Killer Whales: Beneath the Surface Natural World


Killer Whales: Beneath the Surface

Documentary revealing the social, intelligent side of the killer whale - a creature long feared as a sea monster until it was studied in captivity for the first time.


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Transcript


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The killer whale.

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For thousands of years it was feared as a single-minded, ruthless hunter.

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But in just half a century, killer whales have emerged

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as the most popular and most studied marine mammals in the world.

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Our understanding of what they can do,

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and why they do it, has been transformed.

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When it comes to killer whales, not everything is black and white.

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A global investigation is producing a series of breakthroughs.

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It's on!

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-It's on, it's on.

-Got that one. It's a great sample!

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Using a range of techniques, scientists can enter

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the lives of these surprisingly complex creatures.

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It's a very selfless behaviour.

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OK. She's coming back around.

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They're revealing sophisticated teamwork...

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..incredible ingenuity...

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..even an advanced form of communication.

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I stumbled into the existence of a dialect system

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that I really had no idea existed.

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Now, the very latest research

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challenges our fundamental assumptions

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about what these animals are.

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There's not just THE killer whale any more.

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Finally, the killer whale's true colours can be revealed.

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The west coast of America.

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Grey whales are migrating towards distant feeding grounds.

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A mother escorts her calf, trying to keep a low profile.

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But a pack of killers has spotted them.

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Seven metres long, five tonnes in weight

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and travelling at over 30mph,

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a single killer whale is a formidable foe.

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Working as a team, they're almost invincible.

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The grey whale mother is six times the killer whale's weight.

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But like wolves, the ocean's top predators

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can take on creatures far larger than themselves.

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They take it in turns to dunk the youngster.

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They're trying to drown it.

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Others fend off its mother.

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She tries to push her baby to the surface.

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But against this co-ordinated pack, the outcome is inevitable.

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In 1874, a whaling captain

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who witnessed these "whale killers" in action

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described them as "spreading death and terror".

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And so the name "killer whale" was born.

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Bloody tales long haunted the human mind.

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But in 1964, a chance event

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that would change this fearsome reputation forever.

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One of these terrifying sea monsters

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was brought into captivity for the first time.

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For John Ford, today a leading killer-whale scientist,

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this would make a deep impression.

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The intention of the Vancouver Aquarium

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was to collect a specimen

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from which to make a realistic model of the animal.

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But the animal wasn't killed by the harpoon

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that they had used to capture it, and so they tried to keep it alive.

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They dragged it 40 miles

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to a specially constructed pen in Vancouver harbour,

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where it attracted huge crowds.

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My father took me down there, I guess I was nine years old at the time.

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And it was extremely thrilling seeing this large, scary killer whale

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in a captive setting.

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The public quickly realised

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how placid this so-called killer actually was.

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It dispelled, I think, a lot of the mythology,

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in that it wasn't a ferocious animal -

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it didn't attack people, it responded well to trainers,

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it took fish readily from their hands -

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and so I think that was the very beginning

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of the change of public attitude towards this species.

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They christened it "Moby Doll".

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And they noticed for the first time that this animal talked.

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She's making various sounds, which you're recording.

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-Could you give us a listen to these?

-Yes, certainly.

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These were made with a hydrophone in the water.

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WHALES WHISTLE AND SQUEAK

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Have you any idea just what these noises might be in response to?

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Oh, they may be curiosity on the part of the whale,

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they might be a sign of nervousness,

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or she may be calling for others of her kind.

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I gather it will be some time before you classify these words

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-and make this dictionary, which you hope to do eventually.

-Yes, it will.

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This pioneering work was the first step on the road

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to revealing the killer whale's true nature.

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And by the time Moby Doll died of poor health after just 87 days,

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this single killer whale had inspired a generation

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to find out more.

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The discovery of unique markings on the dorsal fin and saddle patch

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meant individuals could be identified and followed.

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Gradually, scientists began to unravel their private lives.

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The largest of the dolphins, killer whales live in family pods,

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led not by the big-finned males, but by a matriarch.

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Females reach maturity at around 14 years

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and have a calf around every three.

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Both sexes usually remain with their families for life.

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Determined to find out more, a young John Ford set out to sea.

