Orca

From: Mike Williamson (williams@whale.wheelock.edu)
Date: Mon Nov 26 2001 - 19:11:25 EST


>From Ben L. and Ben W.: Are orcas still evolving?

         Yes, scientists believe orcas are still evolving. For instance,
"resident" and "transient" type orcas, which both inhabit Pacific Northwest
waters, are evolving into separate species.

Why? How?

         The miracle of Life on Earth is beyond simple explanation. Some of
the processes of evolution are known, but are much too complicated to
describe here. The wonderful story of cetacean evolution is beautifully
told at http://www.cetacea.org/evolve.htm

Are orcas the smartest whale?

         Possibly. The brains of orcas are almost the size of the largest
brains on Earth, found in sperm whales. We have much to learn before we can
say which species is the smartest.

Did you know you were going to study whales when you grew up?

         Not at all.

Where did you go to college? What did you study?

         I studied at Univ. of New Mexico, Univ. of California, and
Colorado College, and graduated with a degree in Sociology.

>From Anuj and Max: How many orcas have you seen?

         Just the Southern Resident orcas, and some transients, and a few
captives, numbering just over a hundred since I began in 1976.

What is the strangest abnormality in an orca that you have ever seen?

         I don't recall personally seeing any abnormalities in orcas.

Do orcas have oil in their heads? If so, how much?

         Orcas do have melons, which contain a thick oily substance. I'm
not certain of the quantity of oil, but at least a few gallons.

>From Denzel and George: When did you see your first orca?

         In 1976.

Why did you pick orcas to study?

         I was lucky that I was invited to help with orca research. After a
short time I was dedicated to studying and educating people about them
because they show so many astounding abilities.

Did the people in Free Willy have a license to train the orca?

         No license is required to train orcas.

Have you ever ridden a whale?

         No.

>From Laura B. and Karen: Do you study other whales besides orcas?

         I have studied humpbacks, fin whales, right whales, minke whales
and a variety of other species.

Did you train Free Willy?

         No.

>From Ashley and Erin: What got you in to studying orcas?

         As with the above question, I was invited to help with orca
research. After a short time I was dedicated to studying and educating
people about them because they show so many astounding abilities, such as
some kind of language ability and the formation of distinct cultures.

If you were to make an endangered species list of the top ten whales where
would the orca be?

         Each population is distinct and irreplaceable. The Southern
Resident orca community of Washington is highly endangered and should be
close to the top of the list. At least three species of right whales and
several river dolphins and porpoises are more endangered that orcas
worldwide however. The world's most endangered cetacean is the Baiji
(Chinese) river dolphin.The number of Baiji dolphins fell drastically from
6,000 in the 1950s to 400 in 1984. Now only an estimated 5 animals remain.

>From Laura N. and Rachel: Why did Washington have an orca in captivity?

         Other than the captures for delivery to other places, the only
orca held in captivity in Washington was Namu, back in 1965. The man who
bought and displayed Namu was fascinated with the challenge of controlling
such a large mammal, and the public was interested to see the whale up close.

When did you start researching whales and why?

         As with the above question, I was invited to help with orca
research. After a short time I was dedicated to studying and educating
people about them because they show so many astounding abilities, such as
some kind of language ability and the formation of distinct cultures.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

         I work from a home office, so it depends on the tasks at hand.
Usually that involves writing something. Sometimes we get orca sightings
reports and go out to try to see them.

Did they take Free Willy out of captivity for the movie?

         No, he was filmed in the same tank he was performing in. The
scenes with Willy out on the open ocean were created with Hollywood magic.

Where did Free Willy come from?

         Keiko (Free Willy) was born to an orca family that lives near Iceland.

Do you like living in Washington?

         Yes, it's a beautiful place.

Have you touched an orca and if so what does it feel like?

         No, I haven't touched an orca, but I understand it's like a very
smooth rubber inner tube.

Many thanks,
Sue Shirley
Dedham Country Day School
Dedham, MA

         You're very welcome! Thanks for the great questions.



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