Do We Really Want To Be Orca Stalkers?

howard slide 1

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.

June 3/17: Book Display for Orca Month Greater Victoria Public Library

Proclamation 2017

Thank you to Mayor Lisa Helps and Victoria City Council for the Second Proclamation of Orca Month in the City of Victoria!



Thank you to the Greater Victoria Public Library, Main Branch, for the space to set up the display! That is a Chinook salmon tail – Chinook is the SRKW’s favourite  food –  behind the books.

2017 06 03 Display top shelf

Beneath the Surface: John Hargrove, 2015

Orca, the Whale Called Killer: Erich Hoyt, 1981

Into Great Silence: Eva Saulitis, 2013

Death at Sea World: David Kirby, 2012

Killer Whales: John Ford, Graeme Ellis, Ken Balcomb, 1994

2017 06 03 Display mid shelf

Proclamation, Province of British Columbia, and City of Victoria

Orcas In Our Midst III: Howard Garrett, 2011

Spyhop photo credit: Alexandra Morton

Listening to Whales: Alexandra Morton, 2002

Three Brothers photo credit: Maria Chantelle Tucker (Peronino)

Marine Mammals of the Pacific Northwest: Pieter Folkens, 2001

Retire Lolita!

2017 06 03 Display mid shelf 2

Orca Chief: Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd, 2015

Canadian Mint,  Orca coin package, 2011

Canadian Geographic : Bruce Obee, 1992

Orca shirt: Orca Network, The Orca Project, Voice of the Orcas websites


2017 06 03 Display bottom shelf

Granny’s Clan: Dr. Sally Hodson, 2012

Orca temporary tattoo: Roger Purdue

Fragile Waters: 2014

Orcas In Our Midst II: Howard Garrett, 2004

Orca card: Sue Coccia

Orca design sweater: Cowichan knitters, 1994



2017 06 03 Display List To Whales

L pod orca Lolita Tokitae has been captive in a substandard tank since 1970. This, below, is her prison where she lives, instead of her ocean home, with her family and mother Ocean Sun, about 85,  who still swims by Victoria BC, and throughout  the family’s territory.  Come to FernFest June 17, and sign an individual letter to Miami Seaquarium, asking them – again – to do the right thing and let Lolita Tokitae return to her home waters in a sea pen, cared for by humans for as long as she wants that.


Lolita MSQ tank

Lolita Tokitae’s prison, Miami


Tilikum: The Long Horror Is Over. RIP.


Tilikum, a life stolen. Photo by Colleen Gorman,  Tilikum’s angel on earth.


Page will be updated as news comes in.

Six SRKW deaths, young and old, in 2016.This fragile endangered population cannot withstand this kind of disaster. There are as of January 6, 2016  78 SRKWs left, from an historic possible high of 200 before Pacific Northwest wild captures decimated the family groups.

Just a few days ago, the announcement that Granny, Southern Resident matriarch, leader, historian, is presumed dead at about 104, not having been seen since October 2016. Now Tilikum, wild caught in Iceland, not a Southern Resident, but so well known all over the world as a result of activists’ work (eg Colleen Gorman of The Orca Project), and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish“.

“When he was no more than a two-year-old baby, Tilikum was ripped from his ocean home off the coast of Iceland in November 1983. He would never see his family, feel the sea water on his skin or experience freedom again. Instead, he was sold to the highest bidder. “

“Isolated by himself in a tank smaller than the average backyard pool where he could barely move or turn, much less swim, Tilikum was used as an involuntary sperm donor in SeaWorld’s artificial-insemination breeding program, to make more little orcas to entertain tourists. I won’t even go into the degrading details of how that was carried out. To his captors he was a commodity, not a sentient being.”



Degrading details have been documented. Interspecies sexual abuse at SeaWorld.Orcas trained from adolescenceto accept hand jobs.