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In the early '70s, he got to know 16 pods living around Vancouver Island.

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I was really interested in underwater acoustics,

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the communication of these whales.

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I realised this was an opportunity

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to actually go out and record identified groups of killer whales.

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Often they come under and investigate the hydrophone underwater.

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Oh! Looks like A39.

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Hoping to understand their language,

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John started to analyse each family's calls.

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WHALE WHISTLES

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Ah, there it is again,

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it's a really strong, descending tone that...

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HE WHISTLES ..is classically H.

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But he was in for a surprise.

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Very early in this work,

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by recording different groups I...stumbled into the existence

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of a dialect system that I really had no idea existed.

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These dialects aren't subtle, they're quite striking to the ear,

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even the untrained ear.

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With modern technology, John can analyse the calls more closely.

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This is an example right here of a northern resident group.

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Each individual shares the same repertoire

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of very distinctive calls.

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Now, we'll just switch to the southern residents, here.

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You can see immediately that the voice print,

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the spectrograms, are quite different between the two samples.

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Each killer-whale pod has its own dialect,

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allowing individuals to recognise family members

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and stick with them for life.

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Related families have similar dialects.

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What surprised John was finding a totally different language

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in the same Canadian waters.

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Occasionally, we would run into a different kind of killer whale.

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These little groups were very silent, but when they DID vocalise

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they made sounds that were entirely different from the resident groups.

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Because they only appeared from time to time,

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these pods were nicknamed "transients".

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Unlike the residents John knew so well,

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they had no interest in fish.

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They were mammal-eaters.

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For a single killer whale,

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a three-metre, one-tonne Steller sea lion makes a formidable target.

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But against a pod of natural-born killers,

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this lone male stands little chance.

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The transients work together.

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One catches the sea lion's attention.

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The second attacks.

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She bludgeons the sea lion into submission.

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It may seem savage, but it's hugely effective.

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The transients, it seems, have their own unique lifestyle,

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comparable to a human culture.

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We now realise that, even though the species is found globally,

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in most parts of the world they seem to be highly specialised cultures

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that are focused on different prey types.

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New Zealand's killer-whale culture specialises in stingrays.

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The spines in their tails have been known to kill.

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But the local killers have found a way round this thorny problem.

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By inverting her victim, this female puts it in a trance

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and its sting out of action.

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In Patagonia, the most famous killer-whale culture of them all.

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It takes years to perfect this extraordinary beaching technique.

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But behaviours like these mean this top predator

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can exploit every corner of the ocean.

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After man, killer whales are the most widespread mammal on Earth.

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But this global population is divided into at least ten cultures.

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Scientists began to wonder how different these cultures were.

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Could there be multiple subspecies,

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or even separate species of killer whale?

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Southern California, just north of San Diego.

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The hub of a global investigation into killer-whale genetics.

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Phillip Morin is analysing DNA samples from around the world

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with the very latest equipment, to build a killer-whale family tree.

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The new technologies have really changed the way we do genetics.

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We can sequence 16 times more DNA than we were doing before

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in a single experiment

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from hundreds of individuals.

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The key is to work out

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when different populations stopped inter-breeding.

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The genetics are showing us that the time of divergence of these

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is much deeper than we had thought originally.

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It's in the order of hundreds of thousands of years,

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not tens of thousands of years.

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First to go, 700,000 years ago, were North America's mammal-eaters.

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Next, the Antarctic population.

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That then split into several groups.

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Other cultures have continued to diversify ever since.

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Defining new species is a contentious issue,

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but Phillip now thinks

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there could be four different species of killer whale,

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and maybe more.

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There's not just THE killer whale any more.

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There are different species out there,

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and they're as different as two species of dolphin,

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or two species of other whales.

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Look closely, and the physical differences are there.

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Size...

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..colour...

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..fin shape...

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..saddle pattern...

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..eye spot.

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This extraordinary discovery shatters our age-old perception

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of one global killer whale.

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Remarkably, there's a place

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where THREE of these proposed species live alongside each other -

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Antarctica, the killer-whale capital of the world.

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To find out how these different types coexist,

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John Durban and Bob Pitman are heading deep into the ice floes,

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with a very smart piece of kit.

