Beyond Free Willy: Orcas, Resistance, and the Spirit of the Sea

by Olivia Badoi

black and white stylised image of an orca

From ramming into yachts off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, to exhibiting behavior that suggests they might be teaching their young to do the same in other parts of the world,  orcas are having a moment. While the scientific community remains divided on the reasons behind the recent attacks, the public has effusively embraced this so-called orca uprising. The solidarity is on behalf of the orcas themselves, who, like most marine creatures, are suffering from the effects of overfishing and human-created climate change, but there is another interesting side to this phenomenon. The orcas have become avatars for our own human struggles against systemic injustice. A recent tweet with 3.1 million views is emblematic of the kind of discourse proliferating on social media: “orcas sinking yachts…sharks biting off people’s pinkies and putting holes in boats…billionaires getting lost in submarines while looking for the titanic…the sea is angry and it is fighting back.” The tweet references the disappearance and consequent implosion of the Titan submarine in July of 2023. The incident spurred quite a bit of controversy given the stark contrast between the media coverage of marine disasters that affect the wealthy few (such as the Titan case) versus the deaths of thousands of nameless people drowning in the Mediterranean (the NPR reports that around 2000 refugees have died so far this year). But…what does this have to do with orcas?

Well, the orcas have become political. In a recent Facebook post, the environmental writer Rebecca Solnit shared a picture of a traditional canoe ceremony of the Tulalip Nation from Washington State (the picture was taken a few years ago but has resurfaced given the recent orca attention). The night photograph shows two canoes filled with people, a few of whom are gently petting the head of an orca emerging from the waters right in between the two canoes. Solnit captioned the photograph “the orcas like some boats,” to suggest that the marine mammals attack yachts, those symbols of the excesses of hyper-capitalism, but not the canoes of indigenous peoples like the Tulalip, who have a fundamentally different relationship to nature. In other words, with one social media post, Solnit establishes a more-than-implicit connection between the orcas and the anti-capitalist environmental movement.

So how did orcas become the marine equivalent of Occupy Wall Street?

What emerges from these headlines and social media engagements is in part an attempt—rooted in collective unconscious as well as conscious cultural narratives—toward a re-sacralization of nature. The orcas aren’t just marine animals reacting instinctively to their environment. They have been transformed into symbols, or totems, of an aggrieved nature, rising against the transgressions of the Anthropocene. The way these orca attacks are narrativized in the cultural discourse can be viewed as an instance of re-enchantment, a term often used in sociology, religious studies, and ecocriticism, and which refers to a renewed sense of reverence, awe, and even fear towards the natural world. Displaced from our everyday reality by the buffer of technology and the comforts of modern living, it has been easy to treat nature more like a background, a resource, or worse an obstacle, rather than a living, active participant in our lives. The climate crisis has shattered that illusion, as do the sudden, unpredictable actions of these marine creatures. They remind us that nature is not passive, not easily controlled, and not indifferent to our actions.

As part of this re-enchantment process, we’re seeing a sort of mythologizing of the orcas in the public discourse. This unfolding narrative of an angry sea and its seemingly vengeful creatures echoes the myth of Sedna, the Inuit sea goddess. While there are many variations, the core of the story depicts Sedna as a maiden whose unorthodox relationship to nature (in one version she marries a dog, in another a bird-man…) angers her father. Ending up on a kayak together, Sedna’s father decides to sacrifice her. He throws her over the boat, but Sedna clings to its side. He then chops off her fingers, causing her to sink to the bottom of the sea. Even though spread across various Arctic cultures, the variations of this story imagine Sedna’s chopped off fingers turning into larger sea animals, walruses, whales, orcas, and the like. Sedna becomes the Spirit of the Sea, and when she is angry, the sea is depleted of fish, leaving the Inuit people to starve. When this happens, the remedy is again rooted in the sacred, as only a shaman can mediate between humans and the sea goddess.[*]

The Sedna myth, embedded deeply in the Inuit collective consciousness, offers a window into the age-old bond between humans and the sea. It paints a vivid picture of the repercussions of violating the sacred balance of nature. By casting Sedna into the depths, her father not only banished her, but he unwittingly also disrupted the balance of the marine ecosystem. Sedna’s subsequent transformation into the Spirit of the Sea underscores that our relationship with the marine world is not merely transactional. The sea, represented by Sedna, has moods, emotions, and, most crucially, the power to give or withhold.

Drawing a parallel with the orcas, one might say that they, like the shaman of the Inuit stories, are acting as mediators between humans and the aggrieved Spirit of the Sea. They have become the mouthpiece of the silent seas, enacting a tangible rebellion against the harms we’ve done. Through their actions, we are being reminded that we’re not above nature’s laws, and just as Sedna’s chopped fingers turned into sea creatures, our own indiscretions will come back to haunt us in unexpected ways. The orcas, in their newfound avatar of rebellion, resonate with Sedna’s narrative, serving as poignant reminders that the sea remembers and reacts. And while we don’t have traditional shamans to mediate our way out of this ecological crisis, we have science, shared global narratives, and platforms like this one, urging us to listen, learn, and act.

While many indigenous cultures have recognized this interconnection for ages, Western environmental science formulated its own interpretation as late as the seventies, through the Gaia hypothesis, which posits the Earth as a self-regulating organism. This sacralization is a way for us to acknowledge our deep interconnection with nature and to respect the intrinsic value of the environment, irrespective of its utility to human needs. And perhaps, as an attempt to reassert a form of ecological stewardship or kingship, that we have largely neglected in our pursuit of progress and profit. Willy, the protagonist of the film “Free Willy,” who became an icon for the liberation and protection of marine life, has indeed returned. But he’s not just a symbol of freedom anymore; he is a symbol of resistance, of rebellion, and of the need for balance. And we, the audience, are captivated by this narrative not just because it stirs our empathy for these majestic creatures, but because it reflects our own struggles against systemic injustices and the excesses of hyper-capitalism (in the early nineties, it wasn’t yachts but theme parks like Sea World).

In essence, these orcas are acting as mirrors, reflecting our fears and our hopes, our guilt and our aspirations. Through them, we are grappling with the urgent, existential issues of our time: climate change, social inequality, and the meaning of our relationship with the natural world. So, while we are cheering for the orcas, we are also cheering for ourselves and for change – a change in our attitudes, our behaviors, and our values.

Olivia Badoi is Assistant Professor of English at Saint Louis University Madrid, where she teaches courses in modernism and academic writing.  She is interested in the ecological possibilities of re-enchantment. 

[*] from Tamra Andrews’ Dictionary of Nature Myths, Oxford University Press, 2000

Leave a Reply