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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The killer whale.
For thousands of years it was feared as a single-minded, ruthless hunter.
But in just half a century, killer whales have emerged
as the most popular and most studied marine mammals in the world.
Our understanding of what they can do,
and why they do it, has been transformed.
When it comes to killer whales, not everything is black and white.
A global investigation is producing a series of breakthroughs.
-It's on, it's on.
-Got that one. It's a great sample!
Using a range of techniques, scientists can enter
the lives of these surprisingly complex creatures.
It's a very selfless behaviour.
OK. She's coming back around.
They're revealing sophisticated teamwork...
..even an advanced form of communication.
I stumbled into the existence of a dialect system
that I really had no idea existed.
Now, the very latest research
challenges our fundamental assumptions
about what these animals are.
There's not just THE killer whale any more.
Finally, the killer whale's true colours can be revealed.
The west coast of America.
Grey whales are migrating towards distant feeding grounds.
A mother escorts her calf, trying to keep a low profile.
But a pack of killers has spotted them.
Seven metres long, five tonnes in weight
and travelling at over 30mph,
a single killer whale is a formidable foe.
Working as a team, they're almost invincible.
The grey whale mother is six times the killer whale's weight.
But like wolves, the ocean's top predators
can take on creatures far larger than themselves.
They take it in turns to dunk the youngster.
They're trying to drown it.
Others fend off its mother.
She tries to push her baby to the surface.
But against this co-ordinated pack, the outcome is inevitable.
In 1874, a whaling captain
who witnessed these "whale killers" in action
described them as "spreading death and terror".
And so the name "killer whale" was born.
Bloody tales long haunted the human mind.
But in 1964, a chance event
that would change this fearsome reputation forever.
One of these terrifying sea monsters
was brought into captivity for the first time.
For John Ford, today a leading killer-whale scientist,
this would make a deep impression.
The intention of the Vancouver Aquarium
was to collect a specimen
from which to make a realistic model of the animal.
But the animal wasn't killed by the harpoon
that they had used to capture it, and so they tried to keep it alive.
They dragged it 40 miles
to a specially constructed pen in Vancouver harbour,
where it attracted huge crowds.
My father took me down there, I guess I was nine years old at the time.
And it was extremely thrilling seeing this large, scary killer whale
in a captive setting.
The public quickly realised
how placid this so-called killer actually was.
It dispelled, I think, a lot of the mythology,
in that it wasn't a ferocious animal -
it didn't attack people, it responded well to trainers,
it took fish readily from their hands -
and so I think that was the very beginning
of the change of public attitude towards this species.
They christened it "Moby Doll".
And they noticed for the first time that this animal talked.
She's making various sounds, which you're recording.
-Could you give us a listen to these?
These were made with a hydrophone in the water.
WHALES WHISTLE AND SQUEAK
Have you any idea just what these noises might be in response to?
Oh, they may be curiosity on the part of the whale,
they might be a sign of nervousness,
or she may be calling for others of her kind.
I gather it will be some time before you classify these words
-and make this dictionary, which you hope to do eventually.
-Yes, it will.
This pioneering work was the first step on the road
to revealing the killer whale's true nature.
And by the time Moby Doll died of poor health after just 87 days,
this single killer whale had inspired a generation
to find out more.
The discovery of unique markings on the dorsal fin and saddle patch
meant individuals could be identified and followed.
Gradually, scientists began to unravel their private lives.
The largest of the dolphins, killer whales live in family pods,
led not by the big-finned males, but by a matriarch.
Females reach maturity at around 14 years
and have a calf around every three.
Both sexes usually remain with their families for life.
Determined to find out more, a young John Ford set out to sea.
In the early '70s, he got to know 16 pods living around Vancouver Island.
I was really interested in underwater acoustics,
the communication of these whales.
I realised this was an opportunity
to actually go out and record identified groups of killer whales.
Often they come under and investigate the hydrophone underwater.
Oh! Looks like A39.
Hoping to understand their language,
John started to analyse each family's calls.
Ah, there it is again,
it's a really strong, descending tone that...
HE WHISTLES ..is classically H.
But he was in for a surprise.
Very early in this work,
by recording different groups I...stumbled into the existence
of a dialect system that I really had no idea existed.
These dialects aren't subtle, they're quite striking to the ear,
even the untrained ear.
With modern technology, John can analyse the calls more closely.
This is an example right here of a northern resident group.
Each individual shares the same repertoire
of very distinctive calls.
Now, we'll just switch to the southern residents, here.
You can see immediately that the voice print,
the spectrograms, are quite different between the two samples.
