Michael Jawer

Michael Jawer

Feeling Too Much

Unimagined Sensitivities, Part 4

Killer whales have a sense of presence that's moving.

Posted Jun 02, 2017

An orphaned orca, named Luna by the people he befriended, showed up in British Columbia's Nootka Sound in 2001, miles from where he'd been born. He immediately began interacting with the local boaters and fishermen, demonstrating that he was a social being who desired company first and foremost, and a killer whale second. An example: Luna would stay alongside a docked boat for hours as the people on it were busy delivering supplies and equipment. When the people left, he would leave, too. Yet if one person remained aboard sleeping, Luna would often stay with the boat all night. (Safina, p. 360) 

Once, Luna came alongside a different boat and played “a bit too energetically” with the emergency outboard engine. The skipper said, “Hey, Luna, could you leave that alone for a while?” Luna immediately backed away. “A sense washed over me,” said the skipper, “that this orca was just as aware of living as I was: that he could perceive all the details that I could perceive, the feeling of atmosphere and sea, the texture of emotions...This was overwhelming.” (Safina, p. 361)

People who have interacted with killer whales remark often upon their intelligence, awareness, and sense of presence. Of Luna, one person said “he could look through his otherness at you.” Another related that she saw something so astonishing and deep that it took her breath away. (Safina, pp. 358-9) That sense of communion is attested by researcher Howard Garrett, who states that he and his colleagues “felt tested and our intentions probed by the orcas, and that the orcas not only learned our limits and abilities but seemed to have shared their knowledge of us with their tank mates…Each of us was deeply moved.” (Safina, p. 357) Whale researcher Ken Balcombe relates that “When you lock eyes with them, you get the sense that they’re looking at you. It’s a steady gaze. And you feel it. Much more powerful than a dog looking at you. A dog might want your attention. The whales, it’s a different feeling. It’s more like they’re searching inside you…A lot transmits in a very brief time about the intent of both sides.” (Safina, p. 351) 

This ‘search’ function is perhaps illuminated by an experience told to Safina by a friend. She was snorkeling in Hawaii when several killer whales showed up.  “I heard a very strong clinking sound, like metal on metal…It was a very high vibrating sound that did not feel uncomfortable but it did feel incredibly strong!  It went right through me. It was the strongest energy that I have ever felt. A wave of energy, like transmitting. It was like a portal opened.” (Safina, p. 353)

Safina suggests that the minds of whales and dolphins may have evolved to allow for the sharing of thoughts, intentions, and feelings—not just between them but between them and human beings, who possess a brain large enough to appreciate it. The capacity would be roughly akin to the way our language, our art and music and drama and dance, all serve to convey humans’ feelings and intentions. (Safina, p. 362)  But, with these marine mammals, the function would be innate—an immediate part of their bodies and minds—rather than being mediated through paper, the Internet, sound systems, canvass or clay, stage, or screen.  


Safina, Carl. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2015.

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