Armchair Birding: Saving Orcas by Naming Orcas

Armchair Birding: Saving Orcas by Naming Orcas

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by Anne Kilgannon – Recently we were in a park overlooking Active Pass*, about to return to our car and the next activity when a strange—sensation—vibration—surge—pulled our eyes back to the water. Seals were skittering in all directions, gulls wheeled overhead, and there in the waves was a pod of at least a dozen orca whales. Surfacing, blowing, dorsal fins held high, powerful bodies pushing through the water, they dominated the strait. Everyone in the vicinity stopped and gaped and gasped. The moment of their passage couldn’t have been more than a few minutes but we were all spellbound; we had been granted a very special boon. Long after they had passed out of sight we could feel their presence, their power. It was much more visceral than seeing them on television in a nature show; I realized I really knew very little about them at all.

The library had several books on orcas: one I dipped into, Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us, by David Neiwert was very helpful, and another that riveted my full attention, Puget Sound Whales for Sale: The Fight to End Orca Hunting, by Sandra Pollard. I learned that the whales we had seen that day would have likely belonged to the northern resident group. Like the southern resident group that live in Puget Sound waters, they chiefly eat Chinook and chum salmon and other fish, unlike the Transient, or Bigg’s, group, who depend on seals and other marine mammals for their sustenance….although the seals present in the water that day were taking no chances. There are also Offshore orcas, a different group.

These groups, identified as ectotypes, overlap in some areas but do not interbreed, have different diets, and different vocalizations, in short, different cultures…not so different from humans.  I had not fully realized before that orcas were so distinct, that if we—terrible thought—lost all our local whales that other whales could not replace them. As our numbers of orcas swimming these waters plummet, we are facing extinction in real time. My thoughts flitted to marbled murrelets; how we are fast losing them in our area too, but how they continue to survive in other places, but that is not “good enough.” It was never an answer. I had a whole new set of questions and concerns.

The orca lifespan almost matches the human one, and their life cycle and reproductive patterns are also not dissimilar. One crucial and fascinating fact is that orca families are matrilineal, headed by grandmother whales which, studies suggest, live on well past their reproductive prime and take on leadership roles to pass on their knowledgeand accumulated experience to the next generations. This is a rarity in the animal world and helps account for their intelligence and complex group dynamics.

Learning about this close family relationship added to the pain and poignancy of reading about the relentless capturing of orca whales in Puget Sound in the 1960s and 1970s. Pollard spares her readers no details of the exhaustive chasing, cruel corralling and netting of the orcas, and then the wrenching separating out of the young orcas from their family groups and remorseless removal for sale, while forlorn and helpless grandmothers, parents and siblings circle and cry out in fear and longing for their lost family members. From Whidbey Island right into our local Budd Bay, the hunters pursued the orca families to provide whales, ostensibly for so-called research and public education, but really for entertainment and profit for Seaworld-type aquariums and tourist attractions. To me, the worst part of the story was how many of the whales died within months of their captivities, all that pain for nothing, yet lasting for generations of disruption and destruction for the whale families that were torn asunder.

Finally, thanks to a growing wave of awareness of the horrors involved and some valiant work by local heroes and advocates, the hunts were stopped. And true research began. In recent decades we have learned so much more about the nature of orcas, of how they live and what they need to flourish. Fear based in myth has been replaced by awe. These are astonishing beings, indeed.

Now the danger is more insidious: the pollution and other degradations of Puget Sound waters that impact the orcas directly and indirectly as it decimates their food sources. And the intrusive noise of too many ships and whale-watching boats that interfere with whale communication and hunting techniques. And now the uncertainties of climate change that play havoc with ocean currents and water quality, and related issue of the presence of plastic waste in ocean waters. News reports of dying orcas trouble our hearts and minds. The new issues are much less visible than boats bearing down on hapless orcas before our eyes and therefore much more difficult to address. The present drama calls for new solutions.

Still, as Crosscut reporter Mark Leiren-Young writes in his June 24, 2019 posting, “Orcas: Call them by their names,” we can begin with understanding and empathy and galvanize action by acknowledging our sameness, our fellow creatureliness and our growing affection. He notes: “Jane Goodall changed the world by naming the animals she studied. People who had never cared about apes quickly connected with stories about David Greybeard, Flo and Flint.”  The same could be true for orcas. He meticulously names all the southern resident whales now living. (See: https://crosscut.com/2019/06/orcas-call-them-their-names) And then he adds: “One real action we all can take during Orca Action Month is to learn those names — and we can stop waiting six months, as we usually do, to see if newborn orca calves survive and give the latest member of J-Pod a name.” Ominously, Leiren-Young leaves us with the words of whale researcher Alexandra Morton, “If we lose the southern residents, it will be the first extinction where every individual’s name was known.”Let’s use the power of that insight to make a difference for these spectacular beings. It goes without saying that tackling the issues that threaten southern resident orcas will reverberate throughout the web of life and rebound for the good of herons, ducks, cormorants, gulls—and ourselves. Come to think of it, everything has a name even if we don’t yet know it; let’s make every one count, murrelet, orca, salmon…  (photo courtesy Robert Pittman, Wikimedia Commons)

 *Active Pass is a strait of water flowing between two of the southern Gulf Islands, Mayne and Galiano, that empties into Georgia Strait. The Gulf Islands are geographically an extension of the San Juan Islands, but are located in Canadian waters. It is a designated Important Bird Area and is frequented by Orca whales. To see a video of whales in these waters, see:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfyVMWuUQnw. To learn more about birds in these waters, see:  http://www.activepassiba.ca/