ONCE hated and feared, killer whales are now considered intelligent, playful and admirable creatures. The fifth edition of Orca: The Whale Called Killer, by Bridport-based author and researcher Erich Hoyt, unveils more about these incredible animals than ever before.

Erich's adoration of orcas began in 1973, when he joined a sailing expedition along Canada's Pacific Coast with the intent of producing a documentary film about the animals. At that point, killer whales had never been filmed in their natural habitat and only rarely observed at close range, and the first edition of Erich's book helped rehabilitate their reputation.

"I was lucky to be one of the first to spend a lot of time with orcas in the wild, at a point when science knew almost nothing about them," Erich says. "A small group of us got to know them as individuals living in extended families and coming back year after year to the same places. We were able to glimpse their most intimate behaviour. That gave me a story to tell."

Over the next decade, Erich spent summers living on boats and in a remote camp off northern Vancouver Island in Canada, which remains the best place in the world to see killer whales in the wild. In 2000, he co-founded the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), which involves a team of young Russian researchers working in Kamchatka.

Erich has since written 23 books for adults and children, directed scientific work on a variety of whale species and become a research fellow for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, based in Chippenham.

The fifth edition of Orca: The Whale Called Killer includes Erich's early experiences with the whales, as well as documenting his return to northern Vancouver Island with his family, who seem to have inherited his love for the marine animals.

"My wife and children are all orca fans," Erich says. "We met the orcas I knew by name, including the grandmother Tsitika and her calves and grandcalves off northern Vancouver Island. My son is studying biology at university and goes to work with whale watching companies in Iceland every winter."

Redesigned and expanded with additional photos, illustrations and maps, the new book also examines some of the more pertinent issues facing killer whales today. Erich discusses how although public affection and respect for orcas is at an all-time high, they are facing threats from overfishing and habitat degradation like never before.

"Orcas and other whales can get caught in nets and suffocate," Erich explains. "They can be hit by ships travelling too fast and the increasing background noise in the ocean limits their ability to communicate with each other. On top of all that is the spectre of climate change, which is already starting to have profound effects on whales, humans and all other life."

Orcas used to be found in significant numbers around the British Isles, but between 1955 and 1964, more than 250 were killed by Norwegian whalers operating in the Shetland Islands. Now only a few remain off the coast of northern Scotland.

The introduction of the book focuses on the growing practice of keeping orcas in captivity, particularly the exploits of American corporation SeaWorld and the story of Keiko, the whale who inspired the US drama Free Willy. Keiko was first captured in 1979 and imprisoned in Ontario and Mexico City before, on Erich's suggestion, his story formed the narrative of the 1993 hit film. At the end of the credits, a toll-free number invited the audience to pledge their support; over the next few months, an unprecedented response raised more than US$1 million, and a fund was started to return Keiko to the wild.

Erich says the public attention was beyond anything he could have imagined. "I was thinking that Hollywood attention might relieve Keiko's boredom," he comments, "but I never thought he would be released back into the wild."

Erich strongly condemns the practice of keeping whales in captivity, and cites the deaths of three trainers and one member of the public at the hands of captive killer whales since 1990. He says: "It remains true and notable that no killer whale has ever killed a human in the wild. But captivity is different, and more trainer deaths will no doubt occur as long as orcas are kept captive."

He stresses that Orca: The Whale Called Killer is not merely a text for academics: "It’s the story of our adventures and discoveries, complete with journal entries, investigative research into orca capture and captivity abuses, and tales about what we went through to learn about the orca world."

A dual citizen of Canada and America, Erich has been living in the UK since 1989, first residing in Edinburgh and North Berwick, Scotland, before moving to Bridport in 2013.

Killer whales: the facts

  • Killer whales are the top predator in the sea, with 48 teeth
  • Males grow to a length of 23 feet (7m) while females can reach 20 feet (6m)
  • Killer whales are among the ocean's fastest creatures, reaching speeds of up to 30mph
  • They are social mammals who eat, sleep, play and travel together in family groups known as pods
  • Killer whales possess all human senses except smell, but use sound to navigate, hunt and communicate
  • They have no enemies (except humans)