The Curious Case of the “Law of the Tongue”


Sporting the third deepest natural harbor
in the southern hemisphere and a rich habitat, the waters around Eden, Australia attract
a variety of wildlife, including baleen whales and, at least in the fall and winter, orcas. At some point in the history of the indigenous
Yuin people, they and the killer whales seemingly entered into a tacit sort of unspoken agreement,
which was called by later whalers the Law of the Tongue. While most of the contemporary accounts of
this peculiar “contract” have been lost, including very unfortunately a 1910 film by C.B. Jenkins
and C.E. Wellings that visually recorded the behavior,
enough remain, along with some photographic evidence, to give us a general idea of how
humans and a particular pod of orcas worked together to bring down baleen whales. While little is known of when exactly this
“agreement,” of sorts, came about, and how it may have differed for the Yuin people,
after European hunters arrived in the mid-19th century, the provisions of the “contract”
became clear – the killer whales would herd in and trap the baleen whales in Twofold Bay
and then the hunters would harpoon the whales. In return for their help, the humans would
share certain parts of the bounty with the orcas. How was this possible? Extremely intelligent, creative and social
animals, killer whales often live in large, matriarchal, multi-generational pods. Importantly to the subject of this video,
they also teach their offspring their sometimes incredibly clever hunting methods, passing
the knowledge on from one generation to the next. Presumably at some point in this pod’s history,
humans killing baleen whales near the harbor resulted in the orcas coming in for scraps;
perhaps ultimately realizing that if they helped the humans out in their hunting, there
would be more scraps, the orcas began driving the whales close to shore. It is often stated that even as late as 1860,
when Alexander Davidson and his family established a whaling station in Eden, Europeans still
had not realized the orcas’ value, and that it was Davidson who learned what the orcas
were doing when he hired Yuin fishermen who explained it to him. However, according to an account written in
Sir Oswald Brierly’s diary some two decades earlier while he was managing a whaling operation
in the area, he, at least, was well aware of the orcas’ propensity to drive the baleen
whales in. He noted that while some whalers would fight
the orcas away after killing a whale, others let them have their spoils and soon “aquire[d]
preferential treatment” from the pod. After the little whaling empire of Scotsman
Benjamin Boyd went under and he left the region, the Davidson family’s whaling business began
to flourish thanks to the orcas. Beyond the Davidsons treating the orcas fairly,
there are reports that the killer whales weren’t too keen on helping many other whalers still
in the area owing to their eventual use of cannon harpoons and other such explosive weapons. In contrast, the Davidson’s used hand thrown
harpoons and took to revering the orcas as the natives did, through their actions supposedly
earning the orcas’ trust. Whatever the case, eventually, the system
was refined, making the Davidson’s lives relatively easy. At the mouth of Eden’s Twofold Bay, the orca
pod, like sheep dogs, would herd any baleen whales they encountered closer to the shore. After the whale was trapped in the harbor
by the pod, a large male, for many years “Old Tom”, would break off and go present himself
at the Davidson whaling station by spectacularly breaching the surface and thrashing his tale
until he got the fishermen’s attention- letting the whaler know there was now a baleen in
the harbor that needed killing. Beyond keeping the baleen in the harbor and
close to the surface, there is one contemporary journal entry, whether accurate or not isn’t
known, describing the orcas actually dragging Davidson’s boat towards their prey before
competing whalers could get there: “Davidson threw a [anchor rope] over the
bow of his boat. It was immediately grasped by two killers. They took the rope tandem fashion with a half
hitch around the shoulder and started for the quarry, overtaking the opposition…” As for what specifically the orcas got out
of all their efforts, while the carcass of the baleen remained in the water secured to
the boat, the orcas would be given time to chow down on the huge and meaty whale’s tongue
and lips and then leave the rest of the beast, including the valued bones, more central meat,
and blubber, for the whalers. At this point you might be wondering why an
apex predator like the killer whale wouldn’t just kill the baleen’s themselves and take
all the spoils? While a sufficient number of orcas can indeed
kill such significantly larger prey, the methods employed to do it are arduous. A large orca male can reach 32 feet in length
and weigh 9 tons, while a female can grow to 23 feet and weigh 4 tons. While that’s massive by most sea-life standards,
by comparison a humpback whale can grow to upwards of 50 feet in length and weigh up
to 40 tons. Other baleen whales, like the blue whale,
can grow up to 120 feet and weigh up to 200 tons! To kill such behemoths, an orca pod must be
of sufficient size and have all hands on deck rigorously working in unison for a lengthy
period of time. As for the general method of execution, trapping
the whale between them, some work to deny it access to the surface so that it can’t
