Photo credit: Mike Charest

Orcas have long been a symbol of the West Coast. YAM explores what the majestic mammal means to the area’s ecosystem, culture and sense of place.

by Athena McKenzie

On a sunny day in late May, the passengers on Eagle Wing Tours’ Wild 4 Whales boat cluster along the starboard side to watch two transient orcas, brothers T125A and T128, hang around the waters off Port Townsend after a successful seal hunt. As one of the huge Bigg’s whales lunges his head out of the water in a distinctive maneuver known as a spyhop, the crowd lets out a collective gasp. One guest wonders aloud if the naturalists on board ever lose that sense of awe.

“I’ve been doing this since 1997, and every time I go out, it’s like it’s the first time,” says Brett Soberg, co-owner/operator at Eagle Wing. “There’s just such a strong sense of amazement and connection.”

For many locals, this sense of connection reached an emotional peak in 2018 when southern resident orca Tahlequah (known as J35 to researchers) carried her stillborn calf on the surface of the Salish Sea for more than two weeks. This “tour of grief,” as it was called, touched hearts around the world and brought necessary attention to the challenges facing the southern resident population and their struggle for survival.

There are three known ecotypes of orcas in the North Pacific: resident, Bigg’s (transient) and offshore. Resident orcas travel in pods made up of several large extended family groups, and the southern residents are made up of three pods: J, Kand L pods. While Bigg’s and offshore orcas are true “killer whales,” hunting marine mammals and sharks, respectively, resident orcas have a diet that consists primarily of chinook salmon.

“You can tell what’s going on in an ecosystem based on your apex predators,” Soberg says. “From an ecological standpoint, they are our gauge as to whether the ecosystem is doing okay. We’ve got five species of whales that live in the same waters, who are exposed to the same pollution, vessel traffic and noise, and one of them is not doing well. The southern residents are picky eaters; they like their chinook salmon, and it has not served them well.

Symbols of the Sea

When the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) officially opened their new exhibition Orcas: Our Shared Future this spring, acting CEO Dr. Daniel Muzyka called it a “clear call-to-action,” asking guests to take note of what is happening to orcas. The exhibit brings together the work of scientists, Indigenous knowledge-keepers, poets, artists and storytellers to explore the ways orcas and humans are inextricably connected.

“I think that what people will come away with is an appreciation for how these seemingly different perspectives actually enhance each other,” says Lou-ann Neel, curator of Indigenous collections at RBCM.

Walking into the exhibit, guests pass through a striking lighted portal in the shape of an orca tail. Along with presenting a perfect Instagram opportunity, it’s a visual cue that you are entering a different world.

The first thing one sees is Mungo Martin’s orca feast dish, a large, lidded cedar bowl, similar to the ones used for Indigenous coastal celebrations and ceremonies, where it would brim with delicacies of the sea, including salmon. Along with symbolically displaying the wealth of the oceans, it would demonstrate the wealth and generosity of the chief.

“Part of my role was identifying which of the pieces from the existing collection would make the most sense to go into an exhibit like this, given the kinds of stories we want to tell, the connections that orcas have to many of the coastal Nations and the really big range of those different kinds of connections,” Neel says.“Where I’m from, which is the Kwagiulth of the Kwakwaka’wakw from the Northern Island, the old people talked about how the orca was a spirit carrier.When somebody passed away, the orcas would come to the waters surrounding the village to carry home the souls of those who had just departed.”

Other elders believed they would come back as another life form, and expressed desire to come back as an orca: “So there was a really big range, just in our tribe alone,” she says.

Other Nations, such as the Songhees, trace their connection back to the orca being their first ancestor.

“During the formation of our lands — and our country and our territories — the orcas were one of many creatures that removed the cloaks that made them an orca or a bear or an eagle, revealing the human self,” Neel says. “Those are the first ancestors of those villages.

In many local Indigenous cultures, whales are a powerful link between the natural and supernatural realms. Pictured: Cedar Screen by Bill Reid, 1968 (red cedar wood, 120 x 190 x 14.6 cm), Royal BC Museum.

The Human/Orca Bond

It could be argued these foundational beliefs grew from the inherent similarities between humans and orcas. Scientific studies show some evolutionary convergence, especially when it comes to personality traits, between killer whales and primates. A 2017 study from the University of Manchester looked at the advanced cognitive abilities required for complex social interactions. Like primates, killer whales live in tight-knit social groups; work together for mutual benefit; socially transfer hunting techniques; use complex vocalizations, including regional group dialects; play socially and have sex for pleasure.

“Physiologically, you look at a whale, and it’s so radically different from us,” says Dr. Gavin Hanke, curator of vertebrate zoology at RBCM. “But then you look behaviorally, and they’re not.”

Early in the exhibit, visitors are led into an underwater simulation, with three 3D-printed full-size orcas. The perspective, seeing the giant mammals as you might in their environment, is striking. There are also interactive stations that aim to translate orca experiences into human sensations, including Acoustic Turbulence, an interactive artwork that visualizes underwater noise pollution generated by large ocean vessels, created by local artist Colton Hash.

Noise pollution is particularly significant to the southern resident orcas. Residents use echolocation to locate their prey; they produce short bursts of clicks that reflect on the environment around them and produce a picture of their surroundings.

