Turning the Tide: A Queer Look at the Orca

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This is the first post in the Succession III: Queering the Environment series, edited by Jessica DeWitt, Estraven Lupino-Smith, and Addie Hopes. For this series, contributors were invited to explore ideas of queer rebellion as interruption and resistance.

I no longer think that science holds little or no bias. On the contrary; scientific narratives are influenced by the environment in which scientists work and live. When the context is patriarchal, so are the narratives. When the scientists themselves are mostly straight men, the narratives honor that disproportionally. This results in research which excludes queerness and minimizes the importance of female animals, and, unfortunately, science that adheres to these narrow, heteronormative parameters is just not quite as good as it could be. The study of orcas is no exception.

Narratives exist that understand that orcas can be gay and are led by their women. Orca’s Song is an old Pacific Northwest Indigenous story on the origin of orcas, which was later appropriated by Anne Cameron as a children’s book. In this story, a female orca, then a fully black animal, and a female osprey fall in love. In a moment when the orca jumps into the air to be with the osprey, and the osprey flies low to be with the orca, their bodies touch. They produce a daughter, who bears black and white markings. It is an example of a loving, caring, lesbian relationship, told kindly and gently by women who love women.

“In tandem” with growing orca captivity rates in the 1960s and 1970s “heteronormative and patriarchal cultural norms began to be transposed onto these marine mammals.”

But the story contradicts the image of the orca as a dangerous pest, which was how they were seen for centuries, especially by Westerners. Fishermen thought orcas were hunting all the salmon or feared that they would attack humans. That started changing in the 1960s and 70s when individuals on the east coast of the US and Canada started capturing orcas for display and learned that they were docile creatures. Slowly, they began creating the image of a cute mascot known to most today. In tandem, heteronormative and patriarchal cultural norms began to be transposed onto these marine mammals.

female orca
Female Orca” by Darien and Neil is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Myth of the Nuclear Orca Family

When one of the first orcas ever to be captured, Namu, was being transported by sea (in a sort of metal sea pen made of a steel frame and fishing nets) from Canadian to US waters in 1965, he was followed by a female adult orca and two younger orcas. The media called it a nuclear family, writing about Mrs. Namu and the kids accompanying the husband by sea, even claiming that the captured whale’s family was having a wonderful time.1 Similar ideas went beyond the early captors and the media; the first scientists to study orcas assumed that they were patriarchal, and were led by the biggest male in the pod who had a harem of female orcas.2 Apparently, that was an expected assumption to make, considering that it was thought to be common in the animal kingdom.3 This is not true.4 In fact, orcas are matriarchal, like most evolved species of mammals, and pods are usually led by a post-menopausal female. While this knowledge is not new, some media sources continue to be taken aback.5

Orcas form many different cultures globally and there are likely even separate species within the umbrella of orca.6 They are cosmopolitan, meaning they can be found in all parts of the world, from Antarctica to the Arctic, and they have a variety of social structures, diets, and languages. Orcas enjoy touch from other orcas, and will have favorite companions, who are usually of the same age and gender.7 Some orcas will rub their bellies on pebble beaches, simply because it feels good.8 They are vicious hunters, with sophisticated strategies and tactics, and they will play with their food if opportunity allows.9 In the wild, they can live into their nineties.10 They have one calf at a time, usually every six to ten years, and the whole pod cares for the children.11 They mourn their dead.12

Orcas develop trends; in the summer 1987, orcas from Puget Sound, Washington, were observed wearing salmon as hats, a fad that spread quickly and has not been repeated since.13 More recently, a group of orcas off the coast of Portugal led by White Gladis has been sinking yachts, possibly because Gladis is holding a grudge.14 Orcas are known as killer whales, but it is anthropocentric to assume the killing part refers to humans; in fact, orcas are whale killers. They have even been known to help human whalers.15 There has only ever been one orca who killed humans, Tilikum, who was involved in the deaths of three people.16

group of female orcas
Photo taken from Island Explorer 3 operated by Island Adventures Whale Watching, Anacortes, WA. “female orca L22 Spirit leading, base of Eagle Cliff, Cypress Island” by Andrew Reding is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Grandmother Hypothesis