breathe (by literally keeping on top of it), while others bite and tear at its body. Ultimately between the injuries and its strenuous
activity while it tries to escape the orca balling, it will weaken and either die from
ceasing to be able to defend itself, with its injuries then rapidly mounting, or at
some point just drown, even if it wasn’t otherwise seriously injured. Given the time and amount of effort required,
it is very rare for orcas to kill an adult baleen whale (although calves can often be
prey, if it one can be separated from its own group). However, if all the orcas have to do is herd
the whale into a particular place and potentially drive it to the surface, the energy expenditure
is much less, making the trade-off for only getting access to the whale’s massive tongue
and portions of the face after its death worth it. In any event, by the early 20th century the
most famous orca in the pod was its herald, the aforementioned “Old Tom,” who would often
be the one to notify the whalers of a catch. And while most inhabitants incorrectly thought
Old Tom was the leader of the group, as orcas are generally matriarchal, the real leader
is thought today to have been the female called Stranger. Old Tom was simply better known, not just
because he was often the herald, but also because of his endearing antics. For instance, according to Eden fisherman
Jackie Warren, Tom would sometimes grab the anchor line for Warren’s boat and tow the
boat around randomly for fun. In another account, Tom supposedly liked to
place his body on the rope between the dead baleen and the boat so that the boat would
tow him in too, to save himself the effort of swimming along with it. More helpfully, there are a few accounts of
Tom being observed to swim around whalers who’d fallen into the water during a hunt. It was speculated by the whalers that Tom
was protecting the human in these instances. This behavior was widely panned at the time
in news articles as made up by the whalers, as it was thought that killer whales would
simply eat humans if they fell in the water. But today most think the whalers were probably
telling the truth as it’s exceptionally rare for killer whales to attack humans and there
has never been a single known case of a wild orca killing a human. (There have been cases of captive orcas doing
so.) For his efforts, Tom would be described in
the journals of the Davidsons as “part of the family,” with Fearless George Davidson
himself known to have taken a swim with Old Tom. According to reports, whether accurate or
not isn’t clear, the beginning of the end of this cooperative hunting happened on a
fall day in 1923. After Old Tom had corralled a small whale
toward George Davidson, fearing a storm that was brewing, George decided to head straight
back into shore without waiting to share the bounty with Tom. Old Tom disagreed and the orca and the motorized
boat engaged in a tug-of-war, ending when Tom lost a number of teeth and released the
rope. The daughter of John Logan, Margaret Brooks,
who accompanied her father and Davidson on the boat for this occurrence, stated that
upon seeing the damage done to Old Tom’s teeth, Davidson stated “Oh God, what have I done?” Orca teeth do not grow back, and the holes
left behind sometimes become infected. On top of that, as he was missing so many
teeth at this point, it is speculated that hunting became more difficult for Tom, and
it is often claimed in modern accounts that Tom died shortly thereafter of starvation. However, while that is the general story told
of the end of Old Tom today, it should be noted that he didn’t “die shortly after.” Old Tom actually lived another seven years,
dying in September of 1930 of unknown causes. As to Tom’s teeth, we do know that he was
missing several upon his death, but given the number of years he lived after the alleged
tug of war match, it’s safe to say he didn’t die as a result of it. It may well be that Old Tom simply died of
old age related issues, as contemporary reports describe him as an elderly looking orca towards
his end. Later examination of his remains seemed to
indicate he was only in his mid-30s, but the method that was used in this case is known
to be unreliable. (For reference, orcas can live upwards of
100 years in the wild, though more typically between 30-50 years; in captivity they only
live about 20 years or so). And for whatever it’s worth, at least one
contemporary account claims Old Tom had been “seen at Twofold Bay for more than fifty years…”
prior to his death. Whatever the case, after Tom’s death, the
pod supposedly never returned to Twofold Bay, though it isn’t clear whether Tom’s death
had anything to do with this change of behavior. Even by 1923, the orca pod to which Old Tom
belonged seems to have shrunk dramatically in size, or at least only a few of the pod
at this stage were seen in the harbor anymore. It was speculated that Norwegian whalers in
the area had killed most of them over time, but whether this is true or not isn’t known. By 1930, whether because the remaining members
of the pod decided to stop visiting the harbor or whalers simply wiped them out, with no
more of the pod around to drive whales in, Tom’s death more or less marked the end of
the Davidsons being able to hunt whales in Twofold Bay via small row boats. Gone but not forgotten, Old Tom’s body washed
up on Eden’s shore, at which point locals saved his bones and built the Eden Killer
Whale Museum to house them. If you’re in the area, you can still go see
his remains today.