Each killer-whale pod has its own dialect,
allowing individuals to recognise family members
and stick with them for life.
Related families have similar dialects.
What surprised John was finding a totally different language
in the same Canadian waters.
Occasionally, we would run into a different kind of killer whale.
These little groups were very silent, but when they DID vocalise
they made sounds that were entirely different from the resident groups.
Because they only appeared from time to time,
these pods were nicknamed "transients".
Unlike the residents John knew so well,
they had no interest in fish.
They were mammal-eaters.
For a single killer whale,
a three-metre, one-tonne Steller sea lion makes a formidable target.
But against a pod of natural-born killers,
this lone male stands little chance.
The transients work together.
One catches the sea lion's attention.
The second attacks.
She bludgeons the sea lion into submission.
It may seem savage, but it's hugely effective.
The transients, it seems, have their own unique lifestyle,
comparable to a human culture.
We now realise that, even though the species is found globally,
in most parts of the world they seem to be highly specialised cultures
that are focused on different prey types.
New Zealand's killer-whale culture specialises in stingrays.
The spines in their tails have been known to kill.
But the local killers have found a way round this thorny problem.
By inverting her victim, this female puts it in a trance
and its sting out of action.
In Patagonia, the most famous killer-whale culture of them all.
It takes years to perfect this extraordinary beaching technique.
But behaviours like these mean this top predator
can exploit every corner of the ocean.
After man, killer whales are the most widespread mammal on Earth.
But this global population is divided into at least ten cultures.
Scientists began to wonder how different these cultures were.
Could there be multiple subspecies,
or even separate species of killer whale?
Southern California, just north of San Diego.
The hub of a global investigation into killer-whale genetics.
Phillip Morin is analysing DNA samples from around the world
with the very latest equipment, to build a killer-whale family tree.
The new technologies have really changed the way we do genetics.
We can sequence 16 times more DNA than we were doing before
in a single experiment
from hundreds of individuals.
The key is to work out
when different populations stopped inter-breeding.
The genetics are showing us that the time of divergence of these
is much deeper than we had thought originally.
It's in the order of hundreds of thousands of years,
not tens of thousands of years.
First to go, 700,000 years ago, were North America's mammal-eaters.
Next, the Antarctic population.
That then split into several groups.
Other cultures have continued to diversify ever since.
Defining new species is a contentious issue,
but Phillip now thinks
there could be four different species of killer whale,
and maybe more.
There's not just THE killer whale any more.
There are different species out there,
and they're as different as two species of dolphin,
or two species of other whales.
Look closely, and the physical differences are there.
This extraordinary discovery shatters our age-old perception
of one global killer whale.
Remarkably, there's a place
where THREE of these proposed species live alongside each other -
Antarctica, the killer-whale capital of the world.
To find out how these different types coexist,
John Durban and Bob Pitman are heading deep into the ice floes,
with a very smart piece of kit.
This is one of the satellite tags
that we hope to deploy on the killer whales,
and it should give us location hits
maybe up to 30 or 40 times a day.
We hope at least every hour.
It's cutting-edge technology.
But it takes a centuries-old method to attach it.
OK, she's coming back around.
The 40-gram tag is barely registered by the massive predator.
Now, John and Bob can follow its every move.
It's big. There's lots here, there's probably eight here.
The tagged killer heads deep into the ice.
She's one of the pack-ice killer whales,
recognisable by ragged fins and a yellowish hue.
They specialise in hunting seals.
First, they "spy-hop" to pinpoint their targets.
Then, in perfect synchrony, they create a powerful wave.
The seals withstand the first assault.
A second orchestrated attack.
One makes a break for it.
It won't get far.
The titanic struggle is entering its final phase.
Only the iceberg can save the seal now.
Against lesser predators, the feisty seal would stand a chance.
But not against this team of specialist seal-killers.
When the next species is tagged, striking differences are revealed.
Antarctic Type As.
Much darker in colour, and at nine metres long,
a third larger than most other killer whales.
Their huge size is an adaptation to hunting whales.
Living along the ice edge,
the minkes retreat at the first sign of danger.
But one has ventured away from safety.
The killers cut it off.
This species uses stamina to wear down its fast-moving prey.
The minke's only hope is to exhaust its attackers.
But taking it in turns, the deadly entourage doesn't relent.
After two hours, the minke's powers of fight and flight are waning.
The whale killers close in to drown their victim.
They've earned their feast.
One by one, Bob and John are recording
more and more remarkable strategies.
A third pod, much smaller in size.
These more agile killers are built to catch penguins.
It seems that by specialising in different prey,
each of Antarctica's killer-whale species avoids competition.
This enables them all to thrive.
