Soul Connections in The Sea

25 02 2008

Copy of my article for Kindred Spirit Magazine


Once we feared them as demons. We called them Delphinus orca – literally the ‘demon’ dolphin. Once vilified by Time magazine as a ‘savage sea cannibal’ the orca, more commonly known as the killer whale, has emerged in recent times as merely a victim of bad press and ignorance.

In the sea it is the orca, Orcinus orca, who is the counterpart to humankind, and not as many suppose its playful and permanently grinning cousin, the dolphin. The orca is not actually a whale at all but a member of the dolphin family – and with a full grown adult male weighing upwards of six tons, its largest member. And while the orca shares many characteristics with its more popular cousin, orcas may in fact be closer in terms of intellect, communication abilities and emotions such as altruism and compassion to humans than our closest genetic relatives, the apes.


Orcas live in stable family units or pods which are always matrilineal in nature. Males stay with the matrilineal pod for life, only leaving it to find a mate and returning afterwards. And while each pod is led by an elder female, males have an important role to play, caring for the elderly, very young and weaker members of the group.

‘There is a pattern that connects orca behaviour to that of humans,’ Dr. Randall Eaton, animal behaviorist and author of The Orca Project explains. ‘Orcas live in a stable society, have the longest period of dependent learning of any species on the planet and have an evolving language broken into local dialects, a trait that is shared with just a few other species, including man.’

However, when it comes to social cooperation and altruism, it would appear we have a lot to learn from the orca. ‘Competition amongst males for females has never been observed,’ Dr. Eaton points out. ‘Similarly, distinct social groups feed together when food is in short supply. Orca groups may be territorial but intruding groups are never attacked.’


Does orca society provide us with a model for human utopia? According to scientists, 55 million years ago the orcas ancestors once walked on land. Could it be then that our fascination with members of the dolphin family and the orca in particular, represents a link to lost ancestors who first crawled out of the sea to appear on land? If our growing fascination with the orca and the growth of orca-watching tours is anything to go by, the connection runs deep.

‘When I see the orcas, I always feel like I could die right now, I’m that content, at peace,’ says Susan Berta who oversees a whale-sighting network on Whidbey Island, Washington. ‘I believe we have a lot to learn from them, about sharing resources, and living sustainably, peacefully.’ A bartender in Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands sums it up more succinctly, calling the orca a ’kindred spirit’ but sadly it is this almost mystical connection we feel for them that may be putting the orca population under threat.

It’s early December and I’m standing on the deck of a ship some 230 kilometers above the Arctic Circle at the bottom of a fjord some five kilometres from the Swedish border. The sub-zero temperatures mean that anybody out on deck is swathed in the Arctic equivalent of burka with only their eyes visible as we peer into the biting wind for a glimpse of orca blow. Portside and more hardly souls dressed like aquatic Michelin Men, trampoline off the swell in a Zodiac. It’s the second day we’ve braved Arctic conditions and the whales it seems are not in a mood to cooperate. Norway’s orca-watching industry is in decline owing to the depletion of their herring stocks. The orcas feed on the herring and without the herring – no orcas. Finally a small pod of five or six orcas is sighted. We forget about the cold as engine churning, we set off in hot pursuit of the faster Zodiac and the whales.

Researchers are slow to draw their conclusions about the effects of increased boat traffic around orcas, perhaps for fears of disrupting what has become a multi-million pound industry and the livelihood of many people in areas such as the San Juan Islands in Washington, Johnstone Strait British Columbia and Tysfjord Norway. However, from the vantage point of the vessel, the orcas behaviour is easy to interpret, males of the pod moving between the boats and the females and the orca swimming fast, diving and then resurfacing far from the vessels which nonetheless, turn again in pursuit.

It is a pattern repeated wherever the orcas are forced to confront humans entering en masse into their environment. In the San Juan Islands as many as 130 boats have been spotted surrounding a single pod of orca. And with their acute hearing and sonar abilities, the orca know they’re coming. ‘As soon as the boats get within four to five miles, the orcas’ behavior becomes more determined,’ one resident observed. ‘If the calves are out wandering, when the boats start to appear, they tuck right in behind mum.’ Other signs of evasive behaviour includes orcas diving deeper, foraging less and coming up for air less often in an attempt to evade this orca/human ‘love fest’. As my Friday Harbor bar philosopher put it, ‘In the sixties we took LSD to try to connect to God. We didn’t ask ourselves whether we were ready, we just barged right in. We’re doing the same with the orca.’


However, in an increasing number of cases it is the orca which initiates the contact. Divers off the coast of New Zealand have reported numerous instances where they have encountered orca on their dives. Many report they first became aware of the orcas’ presence when the orca ‘zapped’ them with their sonar. With their eyes, orca can see just as we do, but with their sonar, orca see not just the exterior, but the interior of a person, fish or other orca. Perhaps in these instances the orca was merely using its sonar to ‘check-out’ the kind of being that had ventured into its environment, but many who have experienced these Close Encounters of the Orca Kind have reported feelings of increased well-being as a result. One diver told of how an orca appeared to direct its sonar at his heart charka ‘I felt my entire chest open up.’ Another said the orca appeared to scan him from head to toe. ‘My entire skeleton appeared to articulate, as if I were being stretched then it did the same with my body. The next day I had this incredible purge. It was as if the orca had helped my body rid itself of toxins. I’d never felt so well.’

