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OrcaHow We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator$
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Jason M. Colby

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190673093

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190673093.001.0001

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“The Most Terrible Jaws Afloat”

“The Most Terrible Jaws Afloat”

(p.8) 1 “The Most Terrible Jaws Afloat”

Jason M. Colby

Oxford University Press

Gaius plinius secundus had witnessed a lot of violence in his life—war in Germania, Sicilian raids, Nero’s reign of terror—but killer whales really seemed to scare him. Known to history as Pliny the Elder, he penned the first known description of Orcinus orca in his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia, completed shortly before his death in 79 CE. It painted a bloody picture. The orca “cannot be in any way adequately described,” Pliny asserted, “but as an enormous mass of flesh armed with teeth.” Whereas dolphins sometimes befriended people and even helped fishermen, the killer whale preyed on mother baleen whales and their vulnerable calves. “This animal attacks the balaena in its places of retirement,” he wrote, “and with its teeth tears its young, or else attacks the females which have just brought forth, and, indeed, while they are still pregnant.” Fleeing whales could expect no mercy from orcas, who “kill them either cooped up in a narrow passage, or else drive them on a shoal, or dash them to pieces against the rocks.” So frightful were these battles to behold, Pliny noted, that it appeared “as though the sea were infuriate against itself.” In short, the destructive power of a killer whale had to be seen to be believed. Pliny himself had seen one. Around 50 CE, an orca had wandered into the harbor of Ostia, Rome’s port city. The animal had been drawn there, it seemed, by a ship from Gaul, which had run aground and spilled its cargo of hides. As the whale investigated, it became stuck in the shallows, unable to maneuver. Soon its back and dorsal fin were visible above the water, recounted Pliny, “very much resembling in appearance the keel of a vessel turned bottom upwards.” Sensing an opportunity, the emperor Claudius arrived from Rome, ordering local fishermen to net off the harbor. After waiting for a crowd to gather, he led his praetorians into battle against the trapped whale. The result was “a spectacle to the Roman people,” wrote Pliny. “Boats assailed the monster, while the soldiers on board showered lances upon it.” But the orca fought back, sinking at least one vessel before it succumbed.

Keywords:   Columbia Rediviva, Dall’s porpoise, Fort Victoria, Grays Harbor, Hudson’s Bay Company, J pod, Kwa-Gulth Kulus, Makah, Nuu-chah-nulth, Puget Sound, Salish tribes

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