Orcas remain understudied, despite their cult status. This is why it is hard to make accurate generalizations. Some features, such as matrilinearity, are common to all orcas. Yet, human patriarchal ideas permeate this too: male orcas, who contrary to their female siblings tend to stay with their mothers throughout their lives, are affectionately called “mama’s boys” rather than “incapable of independently forming their own pod.”17 Another important feature of orcas is a long post-menopausal life. Here too researchers and authors project human cultural assumptions onto orcas; even an article that ponders the importance of post-menopausal females in a pod from a feminist standpoint resorts to the “grandmother hypothesis.”18 This claims that elder female orca leaders help care for younger generations and thus ensure their genetic legacy. Female orcas teach hunting techniques and pass on cultural traditions, but I think that maybe, they might just also simply enjoy being alive without there being a need for ensuring the reproductive or cultural survival of their species. While it has been documented that orca calves have a higher chance of survival if they have a grandmother, that does not mean that the grandmothers stay alive for their grandchildren, as the National Geographic claims.19

“Orcas are not only smart, they are also emotionally hyper-intelligent animals … Their capacity for empathy may exceed our own.”

Older female orcas have been known to seek each other’s company and travel together. A notable example is a trio known as “The Golden Girls,” where a third elder female orca joined an already existing pair after the death of her son.20 It is not documented if these relationships are friendly or romantic. But it would be as unwise to reduce orcas to their reproductive role is as it would be to reduce human women to their capacity to be mothers or grandmothers. Orcas are not only smart, they are also emotionally hyper-intelligent animals, with “the most elaborated insular cortex in the world.”21 Their capacity for empathy may exceed our own.

closeup of V-shaped saddle patch on octogenarian female orca L25 Ocean Sun, born about 1928
closeup of V-shaped saddle patch on octogenarian female orca L25 Ocean Sun, born about 1928
Closeup of V-shaped saddle patch on octogenarian female orca L25 Ocean Sun, born about 1928. These are salmon eating orcas, often referred to as southern resident orcas. This kind of saddle patch with black intrusion is only found on fish-eating orcas; on mammal-eaters, it is always gray throughout . Photo taken from Island Explorer 3 operated by Island Adventures Whale Watching, Anacortes, WA. “closeup of V-shaped saddle patch on octogenarian female orca L25 Ocean Sun, born about 1928” by Andrew Reding is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Sounds Gay to Me

Another common and generally (albeit begrudgingly) accepted feature of orcas is their engagement in homosexuality. Homosexual behavior is found in many species of animals. Bruce Bagemihl published Biological Exuberance in 1999, documenting such in over 450 animal species, a number that has now been revised to over 1,500.22 Yet new evidence continues to surprise and appall, from lesbian seagulls to male gay humpback whales stirring cultural imaginations on all ends of the political spectrum. As Bagemihl writes, homosexual behavior is found amongst male and female animals, although a bit more frequently in males. However, “the prevalence of female homosexuality may actually be greater than these figures indicate, but has simply not been documented as systematically owing to the general male bias of many biological studies.”23 The orcas are no exception.

Male-male orca sexual behavior is important for their social lives.24 Groups of male juvenile orcas will engage in sexual activities in pairs or small groups, where activities such as penis display and beak-genital orientation occur.25 Yet, Sex in Cetaceans (2023), which is considered an up-to-date review of whale sexual practices, writes that boy orcas engage in homosexual behavior to practice courtship for female orcas. There is no scientific reason for this assumption, other than heteronormative cultural conditioning. Likely, boy orcas have gay sex because they want to. They frequently engage in oral sex, for which there is no “practice” explanation.26 It is unknown if male orcas form long-lasting gay relationships. But there exists a couple of male orcas, both in their early twenties, in South Africa, who are often seen together. They are known for killing great white sharks and eating only their liver, as a delicacy.27 Port and Starboard are not officially boyfriends, but who knows. Sounds gay to me.28

Even less is known about lesbian orcas. Researchers have documented female-female sexual behavior, but the research was only conducted with captive animals, and the importance of that behavior was minimized. Of the three female orcas studied in the Loro Parque zoo, all engaged in sexual activities with both their male and female counterparts, with one female-female pair, Morgan and Kohana, initiating enough reciprocal sexual behavior that the researchers mentioned it specifically. However, this was followed by the study authors musing that since “sexual behaviors have not been reported between female orcas, these patterns may have another social function,” even though they had just reported orca lesbian sex in the very same article.29 The authors imply that Kohana as the oldest female was merely integrating the newer member, Morgan, into the group.30 A fine welcome, I would say, that still does not negate the fact that the interactions were reciprocal and homosexual.