Fifty five million years in the making, the orca make us look exactly what we are by comparison – a Johnny-come-lately on the evolutionary scale. Next to the sperm whale the orca’s brain is the largest on earth and more highly evolved than ours. Which begs the question: Just how smart are they? Despite the work of John Ford who first identified orca dialects and the revelation that these local dialects form part of an evolving language, human/orca communication remains a Holy Grail. One thing is certain however. The orca have evolved large, sophisticated brains for a purpose and this purpose is geared around sound and the ability to communicate, feed and navigate in an environment with often extremely limited visibility.

When the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in the 1970’s, Erich Hoyt conducted an experiment with wild orca where he used a synthesizer to broadcast a greeting underwater similar to that made by the orca and used to communicate with the aliens in the film. Hoyt did his best to imitate the orca’s call but even to his own ears it sounded nothing like it, the frequency band used by orca being somewhere around 250,000 cycles per second. Hoyt’s synthesizer could only manage 25,000. There was no reason then to suppose the orca would perceive the sound as emanating from another orca. Which is what made the results so startling. As Hoyt broadcast his greeting the orca responded. Not with their usual greeting call but with a precise imitation of Hoyt’s greeting, not only mimicking the plot of the film which had inspired the experiment but confirming the theories of many space scientists as to how an extra-terrestrial intelligence might respond to our efforts at communication.


In 2003 in Robson Bight, British Columbia a whale-watching expedition led by Dr. Randall Eaton witnessed what could only be described as some kind of ‘ritual’ behavior by an orca pod. ‘About six orcas surrounded our boat and proceeded to spy-hop (when an orca raises its head above the water), over and over. This went on for over two hours during which time we counted over 5,000 spy hops. The orca were focusing up but we could see nothing above them. There were no other boats in sight, no other orca, no cetaceans around. Earlier that summer we’d had a volunteer who was a psychic. She told us that that exact same location was an inter-dimensional portal.’

The wide acceptance of orcas as healers or mystical guides to other realms of consciousness would probably only lead to yet more exploitation of the orca. Should we therefore be trying to limit our contact with the orca to a strictly ‘invitation only’ basis?

Ironically, it was the first captive orcas who were responsible for changing the public’s perception and led to our current almost mystical preoccupation with these creatures. Far from the image of the mindless, marauding killer similar to a shark they’d been brainwashed to believe, the public discovered a gentle, playful and intelligent creature, which in turn led to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the orca being granted protected status. Researchers such as Randall Eaton have theorized that the willingness of these early ‘diplomats’ to allow themselves to be captured and interred, is part of a larger plan by the Orca Nation to bring about a greater understanding and cooperation between two species and that the orca have a critical role to play in the face of environmental devastation, over-fishing, global warming and rising oceans and in teaching us responsible stewardship of this world.

With orcas in the wild living to over 100, the life expectancy of an orca in captivity is usually on average just six to eight years. It has been illegal to take wild orca from US or Canadian territorial waters since the advent of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the 1970’s. But with our orca obsession showing no signs of abating if the attendance at aquatic parks such as SeaWorld is anything to go by, the market for captive orcas is only set to increase which can only have devastating effects on the orca given their stable family units and long periods of gestation.

In Puget Sound, the orca population face similar problems to those of their cousins in Norway. These orca feed on Chinook and over-fishing has meant that the salmon now hover dangerously at just 10 per cent of their previously recorded highs. With the decline of the salmon and increased pressure on their environment, the orca population of the region is also falling with estimates that it may have been halved from its original 200 members to just 100 in the past sixty years.

Just as captive orcas led to the protection of their brethren in the wild, paradoxically the impact of whale watching tours upon the orcas and their environment may in the long-term bring about the very changes needed to preserve both. Orcas therefore may have an important role to play in creating increased pressure to conserve fish stocks. No fish, no orca. No orca, no orca-watching and despite its disruption to their way of life and environment, orca watching is certainly preferable to taking orca from the wild. Could we then merely be the orca’s tools in a grand plan to bring about ecological change and conservation? So far human/orca contact has followed what can only be described as what looks to be some kind of predetermined plan to establish diplomatic relations: send out emissaries, make friends, promote understanding, foster cooperation between both nations. Is the final item on the orca agenda Save the Planet?

In the words of the Inuit of Canada, the orca is ‘one step above God’. They saw the orca as the planet’s perfect ruler who is blessed with what every human strives for – freedom. Freedom from strife from one another. Freedom from conflict. Freedom from struggle. In essence, perfect Buddhahood. No wonder then that we pursue the orca when it represents such perfect enlightenment.

Is orca society then a model for human utopia? Quite possibly. It remains to be seen if we can preserve the orca and their environment in order for humanity to learn from and emulate it.

Helen Kaye Watts is a cetacean researcher andprofessional psychic and astrologer. Her book ‘Sea Eyes’ which explores the orca/human connection is published by iUniverse and available from She can be contacted by email on




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