Among the displays are the skeletons of Rhapsody (J32) and her unborn calf. The 18-year-old southern resident killerwhale, who died in 2014, had been pregnant with a full-term fetus.A necropsy showed the whale had a very thin layer of blubber and had been starving.

“Rhapsody was a real wake-up call for me and was the one who made me go vegan,” Hanke says. “When the necropsy was finished, the tissues had to be disposed of in a landfill as toxic waste because of all the bioaccumulation through the food chain. She had been eating local salmon her entire life. I wanted to lower myself on the food chain.”

Rhapsody and Tahlequah are emblematic of the larger issues facing the southern resident whales. Southern resident females used to give birth once every five years, but their average birth frequency has dropped to once every 10 years. A2017 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that over two thirds of southern resident pregnancies failed between 2008 and 2014.

“Low availability of chinook salmon appears to be an important stressor among these fish-eating whales as well as a significant cause of late pregnancy failure,” reported the study, conducted by researchers from a number of conservation centers. “Results point to the importance of promoting chinook salmon recovery to enhance population growth of southern resident killer whales.”

Looking to the Future

Working with OceanWise, whale watchers identify and report all southern resident sightings through the WhaleReport app.

“Being on the water allows the whale-watching community to act as ‘sentinels of the sea,’” says Bill Moore, captain and senior mariner at Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures. “We are often the first to see a new birth or notice a possible health issue with a whale and we share this information with research organizations like the Center for Whale Research and relevant government agencies.”

The numbers show that the southern residents are not seen in local waters as often as they used to be. Before 2010, they were on the west side of San Juan Island 80 per cent of the time between May and October.

“That’s just what they did, because the fish were there,” Soberg of Eagle Wing says. “The last five to seven years have been really poor for southern resident killer sightings in the area. And we can only suspect that they’re finding food somewhere else.”

Conversely, the transients, who historically avoided the resident populations, have moved into the area, taking advantage of the healthy seal and sea lion populations.

“The transients are all over that like a dirty shirt, doing a fabulous job of keeping porpoise, seal and sea lion populations down at a natural equilibrium,” Soberg says. “There’s been a three to four per cent increase in population per year. And for an apex predator, that’s a big number.”

For the past four decades, the non-profit Center for Whale Research has collected detailed demographic data on the southern resident killer whale population, recording all observed births and deaths. Their website lists the southern resident population at 74 whales, as of December 31, 2020.

Earlier this year, the organization spotted Tahlequah with a new calf, dubbed J57, “swimming vigorously alongside its mother,” in waters near the border between B.C. and Washington. Three other new southern resident calves have also been spotted.

Does this suggest that things are getting better?

“There are signs for optimism; in general over the last several years, J pod is in better condition than in much of the last decade,” John Durban, professor at Oregon State University, recently toldThe Seattle Times.

He’s also a research associate with an orca health monitoring project, SR3 Sea Life Response + Rehab + Research.Using a drone (flown more than 100 feet above the whales), they document the body condition of the orcas. This year theyare seeing improvement in J pod.

There is hope, but Durban warns, “It is fragile.”

Orcas: Our Shared Future is an interactive exhibition featuring life-size orca replicas, fossils, films, objects from popular culture and original artwork from the Indigenous peoples of the North American west coast.

Pushing for Change

If there is another take-away from the Orcas: Our Shared Future exhibit, it is the potential for change. One of the areas it explores is how the Salish Sea is the historical “coast zero” for the market in captive orcas. And how those captives sparked a groundswell of change.

“I grew up in the era when we had Sealand and places like that, where orcas were held captive,” Neel says. “What I think is really interesting — and amazing — is that we’ve seen big change in my lifetime. If anyone takes away an extra message from the exhibit, I hope they are encouraged that by using our voices, we can get somewhere really good sometimes.

A pod of orcas.

Orca 101

Orcinus orca, often referred to as killer whales, are whales with teeth. They are the largest members of the dolphin family. While they are found in all of the world’s oceans, they prefer colder water temperatures, such as those here in the Salish Sea. Killer whales are apex predators — even above great white sharks, which are the main diet of offshore orcas.

Their distinctive white markings — on their bellies, behind their dorsal fins (called saddle patches) and on the sides of their heads (eye patches) — act like fingerprints and make individual orcas easy to identify.The southern residents have been studied for the past 35 years, and each individual orca has been named.

Three pods — J, K and L — make up the southern resident population, and, while they do mate among each other, they do not interbreed with the northern residents or the transients.the centre for whale research.

Photo credit: Prince of Whales – Whale Watching Adventures.

The Role of Whale Watchers

Bill Moore, captain and senior mariner at Prince of Whales, says whale watchers should be signatories to TransportCanada’s2021 Sustainable Whale Watching Agreement To Support The Recovery Of The Southern Resident Killer Whale, which aims to reduce physical and acoustic disturbance.

Along with educating guests, Moore believes the role of whale watchers includes research, conservation, awareness, role modelling, and reporting violators.

“By following the Be Whale Wise guidelines we help educate other boaters,” he says. “If we see an infraction, we are in a position to inform and educate the violator or report them.”

Dr. Gavin Hanke, curator of vertebrate zoology at RBCM, says working onOrcas: Our Shared Future helped change his perspective on the industry.

“A lot of people are completely anti-whale watching, but I’ve done a come about,” he says. “They do care and they are being careful. They’re often first on the water in many cases, so they see a lot of things that scientists would miss.”