Science is always influenced by the culture in which it is produced. Entrenched homophobia, heteronormativity, and patriarchy cannot be expunged through claims of objectivity.

Science is always influenced by the culture in which it is produced. Entrenched homophobia, heteronormativity, and patriarchy cannot be expunged through claims of objectivity. It is refreshing to see more studies in queer ecology and more LGBTQ+ researchers correcting biases, finally giving the female orcas some of the respect they deserve as fierce leaders and keepers of knowledge. But biases remain. They continue to hold back research that could help humans understand how we are alike, not different, from other animals. Through entrenching heteronormativity and patriarchy, biases hurt not only the queer community but all communities, because they display a skewed image of reality. But perhaps there is hope in stories such as the Orca’s Song, where an osprey and an orca can be wives. After all, their love brought together a creature of the air and a creature of the water because they wanted to learn about each other’s world.

Feature Image: “breaching young female L Pod orca, near Lawrence Point, Orcas Island” by Andrew Reding is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


1 Jason M. Colby, Orca (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) 77. In reality, Namu was accompanied by his mother, the matriarch, and his siblings, for a portion of his journey to captivity. He never turned on his captor but instead befriended the man. Namu died from effects of the polluted waters in which he was kept within a year of his capture.

2 Lucy Cooke, “Why Women and Female Orcas are Both Considered Menopausal Rarities,” The Globe and Mail, 11 June 2022, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-why-women-and-female-orcas-are-both-considered-menopausal-freaks/; Colby, 69.

3 Howard Garrett, “Orcas of the Salish Sea,” Orca Network archive, 16 May 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20090516002320/http://www.orcanetwork.org/nathist/salishorcas1.html.

4 Matrilinearity is the most common form of kinship. “Matrilines and Patrilines,” in Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior, https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-319-47829-6_1996-1.

5 Christopher Stephens, “10 Species Where the Female is Boss,” TopTenz, 9 November 2017, https://www.toptenz.net/10-species-female-boss.php.

6 Morin et al., “Revised taxonomy of eastern North Pacific killer whales (Orcinus orca): Bigg’s and resident ecotypes deserve species status,” Royal Society Open Science, February 2024,  http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.231368

7 Christa Lesté-Lasserre, “Killer Whales Form Killer Friendships, New Drone Footage Suggests,” Science, 17 June 2021, https://www.science.org/content/article/killer-whales-form-killer-friendships-new-drone-footage-suggests.

8 “Rub Me Right—“Beach-Rubbing” Behaviour of Northern Resident Orca,” The Marine Detective, 8February 2015, https://themarinedetective.com/2015/02/08/rub-me-right-beach-rubbing-behaviour-of-northern-resident-orca/.

9 “The Killer Whale’s Killer Weapon—Its Brain,” Nature on PBS, 26 November 2014, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/killer-whales-killer-weapon-brain/11352/.

10 “Killer Whale,” Species Directory of the NOAA Fisheries, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/killer-whale.

11 Phie Jacobs, “Killer Whale Moms Protect Their Sons From Fights With Other Whales,” Science, 20 July 2023, https://www.science.org/content/article/killer-whale-moms-protect-their-sons-fights-other-whales.

12 Barbara J. Kind, “The Orca’s Sorrow,” Scientific American, 1March 2019, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-orcas-sorrow/.

13 James Felton, “In 1987, Orcas Had A Fashion Of Wearing A Dead Salmon As A Hat,” IFL Science, 27 June 2023, https://www.iflscience.com/in-1987-orcas-had-a-fashion-of-wearing-a-dead-salmon-as-a-hat-69542.