At least 25,000, or half the killer whales on the planet,
inhabit these waters.
But how do these new species start out?
The answer lies at the other end of the earth...
..where scientists are investigating a split
in the North Atlantic killer-whale population.
In Iceland, Filipa Samarra and her team
need to get within touching distance of a feeding killer whale...
..so they can attach their equivalent of an aircraft black box.
The D-tag has two hydrophones,
which basically record the sounds underwater.
It records the movements of the whales
and the depth that the whales are at.
It has the suction cups, and that's how it goes on the whale,
and it has this antenna,
which helps us track where the whale is
and get the tag back at the end.
Each killer whale needs a lot of fish
to satisfy its monster appetite.
This remarkable device should reveal how they do it.
Until now it's been thought that all North Atlantic killer whales
use the same technique originally observed in Norway.
First, the killers track down their prey -
shoals of herring hiding in the depths.
They use clicks and listen for the echo. A sophisticated sonar.
When one locates its target, it whistles its excitement.
Then the pod heads down together, sometimes over 200 metres.
KILLER WHALES WHISTLE
It takes several hours to corral the herring up to the surface...
..a natural barrier to escape.
Gradually, the killer whales panic their prey
into tighter and tighter balls.
Finally, they whack them.
They stun whole swathes of fish...
..then suck up the oil-rich pickings.
But in Iceland, there's no sign of herring being pushed to the surface.
These hunters must have developed a new technique.
There's only one way to find out.
First, a youngster.
-It's on, it's on!
-Oh, my God.
Then, a big male.
-It's on, it's on.
Nice tagging, Ivan! That was great.
To form a picture of what's happening in the dark depths,
the team employs an acoustic camera.
-OK, we have whales on sonar.
This is a multi-beam sonar, which basically gives us
an image of what's going on underwater
so we can see the whales interacting with the fish.
This tells us what the fish is doing when the whales are feeding.
The team gathers data for the rest of the day.
Filipa can now put the evidence together.
First, the multi-beam sonar.
KILLER WHALES SQUEAK
The sonar really works as a giant ultrasound,
and you see that the whales are actually
encircling the school of herring, so they're moving around it,
and they do this to make the school tighter.
Then the D-tag reveals the killer information.
Here we can see what depth they are going to,
that the whales are moving quite straight,
they're not making any sounds.
But when they start moving in circles,
we see that they go much deeper and they also produce a lot of sounds.
One sound in particular catches Filipa's attention.
You can hear it now.
So this is the herding call,
which is a very low-frequency and long call,
and we think that it's really used to basically scare the herring,
so it makes the swim bladder of the herring vibrate,
and it makes the whole herring school bunch even tighter,
which is a very effective hunting technique for these whales.
Most North Atlantic killer whales take hours to herd up their prey...
..but thanks to their unique "herding call",
Iceland's killers do the same thing in minutes.
This small innovation is hugely significant.
It shows that the North Atlantic's
fish-eating killer whales are growing apart.
As more differences develop and populations become isolated,
eventually a new species could emerge.
The discovery of different kinds of killer whale
has real implications for their conservation.
Each is precious.
None more so than the southern residents of Washington State.
50 years ago, the public's fascination with Moby Doll
led to a huge demand for captive killer whales.
Trappers knew just where to look.
In places just like this, from the early '60s,
the resident killer whales
were rounded up and captured
for the aquarium industry.
For Sam Wasser, the memories are still fresh.
Trappers used boats, helicopters and explosives
to herd frightened animals into sheltered bays.
KILLER WHALES SQUEAK
It must have been horrific for these whales,
because for one thing, killer whales are a predator,
they're very, very intelligent and they're highly social organisms.
And putting all those animals together
and then ripping the young away from their mothers
must have just been enormously stressful.
MUSIC: Goodbye Blue Sky by Pink Floyd
One of the real telltale signs of that
is that in Penn Cove, where one of the really big captures happened,
those animals have not been back.
By 1976, following a backlash from conservationists,
the authorities called a halt to the round-ups.
But the damage had been done.
Four decades on, just 84 southern residents survive,
and this number is falling.
But killer whales are resilient animals.
These large mammals that have a long generation time,
they can recover.
We just have to make sure that they have the ability to recover,
and that means having good food,
having a clean environment to live in,
and reducing their stress loads.
The southern residents will need human help to survive.
But a recent finding suggests that killer whales
can learn to help themselves.
In the Falkland Islands,
the elephant seals are wise to the predators lurking just offshore.
They won't leave the safety of the beach
until it's absolutely necessary.
As a result, few killer whales patrol these shores.