Howard Garrett of Whidbey Island-based Orca Network (Garrett appeared in Blackfish):“He led a terrible tragic life in that tiny little metal cage in Victoria … then at Sea World he was isolated and tormented by some of the dominant females the entire time he was in captivity,” he said. ” He was bored out of his gourd. I can’t believe he could live that way. There’s nothing around. It has concrete walls. It’s like living in a hall of mirrors with nothing to do but float listless. How bored could he have been? With a brain four times the size of ours that is constantly processing, but nothing to process. How did he even survive that long?” Garrett said that such conditions are conducive to creating psychosis in orcas. Especially since they are not evolved to be in such conditions.

Paul Spong, founder of the OrcaLab research station on northern Vancouver Island, followed Tilikum’s life: “In a way it comes as a relief. Tilikum has been in captivity for such a long time,” he said. “His life, I would characterize it as a total misery in many ways….He was kept right at the beginning in terrible circumstances in a tiny pool while his captors tried to sell him,” Spong said.

Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite on Friday mourned the loss of SeaWorld’s Tilikum, a killer whale who she said died a “martyr.”

<i>Blackfish</i> Director Calls SeaWorld’s Killer Whale Tilikum a ‘Martyr’

Sandra Pollard for World Cetacean Alliance:

#IAmTilikum #FinallyFree (video below made when Tilikum’s health started to fail)

Colleen Gorman and John Kielty’s The Orca Project (started it all):

The news, when it finally came, was not a surprise but it still stung. On January 6th, 2017, Sea World announced that Tilikum, the dark star of the 2013 ground-breaking documentary Blackfish, had died.

The “Blackfish” documentary argued that killer whales, when in captivity, become more aggressive toward humans and each other. After the documentary played at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on CNN, several entertainers pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks and animal rights activists increased their demonstrations outside the parks.

SeaWorld: Tilikum, orca that killed trainer, has died

Candace Calloway Whiting: “His iconic life represented all that was wrong about keeping these majestic whales in tanks. Rest in peace, Tilikum.”

Tilikum was a wild-caught orca taken from his family in Icelandic waters when he was just two years old and he’s spent the last 34 years confined. Read about his tragic life in captivity.

Film-maker Gabriela Cowperthwaite then created a documentary about the treatment of orcas in captivity. The film, Blackfish, alleged attempted coverups of orca attacks on humans, which it said were caused by the conditions of captivity causing psychosis in the animals.

John Hargrove, former SeaWorld orca trainer (appears in Blackfish): “He lived a tortured existence in captivity. I think all the whales do, but if you had to pinpoint one of them, hands down I would say Tilikum.

“Tilikum’s life was so incredibly tragic. He lived a horrible life, he caused unspeakable pain, so at least his chapter is over,” Cowperthaite said.
“Tilikum lived longer than almost any other captive male orca has, but his life was one of deprivation and difficulty,” Animal Welfare Institute marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose said in a news release. “It is long since time for SeaWorld to begin serious consideration of retiring all of its orcas to seaside sanctuaries. Forcing these large, intelligent, socially complex animals to live out their sometimes decades-long lives in barren concrete tanks must end.”
Tilikum’s death is significant — his life, even more so. Over the past three decades, Tilikum has grown to become arguably the most famous animal in the world. Torn from his mother’s side off the coast of Iceland in 1983, he came to symbolize everything that was wrong with captivity.
Cowperthwaite said she hopes Tilikum’s life and death will sway the marine park to finally release all of its animals into the wild or into coastal sanctuaries. “His purpose in some way was hopefully to turn his tragic life into a lesson,” she said. “He can truly be an ambassador for what’s wrong with having animals in captivity.”

Steve Huxter (former orca trainer at Sealand of the Pacific in Oak Bay, near Victoria BC, where Tilikum was transferred after capture in Icelandic waters, taken from his mother at two years of age)  remembers Tilikum as gentle and eager to interact:

SeaWorld has announced that Tilikum, a killer whale with a troubled local past, died Friday morning.

Steve Huxter, former orca trainer (includes video of orca aggression from various orcas in captivity) remembers Tilikum :


My students and I say goodbye to Tilikum, sold and moved at midnight 1992