The latest news headlines: A dead baby orca. A grieving mother orca. A pursuing public. Why do we even see photographs in the media of yet another tragedy befalling the endangered Southern Resident orca whales?
This alone indicates intrusive human behavior. The Southern Residents don’t need our photo-op adoration, nor our grieving. They need us to get the hell out of their home waters. On the other hand, most ironically, seeing the photo will perhaps stimulate some action.
Over the past two weeks, I attended two events impacting the future of the Southern Residents. The first was on July 12 in Seattle. I was an observer at the day-long meeting of the Vessel Impact Working Group—an advisory committee to the Governor’s Task force on saving the SRKWs. The other was last week at Superpod 6, held for several days at the San Juan Community Theater in Friday Harbor.
The Vessel Impact Working Group includes 25 people from various areas of concern regarding vessel impact on the Southern Residents. There are three people from San Juan Island on the committee: Lovel Pratt of Friends of the San Juan’s, Deborah Giles of the UW Marine Labs, and Jeff Friedman of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
It was a six-hour meeting during which there was an array of concerns, opinions, and scientific information discussed. The most personal and passionate testimony to the ways in which the SRKWs are corralled and coerced in their waters came from Capt. Alan Myers, the toughest guy in the room. He was in full uniform—and fully loaded. Captain Myers is with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; he was speaking about his experiences working on the waters to enforce the distance requirements for whale-watching boats. His heartfelt pain at witnessing the harassment of the SRKWs in their own waters spoke volumes.
At the other end of the spectrum, Lovel Pratt, in full science mode, presented her concerns about the consequences of a bitumen oil spill in the Salish Sea. Two days earlier she sent the group an official email regarding the impacts of the Canadian Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project which would generate an additional 696 tanker transits through the waters of the Salish Sea—complete with science references. Vessel Traffic Risk Assessment
At Superpod 6 there were two days of presentations from people around the world, including talks about Keiko, Corky and Lolita—all individual orca whales with rescue stories that either sadly failed, as with Keiko, or are pending, as with Lolita. There were presentations about dams, salmon, the Whale Sanctuary Project, orca scat and orca teeth. There was a spirited sense of reunion amongst everyone present. There were even daily jaunts out on whale-watching boats. This was jaw-dropping to me. The science is all too abundant and clear regarding the negative impact of boat noise and disturbance on the Southern Resident orca whales’ echo-location ability to forage, to communicate, and to navigate. With the SRKWs facing imminent extinction, why would such joy rides occur?
During his Superpod presentation, Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, said that the issue of boat noise and interference was “BS.” Yet Mr. Balcomb’s name is cited on a recent science paper that clearly testifies to the pervasive negative impacts of boat noise and interference. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-14471-0
A quote from that paper: “Land-based observations have shown that SRKWs reduce their time spent feeding in the presence of boats by 25%. Vessels are present 85% of the daytime, and SRKWs are foraging in the presence of vessels an estimated 78% of that time.”
The science is irrefutable. Noise and disturbance cut down the foraging time of the Southern Residents. And their core critical habitat, off the west side of San Juan Island, has become a playground for the noise and disturbance of the whale-watching industry. How is it possible that an unregulated industry can exist with the sole purpose of finding, pursuing, and thereby interfering with a critically endangered species that is trying to feed themselves in their core critical habitat?
Dr. Chris Clark, an international acoustic expert, was interviewed by KING-TV in March 2017 about the impact of noise on the SRKWs. He also spoke at Brickworks in Friday Harbor. His interview and his animation re: the “acoustic hell” the whales experience in the presence of motorized vessels can be seen at: http://www.king5.com/tech/science/environment/animation-shows-boats-make-acoustic-hell-for-orcas/427013849
One afternoon during Superpod week, I went out to the westside for a breath of air—just in time to see J-pod swimming by about half-a-mile offshore from the County Park. Visitors to the park were thrilled to see them. I was not. I felt like Scrooge at the seashore. I also felt speechless about it all. Throughout the 90s, watching the Southern Residents was a passion. They spent hours at a time lolling about foraging in the kelp beds close to shore on the west side. Once I watched two pods greeting each other with great exuberance on the shores of the Land Bank. The Southern Residents owned the waters back then. They foraged and rested without interference. They were home.
Sometime during the past ten years, I stopped going out to see the Southern Residents. It was too painful because of the ways in which they were chased and curtailed by boats. They no longer stopped to forage and rest. They were passing through, not coming home. They became gaunt and started to die. Their diet of Chinook salmon decreased—but the whale-watching boats increased. The SRKWs are now facing imminent extinction. Whenever I see them, that is what I know, and it is heartbreaking. Watching them feels like a violation, especially when they are surrounded by boats.
Attending Superpod 6 was informative in some ways and discouraging in other ways. There was disturbing information about China building huge tanks to house orcas for entertainment. There was much discussion about the lack of salmon and the necessity to take down dams. There was an emotional presentation about Keiko, the orca whale star of the film, “Free Willy.” Keiko was captured in 1979 in waters off Iceland. In 1982, he was sold to an aquarium in Niagara Falls, Canada. In 1985, he was sold to an aquarium in Mexico. It was here where he was discovered as the perfect lead for “Free Willy.” In the attempt to give him back his freedom, a tremendous amount of money was raised, and an extraordinary plan was developed to return him to his home waters. In 1995, Keiko was flown home to waters off Iceland. After seven years of training to be free, he was fully released into the wild in 2002; but he was unable to thrive in the wild and died in 2003.
There was a report about Corky, the longest captive orca in the world, and a preview of a film about Granny, who died in 2016 at an age estimated to be anywhere between 65 and 105 years-old.
All these orca whales were personified and revered as individuals. I wondered if that was why the critically endangered 75 Southern Resident orca whales were being so easily exploited. They were still wild. As individuals, they did not raise the same passion as those that had been captured and “tamed.” It appears that being independent of human beings makes them less important. They have market value in the tourist industry. And that, evidently, comes first.
There was much camaraderie and celebration amongst the Superpod group, Why, I wondered, could they not apply their passion for whales towards really saving the Southern Resident orcas? It takes time for dams to come down and Chinook salmon to recover. But the simple act of enabling the SRKWs to access food free of interference can happen immediately. Maybe a moratorium on whale-watching for a few years. Maybe supporting the Whale Protection Zone petition to NOAA. Maybe the development of a permit system to control the impact of the whale-watching industry. Maybe all three.
At the end of the week, social media inadvertently played a role in my own reflections about my Superpod experience. There was a quote circulating on Facebook from Gus Speth, the co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he served as lead attorney from 1970-1977. Speth went on to become Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the executive Office of President Carter. He was a Professor of Law at Georgetown University and in 1982 he founded the World Resources Institute. Speth also served as a senior advisor to Bill Clinton’s transition team and chaired a U.S. task force which produced the report, “Partnership for Sustainable Development: A New U.S. Agenda.”
Gus Speth’s words on social media were: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy…and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation—and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
If we, as a small county of concerned residents, can do everything possible to save the SRKWs from extinction, perhaps we could teach scientists, and the rest of the world, an invaluable lesson.
Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."