Chris Butler-Stroud remembers the experience that changed his relationship to the ocean and its inhabitants with pinpoint clarity. It was relatively early into his career as CEO at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (‘1993 or 94,’ he says – he’d joined the organisation in 1992), and he was on a research trip looking at orca populations off the coast of Iceland.
He and his colleagues were out with the Icelandic fishing fleet on a night so perfect it was, he says, ‘almost a cliché.’ The boat came to a stop about 50km off the coast at a site where a group of orcas were feeding. The air was still, sea calm and flat, ‘one of those glorious moons’ hanging low and heavy in the sky. The orcas moved away from the boat as the fishermen prepared to drop their net – and stayed away as it filled. But rather than land their catch full, the fishermen stopped what they were doing. When he asked why, the reply came back: it was the orcas turn now.
Butler-Stroud watched in astonishment as the orcas – mothers, he quickly realised, with ‘these beautiful four-foot fins’ – began to come back in. Even more astonishing was the realisation that they were using the captive catch – the net was so full, he notes, ‘there were fish sort of leaping out at the top’ – to teach their calves to fish. ‘It was awe-inspiring. Just incredible.’ At one point, he says, ‘I was hanging over the side, trying to take photographs, when all of a sudden, this enormous fin literally cut across the moon in front of me.’
Once the orcas were done, the group turned and left the site, en masse and all heading in the same direction. His colleagues – who were on the other two boats out that night – reported the orcas at their sites were doing the same at more or less exactly the same time, despite each boat being separated by a distance of 10–15km each. ‘What was amazing, was that they didn’t just all head north,’ he says, ‘they all headed off on a vector where they met again.’
The fishing boats followed them, and the same fishing and feeding process played out again at the next site. And at the next one. ‘They understood what the fishermen were doing and appeared to understand they had an opportunity to feed when the fishermen were closing the nets,’ he says. ‘As long as they allowed the men to set their nets and cleared out the way and didn’t get entangled, they would then all mutually benefit.’
But it wasn’t just the cooperation between the orcas and fishermen that left a lasting impression. Witnessing first-hand how the orcas behaved within their own groups – seeing their ‘social intelligence’ play out so clearly – was an even more profound experience. It was the first time, he says, that he truly understood ‘that we aren’t the centre of everything; that this planet has given rise to different types of intelligence’.
‘People say to me: “Weren’t you totally passionate before?” No, I was kind of on a journey. I felt the rightness of the cause, so to speak, but it wasn’t until I saw one up close in the natural environment that I understood.’
Something, Butler-Stroud says, ‘crystallised’ for him that night. He suddenly and clearly saw that ‘this isn’t just about conservation, this isn’t just about protecting endangered species, this is about protecting something that inherits the planet with us, that we share the planet with.’
Understanding – and respecting – the similarities and, crucially, the differences of that intelligence and the benefits it brings not just to us, but to the planet every one of us inhabits, remains central to WDC’s work to this day.
A sentiment encapsulated, perhaps, in the final story he tells from that night, about one of the male orcas that swam slowly past him on the boat. ‘He did the whole roll to one side and looked up,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I knew he was observing me as much as I was observing him.’ He recalls even at the time thinking: ‘That orca’s older than me and could live as long as I will – and the things he’s seen are amazing.’
Find out more about WDC and their work – including how to adopt an orca, whale or dolphin for yourself or as a gift – here
Images of Orcas copyright WDC/Rob Lott
One thing we can all do to help save our oceans is…
To see these creatures differently. To understand that we share this planet and that to see these creatures as individuals and societies is essential – they’re providing all these services back to us in helping to maintain a healthy ocean and we need more of them, while at the same time taking care of the ones we have.