PBS Nature: Killers in Eden

| November 13, 2005

The relationship between humans and animals capable of killing them fascinates most of us. We watched with amazement when Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy was mauled by one of his trained tigers, a potentially dangerous animal which appeared to have become almost friendly with the two magician-trainers. We shrank back in horror when Steve Irwin of The Crocodile Hunter dangled his newborn before a particularly mean croc (and yet we kept watching). So the question of whether killer whales can work and play side by side with humans is sure to inspire some curiosity. After all, as the wonderful new PBS documentary, Killers in Eden shows, these animals can toss cute little seals high up in the air before gobbling them up in a magnificent show of hunting prowess.
What we find out is that not only can killer whales live alongside humans, and develop a hunting partnership with them, these deadly mammals can even save a drowning man by pulling him to shore with those scary-looking teeth. Killers in Eden tells the story of the people of Eden, a tiny whaling community in Southeastern Australia, where the killer whales have been helping the local fishermen hunt much bigger whales like the humpback, for centuries. In particular, the documentary focuses on the fate of one particular whale, Old Tom, who became such a trusted friend and ally that his bones are preserved in the local museum. Most of the material is presented through eyewitness accounts, among them, two women who are more than a hundred years old. They describe how the killer whales helped the fishermen by herding the bigger whales into shallow waters, sometimes attacking them continuously to wear them down. Once the bigger whale was stuck in the bay and exhausted, then the men would go in for the kill.
One of the reasons why this symbiotic relationship might have worked is the “Law of the Tongue,” which dictated how the spoils would be divided among the hunters, human and animal. A breach of this contract may have contributed to Old Tom’s death on the shores of Eden, and to this day, the old men and women of the village express their regret that a human may have caused the death of such a trusted friend. The theories about Tom’s death, as well as about the relationship between the whalers and the killer whales were brought to light by an amateur whale enthusiast named Greg Mckee, and eventually vetted by a zoologist. As the scientist points out, the evidence is consistent with the stories we hear from the local people, but it doesn’t definitely prove anything. Nevertheless, the idea that the whales and humans could have joined forces to hunt as big quarry as a humpback whale–something neither could have done alone–along with the stunning photography above and below the water makes Killers in Eden worth watching.

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