Killer Whales, ‘Wolves of the Sea,’ Are Migrating North, Inuit Traditional Ecological Knowledge Reveals


The bowhead doesn’t stand a chance. His killers have surrounded him, holding him underwater and covering his blowhole so he can’t breathe. They immobilize his flippers and tail while ramming the beast to break ribs and damage internal organs as they tear chunks of flesh from the living animal.

A group of Inuit hunters on a once-in-a-century bowhead quest? Guess again. It is a group of Orcinus orca, and their behavior leaves little question as to why they are called killer whales.

Long inhabiting just about every geographical region on Earth, the orca were prevented from moving northward by their dorsal fins, which impede passage in and around sea ice. But now the ice is melting, and a new study tapping Inuit Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has confirmed what the Inuit have been saying for years: The killer whale is ranging northward, decimating populations of marine mammals and threatening the Inuit’s food supply.

“Killer whales have been seen more and further into the Canadian Arctic, and when they go there, they eat,” study co-author Steven Ferguson told The Star. “Now it looks like some species might be depleted due to predation by killer whales. That’s something we didn’t expect.”

Interviewing 105 hunters in 11 Nunavut communities from July 2007 through March 2010, researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the University of Manitoba learned much about the behavior of these killer mammals, which aside from humans are the most geographically diverse on the planet. The study was published on January 30 in the online journal Aquatic Biosystems.

Inuit hunters and elders were a natural source of information given the amount of time they spend on Arctic waters as they hunt, fish, boat and observe marine life. Ferguson, a marine biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and his team focused on older hunters, and 71 of 89 people who were able to give their age had been born in or before the 1950s, he said in the study. Their decades of observation painted a detailed picture of the changing life of the Arctic and the new forces at work in the oceans they troll.

What the Inuit described was a voracious killer that is sweeping through the northern seas, cutting some marine populations by as much as a third, according to the Nunatsiaq News.

“They eat whatever they can catch,” said one. They were listed at the end of the study but chose to have their comments unattributed. “They are the wolves of the sea,” said another.

Beluga whale, narwhal, bowhead, and several varieties of seal are the menu mammals, the study said. The orca do not seem to eat fish. Just mammals. And sometimes not even them.

Interviewees recounted tales of finding pieces of animals fitting classic orca modus operandi: bite marks, broken ribs, or simply chunks of what the whales didn’t want to eat, floating in the sea. They also described seeing two orcas each grabbing a narwhal end and pulling the animal in two, then “playing soccer” with their parts. Killer whales have also been seen flapping their tales around ice floes to wash ringed, harp and bearded seals off into the water and then batting them around like volleyballs.

In other words, orca appear to kill for sport on occasion, are picky eaters and waste food, the Inuit said. Some Inuit were happy to have the maqtaq, or skin and blubber, that the animals apparently eschew. Others were appalled at their wasteful ways, according to the study.

The researchers also described the lengths that prey will go to in order to avoid killer whales. Narwhals, for instance, will change their swimming patterns, hang out in shallow water for days and wait for the whales to leave. They will keep a much lower profile in the water while barely surfacing to breathe when they know killer whales are near. They even change their travel routes to avoid these predators, and they swim faster when surrounded by the whales than when surrounded by boats.

None of this constitutes proof that the population of orcas is increasing, as study co-author Jeff Higdon, a consulting wildlife scientist, pointed out to The Star. It’s just that they’re moving farther north to feed.

Either way, there is more to be learned, and the Inuit are the people for the job.

“Inuit traditional knowledge is essential to scientific research,” Paul Irngaut, a wildlife adviser with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., told the Nunatsiaq News. “It’s verified by local hunters year after year. It’s not projections or predictions—it’s current and it’s accurate.”

Something like the changing narwhal behavior can only be observed by Inuit who are watching them constantly and have done so for years, Irngaut pointed out.

The scientists who conducted the study (download the pdf for more gory details) concurred.

“Continuing the long-term relationship between scientists and hunters will provide for successful knowledge integration and has resulted in considerable improvement in understanding of killer whale ecology relevant to management of prey species,” Ferguson said in the study. “Combining scientists and Inuit knowledge will assist in northerners adapting to the restructuring of the Arctic marine ecosystem associated with warming and loss of sea ice.”

Ferguson said that Inuit knowledge will continue to be valuable going forward: “We expect considerable improvement in knowledge of killer whale ecology relevant to management as scientists and Inuit combine forces to tackle a major conservation issue—the rapid shifting of the Arctic marine ecosystem structure associated with warming and loss of sea ice.”