Killers in Eden: an informative documentary on a unique relationship between humans and wild animals

Klaus Toft, “Killers in Eden” (2004)

Made for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this television documentary explores an intriguing partnership forged between humans and wild animals that may have existed for hundreds of years and which died out in the middle of the 20th century. Before the British established colonies in Australia, indigenous people living around Twofold Bay in the extreme southeastern part of Australia relied on orcas (killer whales) to drive larger baleen whales into the bay to be killed by the people for meat. Over time, the Yuin tribal people came to regard the orcas as their totem animal and spiritual brothers and sisters. When Europeans arrived in the area in the early 1800s and established a whaling station, they employed local Yuin men as harpoonists. At first the whites regarded the local orcas as pests but the Yuin persuaded the British to work with them. The animals would drive baleen whales into Twofold Bay where they could be killed by the humans, and alert the men to the victims’ presence. Both humans in their flimsy boats and the orcas co-operated in harassing and killing the whales. For their help, the orcas received the tongues of the dead whales as per Yuin tradition and also fed on the birds and fish that came to pick at the whale carcasses.

With a mix of interviews with a zoologist and local people old enough to have seen first-hand the partnership between whalers and orcas, archived documents, some computer-generated animation, voice-over narration and re-enactments of actual whaling trips, the documentary delivers a highly informative and engaging story of how two intelligent species worked together and came to respect one another. The major thrust of the film’s narrative enquires into whether the orcas acted on pure instinct and self-interest (if that’s the correct term) or if their co-operation was voluntary and based on trust and a desire for sociability with individuals that happened to be an alien species. It becomes obvious (though this could be also due to the film-makers’ desire to portray orcas in as positive a light as possible) that the orcas are cunning opportunists capable of exploiting new hunting situations to their advantage and since their reasons for hanging around Twofold Bay meshed with those of the humans, the two species readily formed a mutual hunting partnership. In particular, a close relationship formed between one whaler, George Davidson, and an animal called Tom which was a leader of one pod; indeed, several orcas were known by and received names from the whalers.

The descriptions of how the humans and orcas worked together are thrilling and interviewees mention orcas saving the lives of humans on a number of occasions while hunting and killing baleen whales. The re-enactments and the quick editing of shots also draw viewers’ attention to the danger of hunting and harpooning whales.

No partnership, however ideal, is without its tragedies that threaten to break it up and the mutual arrangement between the whalers and the orcas of Eden is no different – there is mention of an incident in which an outsider from beyond Eden thoughtlessly butchers a stranded orca. He is chased away but from then on, the local Yuin people refuse to work any more with the whites and the orcas behave erratically as well. In the end, a few orcas led by Tom continue working with the whites. Not long after, with the death of Tom in September 1930, the orcas and whalers end their partnership: by then, the global whaling industry has decimated most baleen whale populations on the high seas and the number of baleen whales migrating twice a year past Eden has tumbled dramatically to almost nil.

The documentary is as much about preserving a record of a unique episode of human-animal co-operation and co-existence in history and making it known to the outside world as much as possible before the last people who have had first-hand experience of witnessing whalers and orcas working together die. Tom’s skeleton was cleaned after his death and is on display in a local museum in Eden. The town still survives and one of its main industries is now whale-watching, as whales have resumed their annual migrations up and down the New South Wales coast: a fitting and happy irony to conclude the documentary on.

 

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