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This is one of the satellite tags

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that we hope to deploy on the killer whales,

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and it should give us location hits

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maybe up to 30 or 40 times a day.

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We hope at least every hour.

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It's cutting-edge technology.

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But it takes a centuries-old method to attach it.

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OK, she's coming back around.

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The 40-gram tag is barely registered by the massive predator.

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Now, John and Bob can follow its every move.

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It's big. There's lots here, there's probably eight here.

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The tagged killer heads deep into the ice.

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She's one of the pack-ice killer whales,

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recognisable by ragged fins and a yellowish hue.

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They specialise in hunting seals.

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First, they "spy-hop" to pinpoint their targets.

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Then, in perfect synchrony, they create a powerful wave.

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The seals withstand the first assault.

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A second orchestrated attack.

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One makes a break for it.

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It won't get far.

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The titanic struggle is entering its final phase.

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Only the iceberg can save the seal now.

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Against lesser predators, the feisty seal would stand a chance.

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But not against this team of specialist seal-killers.

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When the next species is tagged, striking differences are revealed.

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Antarctic Type As.

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Much darker in colour, and at nine metres long,

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a third larger than most other killer whales.

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Their huge size is an adaptation to hunting whales.

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Minke whales.

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Living along the ice edge,

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the minkes retreat at the first sign of danger.

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But one has ventured away from safety.

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The killers cut it off.

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This species uses stamina to wear down its fast-moving prey.

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The minke's only hope is to exhaust its attackers.

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But taking it in turns, the deadly entourage doesn't relent.

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DRAMATIC MUSIC

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After two hours, the minke's powers of fight and flight are waning.

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The whale killers close in to drown their victim.

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They've earned their feast.

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One by one, Bob and John are recording

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more and more remarkable strategies.

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PENGUIN SQUAWKS

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A third pod, much smaller in size.

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These more agile killers are built to catch penguins.

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It seems that by specialising in different prey,

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each of Antarctica's killer-whale species avoids competition.

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This enables them all to thrive.

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At least 25,000, or half the killer whales on the planet,

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inhabit these waters.

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But how do these new species start out?

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The answer lies at the other end of the earth...

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..where scientists are investigating a split

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in the North Atlantic killer-whale population.

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In Iceland, Filipa Samarra and her team

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need to get within touching distance of a feeding killer whale...

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..so they can attach their equivalent of an aircraft black box.

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The D-tag has two hydrophones,

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which basically record the sounds underwater.

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It records the movements of the whales

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and the depth that the whales are at.

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It has the suction cups, and that's how it goes on the whale,

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and it has this antenna,

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which helps us track where the whale is

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and get the tag back at the end.

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Each killer whale needs a lot of fish

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to satisfy its monster appetite.

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This remarkable device should reveal how they do it.

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Until now it's been thought that all North Atlantic killer whales

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use the same technique originally observed in Norway.

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First, the killers track down their prey -

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shoals of herring hiding in the depths.

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CLICKING

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They use clicks and listen for the echo. A sophisticated sonar.

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When one locates its target, it whistles its excitement.

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Then the pod heads down together, sometimes over 200 metres.

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KILLER WHALES WHISTLE

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It takes several hours to corral the herring up to the surface...

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..a natural barrier to escape.

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Gradually, the killer whales panic their prey

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into tighter and tighter balls.

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Finally, they whack them.

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They stun whole swathes of fish...

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..then suck up the oil-rich pickings.

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WHISTLING CONTINUES

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But in Iceland, there's no sign of herring being pushed to the surface.

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These hunters must have developed a new technique.

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There's only one way to find out.

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First, a youngster.

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-It's on!

-It's on, it's on!

-Oh, my God.

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Then, a big male.

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-It's on, it's on.

-Hee-hee!

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Nice tagging, Ivan! That was great.

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To form a picture of what's happening in the dark depths,

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the team employs an acoustic camera.

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-OK, we have whales on sonar.

-OK.

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Three whales.

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Three whales?

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This is a multi-beam sonar, which basically gives us

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an image of what's going on underwater

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so we can see the whales interacting with the fish.

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This tells us what the fish is doing when the whales are feeding.