But recently it was discovered that one female
has found a way to unlock this rich source of food.
she risks it all to enter a tidal pool.
Her calf follows her every move, learning her unique technique.
If she gets the timing wrong,
she'll be stranded and die.
But if she can sneak in unnoticed,
the rewards will be worth the risk.
The female spots her target.
The tide is falling. She doesn't have long.
She edges further into the pool.
This is her chance.
Now, with a mouth full of floundering seal,
she must escape the shallow channel.
She's made it.
Amazingly, she won't keep her prize to herself.
It's the rest of her family that reaps the reward.
And there's new evidence that this commitment to others
goes beyond what we've ever expected.
It's summer in the Norwegian Arctic.
German biologist Heike Vester has made a remarkable discovery.
She and her assistant Madita have found a family
that takes caring and sharing to a level rarely seen
in the animal kingdom.
Like all killer-whale families, this one is led by a matriarch.
But one pod member sets this family apart.
It's a female. Stumpy...
Oh. Got Stumpy over here.
Right there, see?
Stumpy's severed fin means she's easily identified.
First spotted in 1996,
people assumed she'd been hit by a boat.
Six years later,
her mother had vanished
and Stumpy had taken up with another pod.
Since then she's been seen with four different families.
I'm so happy to see her again,
because she's 17 years old now
and she's really handicapped
and she could not have survived by herself.
To find out how she does survive,
Heike wants to see Stumpy underwater.
-There she is.
-There she is, yeah.
With the camera crew here, this is her chance.
Oh, wow, I didn't expect that.
It's really twisted.
Now, from above, you only see the dorsal fin that's cut,
but then now I could really see the back.
And it really looks like it has problems swimming.
The tail is restricted in movement.
It doesn't really go all the way up and down.
To find out how she eats at all
Heike must witness a hunt.
So we've stopped now because the killer whales are over there
and it looks like they're foraging.
What I'll do now is put in the hydrophone and listen,
so that I know they're foraging.
Because if they do, they use echolocation clicks.
Nearly 50 years after the first attempts
to interpret Moby Doll's calls,
Heike is still trying to unravel their language.
That means they are looking for fish,
they're scanning the fjord.
Their sophisticated sonar can determine the size
and even species of fish nearby.
Heike's found that this family targets mackerel and salmon.
Stumpy seems keen to join in.
And I listen out for any changes in their communication.
Because as soon as they get a fish,
especially a salmon,
I will hear it immediately.
Each species of fish provokes a different call.
Ah! They are calling.
Might be that they found a fish.
Yay, yay, action!
Whoa, next to us, on the left side.
It's every killer whale for itself,
chasing down the mackerel one by one.
But the real surprise is Stumpy.
Over there. It's the female and Stumpy, hunting together.
She's right at the heart of it...
..chasing not the fish but the other killer whales.
The six-metre female has caught a mackerel,
barely 30 centimetres long.
She could easily swallow it whole.
Instead, she slices it in half and drops a share.
Stumpy is there to grab it.
Whether she's being deliberately fed
or just scavenging scraps is hard to tell.
But this shred of evidence must explain Stumpy's survival.
But why would a family of killer whales
adopt and care for a handicapped animal?
The reason why the others would help Stumpy
is probably purely social -
that in such a community the whole group is important
and not just individuals,
so they wouldn't leave sick individuals behind.
They'd rather take care of them.
It's very...selfless behaviour.
This could be one example of the killer whales
to show how social they are.
But there's more to it than we know, right now,
which makes it really, really exciting.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise.
Recent studies of killer-whale brains
have revealed specialised cells for processing emotions -
similar to our own.
In the time since Moby Doll first went on public display,
our understanding of killer whales has changed beyond recognition.
It's amazing today to look back at when this study began
and how little we knew about the species.
We didn't really know what they ate, what their life cycle was like,
their natural history,
anything about their biology, really. It was all mythology.
These were just the scary, dangerous predators
that were to be shot on sight.
But with evidence gathered from across the globe,
we now have a clear picture of the killer whale's true nature.
They can be brutal...
..and can work as a deadly team.
The emergence of new species changes the way
we look at killer-whale populations across the world.
While some are struggling to survive,
others are finding ways to adapt.
Interpreting their language is still a dream.
I gather it'll be some time, then, before you can classify these words
and make this dictionary which you hope to do eventually.
Yes, it will.
But the discovery of close families and diverse cultures
means we can relate to killer whales more closely
than to any other animal in the ocean.
Maybe we're not the only ones that are social
and take care of each other,
but that animals are more similar to us
than we believed before.
After a 50-year journey from fear to fascination,
a new era of understanding is just beginning.
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'.