from the harpoons, tugging the ensnared whales toward the whalers’ boats. According to Percy Mumbulla, the nephew of one of the whalers, “the killers would let them know if there were whales about” but the communication was two-way: “Ole Uncle would speak to them killers in the language.”
Paintings, diaries, photographs, and etchings depict these multispecies maritime battles, with the fifteen-foot boats of the whalers dwarfed by their colossal quarry and the giant killer whales weaving and leaping around them. When men were knocked in the water during the hunt or when their ships were sunk, the whales would swim around them to protect them from sharks.
When a hunt was complete, the Davidsons’ teams would attach the dead whale to a buoy and the killers would take their share of it, eating its huge, fleshy lips and tongue. It’s thought the Davidsons were taught this by their indigenous crew. The whalers would then take the rest to be rendered for its valuable blubber to be used in soaps, fuels, and the manufacture of leather. It was also a good deal for the killer whales, who would normally have to spend many dangerous hours hunting a baleen whale by battering it with their tails, pushing it beneath the water or biting at vulnerable parts. This exchange, a formalization of what was perhaps a mutualistic symbiosis millenia in the making, became known locally as the “Law of the Tongue.”We live separated not just by our biology but by our medium—cetaceans in the sea, and humans on land. Yet despite all these hurdles, whales and humans learned to communicate, team up, and violently bridge their worlds.
Using contemporaneous pictures of the hunts and diaries, it’s been estimated that killer whales participated in the Eden whaling industry for more than seventy years, from the 1840s to at least 1910, alongside three generations of the Davidsons. When one of them, Jack Davidson, drowned with two of his children, the men were said to have searched for his body in vain for a week. Old Tom remained for this time in one small corner of the Bay, which was where Jack’s friends found his body.
Cooperative hunting and many other interactions between human and whale were frequently recorded and even filmed. “I don’t think there’s been such a combination of trust and friendship between, certainly not anything in the sea and humans,” said eyewitness Alice Otten (age 103 years), interviewed in 2004. But in the early twentieth century the whales disappeared. It is thought that Old Tom’s pod was slaughtered by incoming Norwegian whalers in a nearby bay, unaware that they were firing on allies. At the same time, many indigenous Australians were being dispersed—moved from their traditional lands, taken away to schools, their old ways forbidden.
Finally, the only whale left in the bay was Old Tom, who reappeared in 1923. In a poignant coincidence, it was George Davidson whom he encountered. George was out fishing with a friend, Logan, and both were surprised to see Old Tom—even more so when Tom drove a small whale toward George’s modest boat. George had his harpoons with him and speared the whale. Whales were few and far between by this time, and with a storm closing in and fearing that it would be the only kill of the season, George’s friend Logan tried to pull the dead whale away before Old Tom had had his “share,” with George objecting fiercely. A tug of war developed between the whale and the man, during which two of Old Tom’s teeth broke off. Old Tom, with no surviving members of his pod, stood little chance. Logan’s young daughter, who was with them that day, remembered her father aghast, saying, “Oh God, what have I done?” An ancient contract had been violated.
How did this mutualistic symbiosis begin? How was it developed and signaled? Whales and dolphins have fingers, but they are hidden deep within their rigid pectoral flippers. Their faces are fixed, lacking the muscles humans and baboons use to pull our features into helpful visual signals of different emotions and intentions. We live separated not just by our biology but by our medium—cetaceans in the sea, and humans on land. Yet despite all these hurdles, whales and humans learned to communicate, team up, and violently bridge their worlds.
Excerpted from HOW TO SPEAK WHALE by Tom Mustill. Copyright © 2022 by Tom Mustill. Reprinted by arrangement with Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.