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The team gathers data for the rest of the day.

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Filipa can now put the evidence together.

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First, the multi-beam sonar.

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KILLER WHALES SQUEAK

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The sonar really works as a giant ultrasound,

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and you see that the whales are actually

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encircling the school of herring, so they're moving around it,

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and they do this to make the school tighter.

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Then the D-tag reveals the killer information.

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Here we can see what depth they are going to,

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that the whales are moving quite straight,

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they're not making any sounds.

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But when they start moving in circles,

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we see that they go much deeper and they also produce a lot of sounds.

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One sound in particular catches Filipa's attention.

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You can hear it now.

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WHALE WHINES

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So this is the herding call,

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which is a very low-frequency and long call,

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and we think that it's really used to basically scare the herring,

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so it makes the swim bladder of the herring vibrate,

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and it makes the whole herring school bunch even tighter,

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which is a very effective hunting technique for these whales.

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Most North Atlantic killer whales take hours to herd up their prey...

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..but thanks to their unique "herding call",

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Iceland's killers do the same thing in minutes.

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This small innovation is hugely significant.

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It shows that the North Atlantic's

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fish-eating killer whales are growing apart.

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As more differences develop and populations become isolated,

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eventually a new species could emerge.

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The discovery of different kinds of killer whale

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has real implications for their conservation.

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Each is precious.

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None more so than the southern residents of Washington State.

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50 years ago, the public's fascination with Moby Doll

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led to a huge demand for captive killer whales.

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Trappers knew just where to look.

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In places just like this, from the early '60s,

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the resident killer whales

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were rounded up and captured

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for the aquarium industry.

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For Sam Wasser, the memories are still fresh.

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Trappers used boats, helicopters and explosives

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to herd frightened animals into sheltered bays.

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KILLER WHALES SQUEAK

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It must have been horrific for these whales,

0:30:530:30:55

because for one thing, killer whales are a predator,

0:30:550:30:58

they're very, very intelligent and they're highly social organisms.

0:30:580:31:02

And putting all those animals together

0:31:020:31:04

and then ripping the young away from their mothers

0:31:040:31:07

must have just been enormously stressful.

0:31:070:31:09

MUSIC: Goodbye Blue Sky by Pink Floyd

0:31:110:31:14

One of the real telltale signs of that

0:31:190:31:21

is that in Penn Cove, where one of the really big captures happened,

0:31:210:31:25

those animals have not been back.

0:31:250:31:27

By 1976, following a backlash from conservationists,

0:31:320:31:37

the authorities called a halt to the round-ups.

0:31:370:31:39

But the damage had been done.

0:31:410:31:42

Four decades on, just 84 southern residents survive,

0:31:480:31:53

and this number is falling.

0:31:530:31:55

But killer whales are resilient animals.

0:31:570:31:59

These large mammals that have a long generation time,

0:32:020:32:05

they can recover.

0:32:050:32:07

We just have to make sure that they have the ability to recover,

0:32:070:32:11

and that means having good food,

0:32:110:32:13

having a clean environment to live in,

0:32:130:32:15

and reducing their stress loads.

0:32:150:32:18

The southern residents will need human help to survive.

0:32:210:32:24

But a recent finding suggests that killer whales

0:32:260:32:29

can learn to help themselves.

0:32:290:32:31

In the Falkland Islands,

0:32:430:32:44

the elephant seals are wise to the predators lurking just offshore.

0:32:440:32:49

They won't leave the safety of the beach

0:32:530:32:55

until it's absolutely necessary.

0:32:550:32:57

As a result, few killer whales patrol these shores.

0:33:020:33:05

But recently it was discovered that one female

0:33:080:33:11

has found a way to unlock this rich source of food.

0:33:110:33:15

Silently,

0:33:200:33:22

stealthily,

0:33:220:33:24

she risks it all to enter a tidal pool.

0:33:240:33:27

Her calf follows her every move, learning her unique technique.

0:33:280:33:34

If she gets the timing wrong,

0:33:480:33:50

she'll be stranded and die.

0:33:500:33:52

But if she can sneak in unnoticed,

0:33:540:33:57

the rewards will be worth the risk.

