Charismatic Mega Fauna

Over the course of this program, I’ve heard the understanding of whale calls and language compared to the Rosetta Stone and the Holy Grail. Given the amount of effort, speculation and near worship given to both of these, I’m beginning to think they are right.

My project does not attempt to understand the meaning of whale calls in any sense but the tiny portion I am examining makes me realize just how impossible that task would be. People have attempted it, continue to attempt it, approaching it from every possible angle to try to understand what whales are saying but their language and so many other aspects of them continue to elude us.

J1, traveling North up Kellett Bluff

J1, traveling North up Kellett Bluff

Jason was the first person I heard refer to the whales as “charismatic mega fauna.” I don’t know if that’s a common way to refer to killer whales because I’ve now heard Todd and Val refer to them that way as well but the name makes me think about how popular these animals are when all you mostly ever see of them in the wild is a black dorsal fin.

Hannah calls them “sea ninjas” because they are so sneaky and suited to their environment. On many days, we’ve been out looking for them in Haro Strait, six pairs of eyes behind binoculars, straining to see them only to hear on the radio that they’d gone clean past us with no one the wiser. It’s not as if these are small creatures or that they blend in. They’re giant whales with black and white bodies. You’d think they’d stick out like sore thumbs but they don’t.

Killer whales are mysterious, fascinating creatures but the most surprising thing about them to me is how many people they have managed to enthrall. Killer whales are an icon, a demonstration of the mystery of the sea and of the strength and grace of its creatures. They are a rallying point for conservationists everywhere, a fascination for people from all walks of life. They live in every ocean of the world, with different hunting strategies, languages, food sources and behaviors. Actually when I think about it, it seems like it should be more surprising to me that they haven’t fascinated more people.

And yet we know so little about them. We know so little about the ocean as a whole. While I respect and admire the whales immensely, I wish we could all pull back the focus a little bit more to take in the whole picture. Because of their charismatic, mysterious nature, killer whales pull our attention towards them and yet they are not the whole picture. As an apex predator, their condition is a strong indicator of the health of their ecosystem. While the whales themselves need focus and attention, we need to remember that they are only a small part of an enormous ecosystem, a huge web which trembles with every tiny shift in a great balance.

In every ecosystem, scientists and researchers focus on individual species and on relationships. I think both parts are key but a balance is necessary. In order to know enough about a species, you must know a great deal about how it interacts with all components of its world and the effects that it has. I wish it were easier to strike that balance.

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