While arguably the world’s supreme apex predator, there are no reliable accounts of orcas ever attacking humans in the wild (although there have been a number of fatal attacks by captive orcas). Quite why this is the case is unclear, but the unique relationship between a pod of orcas living in the waters off Eden, southeastern Australia and the fishermen that lived there that resulted in almost 100 years of co-operation between the two may shed some light on it. Perhaps they recognise a fellow species possessing complex intelligence that has more potential as an ally than as prey.
Orcas and dolphins in the waters along a small stretch of coastline in what is now New South Wales appear to have a long history of co-operating with humans to allow both groups to hunt more effectively. Indigenous people of the Yuin tribe believed that the orca was a reincarnation of their ancestor’s spirits, and retain numerous stories of working with both orcas and dolphins to drive fish close to shore where they could be speared or netted. One elder in the late 20th Century even claimed to remember his grandfather riding orcas when he was a child, around the turn of the century.
When European whaling families settled along Twofold Bay in around 1840, they appear to have developed a similar relationship with the animals. The ringleader of this hunting collaboration was an old male orca, named ‘Old Tom’ by the whalers. While the rest of the pod would shepherd baleen whales into Twofold Bay, Old Tom would gain the attention of the fishermen in Eden by breaching out of the water or slapping his tail on the surface. Once they had clambered into their small whaling boats and struck out, Old Tom would swim alongside them to guide them to where the baleen whales were corralled.
Once the target whale had been harpooned, the Twofold Bay orcas would even bite down on harpoon cables to assist the men hauling in their prize. The skeleton of Old Tom, displayed to this day at the Eden Killer Whale Museum, still shows wear on the teeth from hauling on ropes. In return for their help the men would leave the dead whale in the water overnight, allowing the killer whales to eat their preferred parts (the tongue and lips), before hauling it ashore the following morning. The orcas would also take the opportunity to snatch fish or seabirds drawn to the blood in the water caused by the hunt. Many of the whales became familiar to the whalers and would often be named after lost crew members. In total at least 24 named whales participated in these collaborative hunts.
The partnership came to an abrupt end in the mid-1920s. The Davidsons, a poor family but skilled whalers who had built up a strong understanding with the pod, were the primary partners of the orcas. However, a retired pastor named John Logan set out to hunt whales, with just one Davidson amongst his small crew aboard a motorised yacht named the White Heather. When Old Tom drove a whale towards them and it was successfully harpooned by the crew of the White Heather, Logan ordered the carcass to be hauled ashore without the customary period in the water to allow the whale to claim his share, fearing an approaching storm. In protest Old Tom grabbed hold of the harpoon cable, eventually resulting in a number of his teeth being ripped out.
Old Tom’s customary summons to whalers appears to have ended either immediately or shortly after, and his corpse was found washed ashore in 1930. Severe abscesses from the missing teeth likely resulted in his death from starvation. Whales in Twofold Bay became increasingly rare after his death, disappearing entirely within a few years. While some theorise that Norwegian whalers in nearby Jervis Bay wiped out the Twofold Bay pod, John Logan for the rest of his life blamed himself for driving away the whales.
While collaboration between fishermen and wild cetaceans has been documented in many parts of the world, the partnership between the whalers and orcas of Twofold Bay remains unique to history.