0:33:570:33:59

The female spots her target.

0:34:090:34:12

The tide is falling. She doesn't have long.

0:34:130:34:15

She edges further into the pool.

0:34:180:34:20

This is her chance.

0:34:290:34:30

Now, with a mouth full of floundering seal,

0:34:400:34:42

she must escape the shallow channel.

0:34:420:34:45

She's made it.

0:35:000:35:02

Amazingly, she won't keep her prize to herself.

0:35:040:35:07

It's the rest of her family that reaps the reward.

0:35:110:35:15

And there's new evidence that this commitment to others

0:35:150:35:18

goes beyond what we've ever expected.

0:35:180:35:20

It's summer in the Norwegian Arctic.

0:35:300:35:33

German biologist Heike Vester has made a remarkable discovery.

0:35:360:35:40

She and her assistant Madita have found a family

0:35:490:35:53

that takes caring and sharing to a level rarely seen

0:35:530:35:56

in the animal kingdom.

0:35:560:35:58

Like all killer-whale families, this one is led by a matriarch.

0:35:590:36:04

But one pod member sets this family apart.

0:36:050:36:08

It's a female. Stumpy...

0:36:090:36:11

Oh. Got Stumpy over here.

0:36:110:36:14

Right there, see?

0:36:140:36:15

Stumpy's severed fin means she's easily identified.

0:36:180:36:22

First spotted in 1996,

0:36:250:36:27

people assumed she'd been hit by a boat.

0:36:270:36:30

Six years later,

0:36:330:36:35

her mother had vanished

0:36:350:36:37

and Stumpy had taken up with another pod.

0:36:370:36:39

Since then she's been seen with four different families.

0:36:410:36:45

I'm so happy to see her again,

0:36:450:36:48

because she's 17 years old now

0:36:480:36:51

and she's really handicapped

0:36:510:36:52

and she could not have survived by herself.

0:36:520:36:55

To find out how she does survive,

0:36:570:36:59

Heike wants to see Stumpy underwater.

0:36:590:37:01

-There she is.

-There she is, yeah.

0:37:010:37:04

With the camera crew here, this is her chance.

0:37:060:37:09

Oh, wow, I didn't expect that.

0:37:160:37:20

It's really twisted.

0:37:200:37:23

Now, from above, you only see the dorsal fin that's cut,

0:37:260:37:29

but then now I could really see the back.

0:37:290:37:32

And it really looks like it has problems swimming.

0:37:340:37:37

The tail is restricted in movement.

0:37:370:37:41

It doesn't really go all the way up and down.

0:37:410:37:44

To find out how she eats at all

0:37:480:37:50

Heike must witness a hunt.

0:37:500:37:52

So we've stopped now because the killer whales are over there

0:38:000:38:03

and it looks like they're foraging.

0:38:030:38:05

What I'll do now is put in the hydrophone and listen,

0:38:070:38:10

so that I know they're foraging.

0:38:100:38:13

Because if they do, they use echolocation clicks.

0:38:130:38:16

Nearly 50 years after the first attempts

0:38:180:38:21

to interpret Moby Doll's calls,

0:38:210:38:23

Heike is still trying to unravel their language.

0:38:230:38:27

RAPID CLICKING

0:38:270:38:29

That means they are looking for fish,

0:38:290:38:31

they're scanning the fjord.

0:38:310:38:33

Their sophisticated sonar can determine the size

0:38:350:38:37

and even species of fish nearby.

0:38:370:38:40

Heike's found that this family targets mackerel and salmon.

0:38:420:38:47

Stumpy seems keen to join in.

0:38:510:38:53

And I listen out for any changes in their communication.

0:38:560:39:00

Because as soon as they get a fish,

0:39:000:39:02

especially a salmon,

0:39:020:39:03

I will hear it immediately.

0:39:030:39:05

Each species of fish provokes a different call.

0:39:060:39:10

Ah! They are calling.

0:39:100:39:12

Might be that they found a fish.

0:39:120:39:15

HIGH-PITCHED CALLS

0:39:150:39:17

Suddenly, action.

0:39:170:39:19

Yay, yay, action!

0:39:240:39:27

Whoa, next to us, on the left side.