14 Zahra Fatima, “Yacht Sinks After Being Rammed by Orcas in Strait of Gibraltar,” BBC News, 14 May 2024, https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/cmm330y6d2qo.

15 “Old Tom,” Eden Killer Whale Museum, https://killerwhalemuseum.com.au/old-tom/.

16 Tilikum, who was oddly given a Chinook Indigenous name meaning “friend,” was captured in Iceland in 1983 at age two and spent most of his life performing at SeaWorld Orlando. When not on display, he spent his time locked in a steel container with orcas who were hostile to him (https://medium.com/@carlsafina/tilikum-8d8c40f74108). He was trained for artificial insemination, which means forced sperm extraction, and was known as SeaWorld’s “chief sperm bank.” (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/tommy-lee-seaworld_n_794104) He killed two of his trainers and a random person who is thought to have jumped in his tank overnight.

17 Catherine Offord, “Killer Whale Moms Forgo Having Kids to Look After Grown Sons,” Science, 8 February 2023, https://www.science.org/content/article/killer-whale-moms-forgo-having-kids-look-after-grown-sons.

18 Cooke, “Why Women and Female Orcas are Both Considered Menopausal Rarities.”

19 Carrie Arnold, “Why do orca grandmothers live so long? It’s for their grandkids,” National Geographic, 9 December 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/orcas-killer-whales-menopause-grandmothers.

20 Pete Thomas, “Orcas Dubbed ‘Golden Girls’ Grab Spotlight off Monterey,” For the Win, 13 September 2019, https://ftw.usatoday.com/2019/09/orcas-golden-girls-grab-spotlight-monterey.

21 “The Social Intelligence of Orcas and Communication – Orca Series II,” Orca Nation, 10 October 2019, https://orcanation.org/the-social-intelligence-of-orcas/.

22 Sandra Swart, “Birds of a Feather,” in Gender and Animals in History (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2024) 14.

23 Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 39.

24 Sánchez–Hernández et. al., “Social interaction analysis in captive orcas (Orcinus orca),” Zoo Biology, 2019: 323–333.

25 Brianna M. Wright, Eva H. Stredulinsky, and John K. B. Ford, “Sex in Killer Whales: Behavior, Exogamy, and the Evolution of Sexual Strategies in the Ocean’s Apex Predator” in Sex in Cetaceans (Cham: Springer, 2023) 370.

26 Ibid, 369.

27 Kelly Kizer Whitt, “2 Killer Whales Slaughter 17 Sharks in 1 day,” EarthSky, 26 February 2023, https://earthsky.org/earth/killer-whales-port-and-starboard-17-shark-livers-in-1-day/.

28 While there are people online calling them brothers, their being the same age speaks against this, considering orca birthing habits. They could, of course, be simply roommates.

29 Sánchez–Hernández et. al., “Social interaction analysis in captive orcas (Orcinus orca),” Zoo Biology, 2019: 323–333.

30 Morgan is one of the few orcas who have been captured in the wild in this century. Morgan, who is presumed Norwegian because of she speaks Norwegian Orca, was found swimming alone in the waters close to the Netherlands in 2010, and captured by a theme park as part of a “rescue, rehabilitation, and release” program. However, the release never happened and Morgan ended up in Loro Parque despite a legal battle. The zoo claims she cannot be released because she is presumed deaf; the Free Morgan Foundation claims there is no proof of her deafness (https://www.freemorgan.org/is-morgan-deaf/). Even if she were deaf, that is no grounds for capture, as orcas care for their disabled (https://usa.oceana.org/blog/disabled-killer-whale-survives-help-its-pod/). Morgan continues her life in captivity. Kohana passed away in 2022 at age 20 from complications from gastrointestinal issues common in animals at Loro Parque.

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Teja Sosteric

Teja Šosterič (she/her) is a doctoral candidate at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC), which is a part of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU). She is the executive content editor for Environmental History Now. Previously, she has worked as a lecturer at LMU's Amerika-Institut and as an editor at the RCC. Her research is supported by a 4-year doctoral grant from the DAAD. Her doctoral work at the RCC is centered on climate fiction novels and examines how neoliberal ideology shapes contemporary North American literary works that engage with the ecological crisis and its material reality.

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