100 comments

  1. Dear today I found out… I've been trying to figure out how the the word Nazi came from the German translation National Socialist Workers Party whatever it is. I know it's supposed to be an abbreviation of some sort. I researched this a good deal and decided that if I couldn't figure it out, plus you got wide open writing material that not a lot of people talk about. Thank me for the tip later (at least before the Russians get to my bunker)

  2. P.s. Nazi seems to be an acronym but it isn't and that's where I get lost in the translation so any help on that would be great

  3. Oh hey! The video actually started at the 00:01 mark!! I almost automatically skipped it until 3:30 minutes in expecting a blatantly forced intrusive ad 😉

  4. I was only half paying attention while listening to this video and i thought Old Tom was a dude who could somehow talk to whales…. lol well damn

  5. Why do developing babies in expecting mothers supposedly get smarter when they listen to Mozart and Beethoven

  6. This was one of the best stories on this channel! I think orcas (and dolphins in general) are man’s other best friend, opposite dogs. There are multiple historical accounts of mankind working alongside orcas worldwide. Pods in Norway were recently documented helping corral schools of fish for fishermen and then grabbing the fish as they slipped through holes in their nets.

  7. I have been to The Eden Killer Whale Museum. Old Tom's body is huge. The museum shows you everything from the boats the whalers used to how they lived. It is worth the visit if you are in the Eden area. I would love to go back now that I'm older and can appreciate the history better. Here's to you Old Tom!

  8. I don't know why, but Simon's matter of fact delivery is hilarious to me. I died laughing at the rapidly mounting injuries line 😂😂😂

  9. Thank you so much for all of the videos you post over all of your channels. You and your staff are incredibly talented and I love the fact that I learn something new from each video. Please keep up the great work ☺☺☺

  10. I visited the whaling museum in the 70's. It was just an old green shed filled with harpoons and boats, with old tom and i think a humpback skull and vertebra on the lawn out the front.

    The old bloke who ran the place opened with 'i wasnt much older than you when i first went out on the boats.' took me under his wing and told me about old tom pulling them out to hunt on moonlit nights and the law of the tongue, getting pulled around 'as fast as any speed boat today' after the harpoon first went in. About being knocked into the water and hoping to be picked up by another boat before the sharks got you.

    The other cool thing was you could handle all the harpoons and stuff.

    I clearly remember turning to my mum and saying 'i think id like to be a whaler when i grow up'. Hahaha

  11. I'm pretty sure I saw one of those women's prison movies called "Law of the Tongue" on Cinemax back in the day…

  12. It is EASY to believe that an Orca bull could tow a boat. Last year, a wild Orca grabbed hold of a sailboat's line, and dragged it around Comox Bay near Vancouver Island, BC. The clip is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fv8ueisI78

  13. Captain Robert Scott's Antarctic expedition in 1910-13 had an incident where orcas in a pack tried to eat his photographer Herbert Ponting.

  14. ive been to eden and the museum and saw toms skeleton, didn’t even realise all this happened until now, damn i wanna go back

  15. Dolphins would school salmon to shore for singing women on the shore near Albany Australia. The original people had incredible environmental symbiotic relationships across the land of 500 nations. *Always, ALWAYS place a written and spoken preceding showing ANY image of first nation Australians to warn the "content may contain images [and/or voices, when appropriate] of people living or dead" It ain't much more than respect, may seem mediocre but we do that here in Australia. The old fellow photo? Do his people have any connection to the coast of the story because if they see him they will be pissed off if not. That necklace was put on him by an english cop.

  16. This kind of cooperation between humans and animals is inspiring! Old Tom is that which we love in animals – a big personality.

  17. 24 seconds in and your writer has already let you down. Tacit and unspoken mean exactly the same thing.
    It's a bit like saying "unnecessarily redundant repetition."