0:39:270:39:28

It's every killer whale for itself,

0:39:310:39:33

chasing down the mackerel one by one.

0:39:330:39:35

But the real surprise is Stumpy.

0:39:370:39:41

Over there. It's the female and Stumpy, hunting together.

0:39:410:39:44

WHALES SQUEAK

0:39:440:39:46

She's right at the heart of it...

0:39:460:39:49

..chasing not the fish but the other killer whales.

0:39:510:39:54

The six-metre female has caught a mackerel,

0:39:580:40:01

barely 30 centimetres long.

0:40:010:40:03

She could easily swallow it whole.

0:40:030:40:06

Instead, she slices it in half and drops a share.

0:40:060:40:10

Stumpy is there to grab it.

0:40:100:40:12

Whether she's being deliberately fed

0:40:170:40:19

or just scavenging scraps is hard to tell.

0:40:190:40:22

But this shred of evidence must explain Stumpy's survival.

0:40:220:40:27

But why would a family of killer whales

0:40:300:40:33

adopt and care for a handicapped animal?

0:40:330:40:36

The reason why the others would help Stumpy

0:40:360:40:40

is probably purely social -

0:40:400:40:43

that in such a community the whole group is important

0:40:430:40:48

and not just individuals,

0:40:480:40:49

so they wouldn't leave sick individuals behind.

0:40:490:40:52

They'd rather take care of them.

0:40:520:40:54

It's very...selfless behaviour.

0:40:590:41:03

This could be one example of the killer whales

0:41:030:41:07

to show how social they are.

0:41:070:41:09

But there's more to it than we know, right now,

0:41:090:41:11

which makes it really, really exciting.

0:41:110:41:14

Perhaps this should come as no surprise.

0:41:160:41:19

Recent studies of killer-whale brains

0:41:190:41:22

have revealed specialised cells for processing emotions -

0:41:220:41:26

similar to our own.

0:41:260:41:27

In the time since Moby Doll first went on public display,

0:41:370:41:41

our understanding of killer whales has changed beyond recognition.

0:41:410:41:46

It's amazing today to look back at when this study began

0:41:510:41:54

and how little we knew about the species.

0:41:540:41:57

We didn't really know what they ate, what their life cycle was like,

0:41:570:42:01

their natural history,

0:42:010:42:03

anything about their biology, really. It was all mythology.

0:42:030:42:06

These were just the scary, dangerous predators

0:42:060:42:09

that were to be shot on sight.

0:42:090:42:10

But with evidence gathered from across the globe,

0:42:120:42:15

we now have a clear picture of the killer whale's true nature.

0:42:150:42:19

They can be brutal...

0:42:210:42:22

..intelligent...

0:42:300:42:31

..and can work as a deadly team.

0:42:330:42:35

The emergence of new species changes the way

0:42:420:42:44

we look at killer-whale populations across the world.

0:42:440:42:47

While some are struggling to survive,

0:42:490:42:53

others are finding ways to adapt.

0:42:530:42:56

Interpreting their language is still a dream.

0:43:000:43:02

I gather it'll be some time, then, before you can classify these words

0:43:040:43:07

and make this dictionary which you hope to do eventually.

0:43:070:43:10

Yes, it will.

0:43:100:43:11

But the discovery of close families and diverse cultures

0:43:140:43:18

means we can relate to killer whales more closely

0:43:180:43:21

than to any other animal in the ocean.

0:43:210:43:23

Maybe we're not the only ones that are social

0:43:240:43:28

and take care of each other,

0:43:280:43:30

but that animals are more similar to us

0:43:300:43:33

than we believed before.

0:43:330:43:35

After a 50-year journey from fear to fascination,

0:43:370:43:41

a new era of understanding is just beginning.

0:43:410:43:45

The killer whale was long feared as a sea monster until, in May 1964, one was brought into captivity for the first time. This spawned a journey of discovery into the killer whale's true nature.

It quickly became clear, these were not mindless killers - they were, in fact, highly intelligent social creatures. Today, our understanding is deepening still further and the latest revelations are among the most sensational - not only will these top predators 'adopt' and care for injured and abandoned orphans, but it seems there's no longer just the 'killer whale'.