Orcas Feasted on the Lips of Humpback Whales, Hunting with Ancient Whalers

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Old Tom, a particularly long-lived orca that participated in whale hunts in the early 1900s, may have sounded a call-to-arms early in the morning, or even in the middle of the night — a loud slapping of tail fins off the surface of the water.

In a small town called Eden off the coast of southeastern Australian, orca pods would alert whalers and heard humpback whales that swam through these waters every year towards the Twofold Bay area. The whalers would then get out on the water as quickly as possible to hunt.

While this mutualistic relationship between orcas and humans in Eden was extensively recorded by whalers in the 19th and early 20th century, it had likely far predated the European colonization of Australian. And according to a recent study published in the Journal of Heredity, these orcas may no longer exist.

“This story — there’s nothing else like it in the world,” says Isabella Reeves, a Ph.D. candidate at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. “Without the photographic evidence it would be harder to believe.”

Orcas Working with Whalers

This ancient hunting partnership was built on trust. The whalers in Eden needed the orcas to herd whales into the relatively closed waters of the bay where they could catch them. And the orcas needed the harpoons to finish off their prey.

Once the harpooner had delivered the killing blow to a humpback whale, the crew had to complete their end of the bargain. They would attach buoys to the carcass to ensure it wouldn’t sink, leaving the dead humpback for up to 48 hours while the orcas feasted on the lips and tongue before processing the rest of the blubber and parts.

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Ancient Connections

For the recent study, Reeves and her colleagues combined genetic analysis of Old Tom, with historical and traditional knowledge derived from old newspaper articles, photos, and journal entries. Reeves also collaborated with a descendant of an Indigenous man involved in many of these whale hunts.

The relationship between the Thaua, the people of the Twofold Bay area, went back far before the colonial whaling industry began in the 19th century. The Thaua referred to orcas as beowas, says Steven Holmes, a coauthor on the study and a descendent of Budginbro, one of the Thaua guides that participated on whale hunts with Old Tom until the early 20th century.

“Our Dreamtime stories which connect us to the beowas, is that when a Thaua member dies, they are reincarnated as a beowa,” Holmes said in a forward to the study. “The beowas remained part of the Thaua, even after passing.” The practice of leaving the dead whale out in the bay was known by the Thaua as the “Law of the Tongue.”

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The Thaua and the Orcas

Most of the orcas were given names in the Thaua language — Old Tom was just the English version of the Thaua name, Reeves says. There were at least 30 individual orcas known that collaborated with the Eden whalers from 1840 to 1930.

Holmes also recounts the oral tradition of his family that his ancestor Budginbro would swim with Old Tom and the other orcas in the pod. The orcas would respond with vocalizations when Budginbro’s father would sing to them from the beach.

Reeves says this relationship between orcas and the Thaua had existed for “likely thousands of years” before Europeans arrived on the scene. The research shows that Thaua people were always involved, even during the colonial whaling era.

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Whaling Comes to an End

Orcas haven’t been seen in the Twofold Bay since 1930, the year Old Tom died. By that time, the excessive whaling operations further offshore from Eden had decimated the population of humpbacks and the last baleen whale was processed in Eden in 1928. The orcas and humans of Eden had lost their shared goal.

There are various local theories about the loss of this relationship, including the disappearance of their shared prey, a breach of the Law of the Tongue, the emigration of the Thaua people away from the bay, or an incident where an orca was killed.

As part of their research, Reeves’ team extracted DNA from one of Old Tom’s teeth — the Eden Killer Whale Museum still has the orca’s remains on display. They analyzed Old Tom’s genes and compared it to genes collected more recently from other orcas around the world. They found that his DNA was closest to a population found off the coast of New Zealand. But really, none of the whales around today were closely related or descended from Old Tom.

As a result, the genetic comparison suggests that rather than moving out of the area when the baleen whales disappeared, “the killer whales of Eden may be extinct today,” Reeves says.

Other evidence lends credence to this theory. Archived photos reveal that the orcas in Tom’s pod all had deformities, suggesting a high level of inbreeding. The low genetic health of these orcas may have also contributed to their demise, Reeves says.

On the positive side, humpbacks are starting to recover elsewhere in Australia due to the worldwide bans on whaling. Reeves says that as these baleen whales have been returning to the northwestern coast in the last few years, orcas have followed — and they also seem to have a preference for eating the tongues.

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