The social connections within a pod of Orcinus orca is vital to their survival. This interaction is used for efficient and effective hunting, its part of what makes the orca a top predator. This bond within the pod is eternal and is not broken, Members of the pod stay together for their entire life ranging from 40-100 years old (oldest known orca is 104, J2 (granny) in Pudget sound). No other animal society is known to remain together in this way.
The bond begins with the mother and calf and is reinforced through not only a series of clicks and whistles but also tactile touches to reaffirm this bond with the whole pod. The strength of this bond is shown when one of the members becomes sick or dies, as the rest of the pod will hold that member at the surface to breathe until that member dies. At which point the pod can be seen to grieve, carrying the dead member around until they finally let the body go. Mothers have been known to carry their dead calf for up to two weeks. This has been seen recently in New Zealand and was being witnessed by Ingrid Visser (a Tutukaka located orca expert) for 22 hours until the mother was then scarred off by boaters.
An extreme case of this care is evident with the deformed orca known as ‘stumpy’ in Norway, this orca is servery disabled due to a collision in a boat propeller and would have died if his pod hadn’t taken care of him, catching his food and passing it to him, something that has not been seen in any other animal societies and has caused debates among scientists for years.
The clicks and whistles’ are extremely unique as each pod has its own dialect for effective communication, but also allows communication with other pods forming a super pod. The communication within the pod is vital in hunting as each orca has their own role and coordinates with the rest of the pod using these whistles. This has most effectively been seen in the Atlantic with a pod of transient orcas rounding up a herring school into a carousel, making it more manageable to pick off individual fish. This organised attack and wouldn’t be possible without effective communication.
A bond of this magnitude shouldn’t be broken given the strength of it. By being held captive in marine parks, pods are destroyed, as orcas are mixed and moved around as management sees fit. This has caused multiple deaths not just to orcas but also humans e.g., Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes, Dawn Brancheau and Alexis Martinez with hundreds more nearly fatal injuries. It is believed the unnatural habitat and captivity of the orcas is the cause of this as wild orcas aren’t known to attack humans.
These social interactions that link members of a pod are its greatest strength, allowing them to become a top predator. But this connection can also be its greatest weakness. If one member is injured the pod won’t leave. This can exploited, making them vulnerable to capture.