When Humans And Killer Whales Hunted Together

By Nolan Moore on Friday, July 4, 2014
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In A Nutshell

We all know commercial whaling is a horrible industry. Thanks to over-hunting, many cetaceans are critically endangered. However, in the middle of this gruesome history, there’s a bizarre story of man and whales working together . . . to kill more whales. For nearly 40 years, orcas and Australian whalers tag-teamed baleen whales and happily divided the spoils.

The Whole Bushel

Wild animals and humans rarely get along, let alone work together. Try offering your services to a lion, and you’ll probably end up fertilizing the Serengeti. That’s what makes the story of Old Tom so incredibly weird. Old Tom was an orca who led a sizable pod, sometimes numbering up to the 30 whales. Usually, you’d find these deep-sea mammals chilling near the Arctic, but when fall rolled into winter, the hungry orcas took off for Australia, hoping to stop by their favorite restaurant.

Orcas aren’t particularly picky creatures and don’t mind snacking on their cousins. In fact, some of their favorite meaty treats are the lips and tongues of baleen whales, and it just so happened these particular cetaceans liked hanging around Twofold Bay, a body of water about 6.5 kilometers (4 mi) from the town of Eden. But the orcas weren’t the only whale whackers around. Twofold Bay was also home to the Davidson whaling station, an operation started in the 1860s by Alexander Davidson and his grandson George. Just like Old Tom, the Davidsons made a living off the local whale population and, for the longest time, considered the killer whales to be pests.

You’d think sooner or later the humans and orcas would’ve duked it out for control of the Twofold turf . . . only they ended up becoming allies instead. Much to the Davidsons’ surprise, the orcas started driving baleen whales into the bay and kept them from escaping back into the ocean. While the pod blocked the inlet, Old Tom would swim up to the whaling station and start “flop-tailing.” That’s whaler speak for leaping and slapping his tail on the water. Believe it or not, Old Tom was actually trying to get the humans’ attention. The Davidsons quickly figured out that whenever Tom started thrashing and flailing, it meant his crew had caught a whale and were waiting for the men to show up with their harpoons.

This was the beginning of a beautiful (depending on your point of view) friendship. For nearly 40 years, the whalers and orcas worked together to catch baleen whales. After a successful kill, the men lashed the corpse to their boat and let Tom and his pod chow down on all the juicy parts. When the orcas were done feasting, the humans sailed off with the remaining bones and blubber, the really valuable parts. This little arrangement was known as the “Law of the Tongue,” and according to legend, the two groups started watching out for one another. Supposedly, the whalers freed any orcas they found caught in nets, and in return, the orcas would ward off sharks that got too close to the hunters.

But as we all know, nothing lasts forever. In 1923, a man named John Logan was paddling around the bay with George Davidson when Old Tom drove a whale their way. At first, everything went like clockwork. George killed the whale, and Tom was getting ready for dinner when the men noticed a storm was headed their way. John Logan didn’t want to get caught on the water in the middle of a maelstrom so he decided to sail back to shore without giving the orca his due rewards. Old Tom had other ideas. He sunk his jaws into the whale carcass, and Logan and Tom started pulling back and forth until the King of the Killer Whales lost several of his teeth and swam away. For an orca, this was a death sentence. Old Tom’s gums eventually became infected, and in 1930, his lifeless body washed ashore. Stricken with guilt, John Logan opened the Eden Killer Whale Museum in Old Tom’s honor. You can still see his bones there today, an odd testimony to interspecies cooperation.

Show Me The Proof

Sydney Morning Herald: Old Tom the killer whale
ABC South East NSW: Killer whales in Eden on anniversary of Old Tom’s death
Scientific American: King of the Killer Whales