You were always my favorite species of whale throughout my youth—your stylish black-and-white suits were far more attractive than the dull, sometimes even (ugh!) barnacled hides of your fellow whales. Your playful demeanor in Free Willy catapulted you into Hollywood fame and the hearts of millions of my fellow Americans.
But, Orcas, I received a severe shock last night while watching an episode of Blue Planet that, as its final segment, featured footage that I shudder to recount even now.
As part of the episode, which was about coasts, David Attenborough had been enthusiastically extolling the virtues of a particular beach somewhere on the Atlantic as a breeding ground and “nursery school” for sea lions. Baby sea lions are much cuter and more streamlined than their adult counterparts. There was extensive (and adorable) footage of frolicking sea lion babies enjoying idyllic childhoods and learning the important skills so vital to their survival in the big ocean. The waves lapped rhythmically, the sun glimmered on the water, and all seemed harmonious with the world, until, suddenly, an enormous black shape loomed in the waves behind a pair of gamboling pups. An orca appeared somewhat incongruously behind the sea lions, who stared with fatal incomprehension into the stylish black-and-white face of death.
What happened next was terrible, but I feel the world must know what you really are, Orcas. As the baby sea lions gazed innocently up into that toothy grin, the orca unceremoniously chomped down on one of them and whipped it back and forth in the churning salty spray. This in itself was surprising, but naturally I assumed the orca was hungry and needed the pup for nourishment. Not so.
A veritable orgy of sadism then ensued: the poor baby sea lion was dragged far out to sea and then was buffeted cruelly back and forth between two of your kind for a full half-hour—_while still alive_!! The footage of this segment was particularly piteous, with each successive pup twisting helplessly this way and that in a frantic and futile attempt to escape its demented tormentors. But what really capped it, Orcas, was the finishing touch, when one of the killer whales turned its back on its battered and pathetic prey, feigning disinterest, before sweeping its powerful tail up and back, tossing the tattered remains of baby sea lion fully 50 feet into the air!!
Yes, I called you killer whales. Throughout primary school, I was always the first to defend your honor, insisting to my ignorant colleagues that the correct term was “orcas.” But after what was revealed to me on that nature show, I will always think of you simply as killers. You were completely uninterested in the sea lions as a valuable source of food; apparently, your only use for them was as an outlet for your hitherto-unknown-to-me streak of pure sadism. If you required the pups as a teaching prop for your offspring, I see no reason why dispatching them humanely first—rather than subjecting them to 30 minutes of abject terror—would have interfered with your purpose. Frankly, Orcas, I was shocked and horrified by what I saw.
After an appalled silence as the last dead pup splashed into the cold, cold sea, Attenborough sadly concluded, “We can only speculate as to the meaning of this extraordinary behavior.”
Orcas, I think you have some serious explaining to do.