Do We Really Want To Be Orca Stalkers?

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Given the acoustic threats from shipping and Navy sonar, drastic reduction in the availability of Chinook salmon – the 78 remaining Southern Resident Killer Whales‘ preferred food –  and the continuing pollution of the Salish Sea, whale watching boats may be relatively the least harmful of all the threats the dwindling SRKWs face. But still, that doesn’t mean “no effects“. Isn’t it time we backed off and gave this endangered group of highly intelligent family bonded sea beings their lives back, and stopped stalking them every day we can find them?

Hakai Magazine, “On the Trail of Whales”, May 24, 2016:

Whale watching as a boat-based business dates to California, circa 1955, in the waters around San Diego, when a fishing boat skipper charged a buck per person to anyone wishing to see gray whales. Today, the whale watching industry is worth an estimated US $2.1-billion worldwide. In some countries, the industry polices itself, adhering (or not) to voluntary guidelines; in others, the government has regulations, though enforcement is spotty. Regulations govern certain actions, such as how close to whales a boat can operate: in the United States, it’s 183 meters (200 yards); Canada only has a guideline of 100 meters. Engine noise has scientists and whale lovers worried. There is no question about the negative short-term effects of noise pollution on whales and other cetaceans, including dolphins and porpoises, that communicate via underwater sound waves. The long-term effects of this bedlam below the waves, however, are a little fuzzier. Imagine living most of your day being followed by an out-of-tune mariachi band: a bit weird and kind of fun at first, but then annoying and, ultimately, nerve-[w]racking.

Published in the Times Colonist, Victoria, June 18, 2017:

The Editor, Times-Colonist:

June is Orca Month in Washington State, Oregon, BC and the City of Victoria. It’s time to consider some next steps in coexistence with orcas, the “minds in the waters”. From a possible population high of 98 in 1995 or possibly higher in periods before they could be accurately identified and counted (thanks to Dr. Michael Bigg) , the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) RKWs are now listed as “endangered” by the Canadian Species at Risk Registry and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The population now totals 78, with 24 in J Pod, 19 in K Pod, and 35 in L Pod.

We now know that orcas are family bonded, cognitively, culturally and  linguistically complex and are self-aware.  Their brains have structures for emotional learning that we do not have, and extensive acoustic and cognitive structures we do not fully understand. We know that SRKW pods swim up  to 156 km daily  in the Salish Sea and coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California.

Early captives taken from the wild and confined in marine zoos paid for what we learned from them with their lives, and their families and extended clan groups paid with failing viability of the population. (Local L pod orca Lolita Tokitae is the last living SRKW wild captive, held  since 1970 in the smallest tank in North America, the substandard Miami Seaquarium. ) We now may be watching extinction at work, due to increasing acoustic assaults, dwindling food supply and toxins discharged into their home.

Massive declines in salmon populations over the past 100 years have made it harder for the orcas to find food. Bodies of the males qualify as toxic waste, as they do not offload toxins in milk while nursing babies. Increasing ocean noise makes it harder for orcas to communicate with each other and to find food.

The remaining 78 SRKWs are surrounded by buzzing boats any time they can be found. Can anyone say “watching” them during every daylight hour as often as their location can be determined for every day of their lives in the “whale watching season”, April to October, is helping them?  Put yourself in the orcas’  place. It’s as if you had neighbours who never turned off the leaf blower, lawn mower, or the loud music. Studies have shown behavioural changes in response to both noise and the presence of boats.

One  next step in supporting the Southern Residents’ struggle to regain population viability is a retreat from entertaining ourselves by  chasing and stressing individuals of this endangered population in the wild. We now have the technology – underwater cameras and hydrophones– to see and hear them while allowing them the dignity of living their lives free from our desire to be entertained by them as they simply try to survive. Occasionally we can see orcas from a ferry. They can be seen from land, and organizations like The Whale Trail have identified likely spotting places.  It is time to allow accredited researchers only to have access to boat-based “whale watching” , and time to stop exploiting an endangered population as a commercial tourist attraction.

Diane McNally has followed orca research since 1968, and organizes annual  City of Victoria Orca Month events.