    Perhaps you might want to concentrate a bit more on quality rather than quantity. Y'know?

  18. Oh, I grew up not far from Eden. It's a delight to hear mention of my old stomping ground on such an international channel. 🙂

  19. If someone connects me with the right activists, I have a new invention that can put an end to whaling for good without causing needless harm to the humans to cause bad publicity.

    If done right, perhaps publishing the footage for publicity, change public opinions, etc.

    It'll also protect the activists from legal liabilities from their actions. Long story short, I need money & I'll sell it to whomever meets my price.

    Adam

  20. It’s amazing the amount of information you find that i wasn’t looking for, but am extremely glad you did.

  21. Orca whales are such amazing creatures. There is no reason why they need to be in captivity. If they want a whale show, they could definitely train wild orcas to come to shore and perform. They don’t need to be locked up

  22. I wish the statistics for the Belize whale 🐳 population was mentioned.

    Gray whales are diminished in Oregon due to orcas killing babies to eat their tongues. Very sad 😔

    If you ever do one on the Taiji dolphin 🐬 hunt in Japan, I'd probably cry my eyes out. 😭😭😭

  23. Concerning the eating of just the tongue and lips of the whale by the orcas…

    In the 2001 nature documentary "The Blue Planet" (narrated by Sir David Attenborough), an pod of orcas was documented hunting a gray whale calf. In this situation, the orcas were reported to have only eaten "the lower jaw" of the young baleen whale.

    It is possible that orcas habitually only "target" eat specific parts of their prey, for the most nutrient dense meat (brown bears have been found to do the same with salmon).

    If this is the case, it makes even more sense for a symbiotic relationship to form – the orcas only being interested in the body parts with some of the lowest value to humans.

  24. I have a question: how come that i often go somewhere with a purpose and when i get there i forget what i came to do or get?

  25. I always love hearing true stories about animals and humans teaming up to complete a common goal together. I also enjoyed the recent baboon train rail operator too. Keep up the good work!

  26. They probably herded these whales into this harbor for slaughter LONG before there were ever any humans involved – they just adapted to the human's presence accordingly.

  27. In the 70s I had an elderly neighbour who grew up in Eden. Some of the Yuin elders could communicate with the Orcas in shallow water even in the 1910s as part of Secret Business. The lips and tongue are meat, protein, the rarest cut of the massive chunk of blubber, a prize indeed to the Orcas, some of the whalers would share organ meat with their partners, staking the whales in a position that made it easier to access other delicate meaty parts.

  28. 1:20 "Extremely intelligent, creative and social animals, killer whales often live in pods."
    Does this mean they communicate between pods with podcasts?

  29. I think the Human Elitist whalers noticed that the Orcas were helping the small row boat get the whales before them, and decided to hunt the Orcas to get rid of both competition since those other whalers were investing a lot of money into larger more expensive ships, and were losing to a row boat, and some Orcas. Very sad really.

    Old Tom though I'm going to guess he was a Century old, or close to it, and even if he wasn't the leader of the pod. He might have been the son, mate, or the one out of the pod who the leader knew would be able to get along with humans better. You're not going to have a young naive pup go to the surface to get the other hunters. You're going to send the one with the experience, and behavior for it.

  30. Tangalooma Island resort on Moreton Island off the coast of QLD Australia is an awesome resort where guests can feed the wild Dolphins. It's strictly supervised, you have to wash with a solution before you enter the water and you can only feed the wild Dolphins with the fish provided and you can't pat them etc. It happens twice a day at the same time and spot next to the dock with a viewing platform. The Dolphins turn up like clockwork, put on a great show for all the people who are sitting on the stands and then line up in 6 rows which have one staff member and one guest in each row at a time in knee deep water. The Dolphins patiently wait their turn to swim up to gently receive their fish. It's an incredible experience, after they have their fish they show off again for the crowd and go back out to sea. The Dolphins often catch large fish, much larger than they can eat and bring them to the feeding to give to resort staff as presents, it's an incredible experience and shows just how intelligent these beautiful creatures are.

  31. Crazy story, wasn’t sure about it when I clicked, but happy I did! You guys rock, keep up the good work!!

  32. Watching BBC's "Blue Planet" and in one of the episodes a pod of Orcas kill a young baleen whale. They only ate the lower jaw and tongue.

