A baby orca was born off the coast of Seattle, and researchers suggest that the mother had some help from her peers: orca midwives. The baby orca has bite marks on it that suggest that other orcas helped pull it out of the womb; further, the orca who is currently the "acting" mother (taking care of the baby) is far older than most reproductively active orcas. She may well be helping out the true mother (and her daughter) by babysitting the new calf until the mother can recover from the difficult birth.

Far-fetched? Perhaps. But I am inclined to think not. Remember, orcas have cultural fads, rich communication, sinister and calculating hunting strategies, and are widely recognized to have an "astounding potential for intelligence". And don't forget the near-unbelievable stories about the orca named Old Tom and his companions (this is really worth a read).

More directly relevant is a heart-wrenching anecdote that indicates that orcas have a rich understanding of birth (thus making the idea of orca midwivery even less far-fetched). I've written about it previously, but here's the text:

"...an early marine center in Florida housed a killer whale couple which finally became pregnant after many unsuccessful tries. About 11 months into the pregnancy, the father — as was customary for him — ran his nose along the mother’s belly, emitting high-frequency clicks. Suddenly he froze in the water, then swam pell-mell against the side of the pool, repeatedly smashing his head against the wall, and later became apathetic and melancholy. After a few days, their baby emerged stillborn.

The best explanation is sort of amazing: The killer whale father performed regular sonograms to check on his baby, realized it was no longer alive and sank into self-destructive depression."

It is dangerous to rely on anecdotes, but this one falls in line with a wealth of research indicating that orcas are Einsteins of the animal kingdom. As the literature shows, they are sometimes cruel and alien, and sometimes heart-wrenchingly human. But they are unquestionably intelligent.