For a minute, close your eyes and envision yourself on the deck of a 55-foot whale watch vessel in the San Juan Islands. We're looking at a pod of Transient killer whales about 300 yards off our bow, surfacing regularly as they move across the channel in search of their next meal. The water is glassy and the most beautiful green color, barely disturbed by the graceful movement of these animals as their dorsal fins slice across the surface like menacing black knives. The sun is gleaming overhead, the breeze is cold and refreshing, and we're surrounded by the beauty of the San Juan archipelago. We're talking about whales.
"What type of whales are we looking at right now? What is a Southern Resident Killer Whale? What is a Transient Killer Whale? How can you tell the difference?" That's a great question. They're two genetically distinct ecotypes of killer whales that we can see on a regular basis here in the Salish Sea. Southern Residents are salmon eaters, and they specifically prefer Chinook salmon. Transients are our marine mammal-eating killer whales, feasting primarily on harbor seals and porpoises. Each ecotype has very different behaviors, travel patterns, vocalizations, cultures, dietary preferences, and subtle variations in their physical appearance, specifically the markings of their saddle patch, the shape of the dorsal fin, and the size of their bodies.
Transients are pictured in the top two photos. Residents are pictured below.
"Why are some of these whales dying and some of them doing quite well, and what's the talk about some of them being endangered?" Our Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) are very much endangered, whereas the Transients are not. There are only 77 Residents left in the population. Since the 1970s, the population of SRKWs has shown periods of both growth and decline. These fluctuations probably can't be pinned down to one factor, as the whales are affected by a number of different threats. Toxic pollution, vessel noise and traffic, and prey availability are all interconnected factors that affect these whales. Because of changing age demographics and gender ratios, social dynamics like mating, group foraging, and social care of calves are also greatly affected. The Residents, as salmon eaters, are dealing with a huge decline in the salmon population here in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the Salish Sea and Columbia River basin. Malnutrition could be a big part of it as well.
"Oh gosh, these whales are starving? Why can't they just eat seals like the Transients? You said there were hundreds of thousands of seals out here!" The SRKWs are fish-specialists that eat salmon almost exclusively. These dietary preferences are a huge part of their culture that's been passed down from generation to generation. It's not in their nature to eat mammals.
"Wow. So you're saying that we might watch the extinction of this ecotype in the next several years." It's heartbreaking to think about, but because SRKWs don't interbreed or interact with other communities, they're dealing with a very small gene pool. As apex predators, they have incredibly high toxin levels in their tissues that could cause a variety of health issues. And in general, there's just so much we don't know about them. We can do our best to help the environment and protect their habitat, but if we can't turn things around in time, we might not be seeing our Southern Residents for much longer.
Working as a whale watch guide constantly causes whirlwind tides of emotion. The ebb...and the flood. Some days are just so right, where I get to chat with inquisitive folks who are curious and genuinely concerned about the fate of the orcas and our oceans. We have some beautiful, respectful, meaningful encounters with whales and leave the boat with smiles and maybe even a shot or two of a spy hop.
Other days, my heart seems to have fallen through the hull. I see whales that look ill because they aren't getting enough to eat...or I just stop seeing certain whales at all. I try hard to motivate and cultivate passion in our passengers, hoping that they'll walk off the boat feeling moved and inspired to make efforts to help save the orcas - but perhaps that doesn't hit home. I see swarms of boats cruising up and down channels, some seemingly without a clue how to drive in these marine-mammal inhabited waters. And I start to get hopeless and wonder, does anyone care anymore? I know that there are people who care, I do. I'm lucky enough to be surrounded at work by like-minded individuals who are doing everything in their power to save our seas. I've found a great circle of ocean-lovers who are fighting the same fight, each in their own way.
I love to talk about these animals, and it's nice that I've found a place where I can make a meaningful living doing this. But the exposure I am lucky enough to receive to these incredible populations of killer whales means that I deal with some horrific truths on a daily basis. We, as a society, are causing the demise of an entire population of killer whales. We're polluting the waters and dragging huge barges and oil rigs across the surface of their home. We're taking away their food supply through dams and overfishing. We're blasting noise underwater and increasing shipping traffic. And we're slowly watching these whales die.
We've had 6 Southern Residents pass away this past year, dropping the total count from 83 to 77. One of the females, (J28) Polaris, passed away with her newest calf, (J54) Dipper. She was in poor condition last summer, and the few times we saw the Residents in the Salish Sea in 2016, we saw her struggling to surface and take breaths. (J14) Samish was another J-pod matriarch who passed away around the same time. (L95) Nigel was a resident male who passed away in April 2016, most likely due to a fungal infection linked to the application of a satellite tag. We can't forget Granny, either. J2 has been the leader of the Southern Resident orca community for decades, but she passed away last winter. She was the oldest known orca in the world, a living legend.
Like I mentioned above, the Southern Residents are endangered. They are a unique community of whales that eats only fish, primarily Chinook salmon. This diet is a cultural tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, mother to calf. These whales evolved side-by-side with salmon in the Pacific Ocean, and they learned to select the fattiest fish for the main portion of their diet - Chinook or King Salmon. They knew where to find them in years of plenty, and leaner years. For the past century, Granny led the Southern Residents and acted as the keeper of knowledge about where to find salmon at certain times of the year.
Without Granny, what happens now that every year seems to be a lean year in terms of salmon availability? The Southern Residents are spread far in wide in search of food. We've only seen them a handful of times this year, perhaps 7 days total throughout an entire summer. Five years ago, we saw them almost daily.
Members of J, K, and L-pod near San Juan Island.
Transients are not endangered. They appear to be doing quite well in terms of the population increase, and we've had a great season this year in terms of transient sightings. There's hundreds of thousands of harbor seals and porpoises around all year long, and the Transients are thriving on them. We've seen lots of newborn Transient calves. But these whales don't interbreed or interact with the Southern Residents, so they can't really help out their salmon-eating counterparts.
So, what can we do? I can't just stand here and continue watching these whales die. I've only been doing this for two years, and they've already woven their way into my heartstrings. Imagine those folks who have lived in the San Juans for 60 or 70 years - they've watched these whales grow up. They're almost like family. These whales are too magnificent, too important, too necessary, to lose. But where do we start? It's so easy to get overwhelmed in the fight for environmental and marine conservation. But we have to keep going. One step at a time.
I've put some resources below to help those of you who are interested in taking a step forward in SRKW conservation with me. We can do this!
- 10 ways to help save Puget Sound’s resident orcas TODAY! https://www.sanjuansafaris.com/whale-report/10-ways-help-save-puget-sound%E2%80%99s-resident-orcas-today
- How to Help the Orcas: The Whale Museum https://whalemuseum.org/pages/how-to-help-the-orcas
- A Leader Lost: What's Next for the Southern Resident Orcas? http://us.whales.org/blog/2017/01/leader-lost-whats-next-for-southern-resident-orcas