  33. Awesome, thanks 🙂 I'd heard about this, but you had more details 🙂 GREAT VIDEO!
    Only detail you seemed to miss that I found was the claim that the Orcas would also grab the harpoon ropes & use them to help pull the whales to shore for killing & it was said that the skeletons showed the rope drag wear marks on them & looking at the skeleton pick you included, the front teeth do look worn down, presumably though the ancore ropes you spoke of would cause the same thing (as would general wear from what's visible in that photo), wondering if you have any comment/further info on if you found anything on this or found it debunked?

  34. There's no recorded cases of killer whales attacking a human in the wild, because they're careful to leave no witnesses 🙂

  35. Are Baleen whales still super endangered? Thanks Orcabama

    Hasn't been a single case of a wild one attacking a human that you know of. Orcas are dicks like dolphins

  36. When I was significantly younger, my family travelled up the coast and stayed in Eden for a few days. I remember the museum, and Old Tom. It's fantastic to learn about the interaction between his family and the local community

  37. I’ve got family who’re Eden natives and it’s nice it’s stories are getting the recognition they deserve.

    Next awesome Aussie suburb; Broome WA, the once pearling capital of the world.

  38. Doesn't it suck that we have to be premeditated murderers just to survive on this planet? Boggles my brainstem.

  39. orcas are arguably the most intelligent animal on the planet tho, we know relatively little about them but we know they have a society and that its highly organized and their hunting methods are quite ingenious easily comparable human ingenuity

    theres also signs that orcas might view humans as fellow intelligent beings which is nothing less than amazing considering they only communicate in soundwave

  40. Orcas are true apex predators, even great whites are afraid of them. Orcas are not really whales, they are closer to dolphins than whales. Whales and dolphins are far smarter than we give them credit for. Dolphins have been known to use tools, and even get high for fun. Orcas are magnificent creatures, nobel and intelligent.

  41. See You Humans think you're so Smart and that animals are just stupid things for you to Train or exploit or eat. Well just because you're on top right now. Thinking that mans Dominion will always be so shows who the real the ignorant species is. Humans are Insane. And Selfish. you maniacs won't last much longer, Your very nature makes it an impossibility even with all your advanced technology.

  42. Orcas are territorial thugs. There's that incident where they drove off great white sharks by killing some and only eating the liver. Left the rest as a warning. The sharks took the hint and never came back.

    But the captions you guys come up with kill me. "Sup Bro. Here 2 f*k u up." Gold.

  43. A true shame. The betrayal was never forgotten and never forgiven.
    Imagine a future where we could have studied such human-friendly orcas in their natural home, maybe we could learn to somewhat communicate with them. Super-intelligent sea lifeforms like them are basically our earthbound alien neighbors after all.

  44. I know it's a bit romantic to think that Orca never attacked humans in their natural habitat but it's not true. They just don't leave witnesses.
    There's been numerous case on Canadian west and arctic coast where orcas bees suspected with telltale sign on "canoe leftover". It's just never be filmed.

  45. I've been to the museum and seen his skeleton. The teeth on the left side are worn down from pulling the boat ropes. I didn't know about the tug of war though! Thanks for another awesome video 🙂

  46. My wife's predecessor was Benjamin Boyd, I'll have to share this with her! Boydtown is just outside of Eden, and once was a town of such importance in the 19th century that it was one of the places that was being considered as Australia's Capital Territory. Benjamin Boyd was a very interesting character; smuggler, conman, whaler, politician, fraudster.

  47. As someone that has gone to the museum and seen it for myself, I appreciate you telling the story of Old Tom, it's certainly special. And if anyone is curious, it's a beautiful area to take a vacation. You can even go so far as to see wild whales from the shore without having to take a boat in some of the national parks.

  48. Thank U I left U a comment to do this vid a while ago i don't know if that's what gave U the idea but great work as usual

  49. I saw footage ages ago (and haven’t seen it since) of an orca jumping out of the water, breaching itself on ice, biting a polar bear in half and then rolling back into the water again! #Savage 😳

  50. Interesting how the whales were quicker to understand the contract than some humans.
    Resulting in them only working with chosen few humans, instead of the supposedly smarter humans being in charge.

  51. Only a human is dumb enough to enslave a four ton killing machine and then jump in the water with it. What could possibly go wrong?

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