Orcas: Vanishing Icons of the Pacific Northwest
When you think about Orcas in the context of Animal Rights, there are a few individuals who immediately come to mind. Regardless of when you joined the movement, undoubtedly you have heard of the captive Orca at Miami Seaquarium, Lolita—or Tokitae, as she was originally named, which is a native Coast Salish greeting meaning “nice day, pretty colors.” She has spent nearly half a century living in abysmal conditions in captivity despite decades of activism, outreach, demands, and sea sanctuary plans to bring her home. If you’re like me, “Free Lolita” has been part of your activism toolkit for as long as you’ve been involved with speaking on behalf of captive cetaceans worldwide. Tilikum became a household name when in 2010 he killed a trainer at SeaWorld in Florida and then again in 2013 upon the release of the documentary film Blackfish, which exposed to the world many of the evils of captivity for these incredibly intelligent, social creatures. If you haven’t seen this powerful film, please find a friend with Netflix and watch it. It will give you a great overview of why captivity is so cruel.
Something the film touches on is the story of how Tilikum came to be in captivity and the dark history of the captive era in Washington State. n conversations about Orcas and other marine mammals, I’m often struck by people’s assumption that if they are living free in the wild and are protected from being hunted, they are safe. Tragically, this is far from the actual truth. While the Nnorthern and Ssouthern Rresident killer whale populations are now somewhat protected from human greed within U.S. and Canadian waters, we are still at significant risk of losing these iconic pods within our lifetime.
The Pacific Northwest observes June as Orca Awareness Month and offers educational opportunities to learn more about our Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) and the three challenges they are facing today: toxic waters, lack of food supply, and ocean noise.
The SRKW are often cited as some of the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, because of human activities that pollute the Salish Sea. Contaminants in Puget Sound come from agricultural runoff, litter, pesticides, marine debris, and other sources. Fish absorb contaminants, which are then passed on to Orcas and other marine life who eat these fish (and to humans who consume fish). Scientists have speculated contaminates have been a factor in the decline of live calf births among female killer whales of reproductive age, most notably with the recent death of Lulu, one of the only remaining whales left in the United Kingdom resident pod. Without healthy reproductive females bearing healthy calves, the chance that these pods will survive long term is dismal. The toxic environment also could be a contributing factor to the fact that almost all calves born during the Orca baby boom are males. There hasn’t been a surviving calf birthed in K-Pod since 2011.
One of the most critical dangers facing our SRKW right now is an extreme lack of their preferred species of salmon:chinook. Both the Northern and Southern Resident killer whale populations are unique fish-eating mammals. While our neighborhood whales eat a small variety of other salmon species, they depend on healthy chinook salmon runs for more than 80 percent of their diet, and thus for their survival. These residents should not be confused with their thriving mammal-eating relatives who regularly inhabit our waters and who are often referred to as Bigg’s killer whales or “transients.”
Overfishing is a global problem that tremendously affects our local SRKW. Lack of healthy and abundant fish stocks in the ocean leads to the whales slowly starving, more in some years than others. Another literal barrier preventing healthy chinook salmon runs in the PNW are the intact Lower Snake River Dams. One organization, Dam Sense, is working solely on bringing down these dams. It has an abundance of information about why this is crucial to the survival of the Chinook salmon and the SRKW. I saw a screening of the film Dam Nation, and it really opened my eyes to how severe an issue this is for ecosystems around the country. Bringing down the dams is just one way to help, along with not consuming salmon, and educating the people in your life about these issues.
Marine life worldwide and right here at home also face oceanic noise pollution. I was in a workshop last year where I saw the film Sonic Sea. The main takeaway, outside of the startling statistics about shipping traffic, is the simple fact that while oceanic noise pollution is a dreadful modern experience for marine life, it is also human caused and can be reversed simply by stopping the action that makes the noise. Unlike pollutants which can live in an environment well beyond our lifetimes, noise can be reduced and eliminated in marine environments by taking the cause of the noise out of the ocean! This is easier said than done, but it is possible to make even small contributions if you engage in marine vessel travel. Lime Kiln State Park has been noted as the best place to see Orcas in the wild from the shore – and believe me, it is! I have been mega fortunate to have seen them twice in just three short years of calling Washington State home, and it has truly been a magical experience. These sightings have involved several days of picnics and patience as you wait and see if that day will be the day they choose to swim by. Sadly, the ocean noise in the Salish Sea becomes all too apparent when your relaxing day on the bluffs is interrupted by the constant and annoying vessel noise from passing boats and container ships. If they are that loud and annoying to our human ears on land, just imagine what it is like for those whales who call these waterways home.
When advocating for animals, I try to learn about the specific motivations and history behind how a mainstream practice came to be (you can apply this to learning about human-based oppressions, too). When you sit down to comb through any of the materials I have presented here, I encourage you to follow the money trail to understand how, even decades after the last Orca was captured in Washington State, human greed and global commerce continue to contribute to the demise of these stunning creatures. A few of the books I recommend as a starting point are Puget Sound Whales for Sale, The Lost Whale, and Into Great Silence. They will all break your heart in various ways, but I have been endlessly inspired to learn more and do more on behalf of those who still need our voice. None of us can individually save the world, but we can all do small things every day to make this planet better. Now, more than ever, it’s important to help our fellow humans and nonhuman animals in whatever big or small way we can to ease the burden or struggle of those with whom we share this world.
When I moved to Washington State, I was happy to have so many tremendous resources available that are working toward the ultimate survival of these beloved whales. I have been able to hear some pretty amazing speakers and to meet others working on behalf of these whales and other marine life. Attending lectures also offers the opportunity to ask these organizations how they are crossing the intersections with other human- and animal-based oppressions. We know, as animal advocates, that much of our work crosses the boundaries of single issues. Having dialogue with caring individuals can help us bridge the gap between caring about iconic species like Orcas and caring about animals deemed unworthy of any protections, like chickens.
Some of my favorite organizations are: Orca Network, The Center for Whale Research, Cascadia Research Collective, The Whale Trail, The American Cetacean Society Puget Sound Chapter, and even Washington State Ferries! The M/V Tokitae is a ferry named in honour of our beloved whale who was stolen from her mother, Ocean Sun, in Puget Sound over 46 years ago. On the ferry walls is educational information regarding her capture and subsequent life of captivity as the lone Orca more commonly known as Lolita, so every single passenger riding that ferry can learn about her tragic plight.
I encourage you to do your own research and find organizations that align with your individual interests and ethics and learn more about the great work being done on behalf of humans and nonhuman animals in Washington State, the Pacific Northwest, and beyond. Thank you to Northwest Animal Rights Network for providing a platform to share this information.
Other organizations that may be of interest are: Wild Whales, OrcaLab, the Orca Project, Orca Conservancy, Seal Sitters, the SeaDoc Society, Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative (SRKWCSI), Orca Salmon Alliance, The Whale , and the Langley Whale Center.
For more information regarding Northern and Southern Resident killer whale protections in Washington State and British Columbia as they pertain to our respective governments, please visit:
- The EPA’s page on Southern Resident killer whales.
- NOAA Fisheries’ timeline for the Southern Resident killer whales
- NOAA Fisheries’ status on the Endangered Species Act for these whales
- Washington State law regarding killer whale protections
- The Canadian government’s information on killer whales
- Canada’s recovery strategy for resident killer whales
- Washington’s vessel regulation protecting Southern Resident killer whales
Photo: Christopher Michel, Creative Commons
Author: Molly Jordon