There is mourning on the Olympic Peninsula. Another baby orca has died, likely due to starvation. It is not possible to watch its mother pushing her dead calf thru the water without feeling her pain.
The orcas are in trouble.
A milky pastel sky, instead of the familiar yahoo-blue of Moab. Horizons feathered with evergreen forests and mountain peaks instead of redrock teeth. For the summer, I have traded lizards for the banana slugs, hydrangeas and orcas of the Pacific Northwest.
Orcas! These magnificent animals, iconic elements of the Salish Sea, delight and intrigue us with their mystery. We catch glimpses of their black-and-white patent leather bodies when they surface and speculate about their lives below the waves. Members of the dolphin family, their triangular fins and patterns on the saddle patch behind the fin allow observers to identify individuals.
Scientists have identified three distinct types of these toothed whales. Best known are the southern resident orcas who live in the semi-protected waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca surrounding the San Juan Islands. They eat fish (chinook salmon when they can get it) and travel in extended family units called pods.
There are people who are familiar with each of the 70-odd members of the southern resident orcas. These local orcas often swim and feed together. Pods are matriarchal, as far as we know, with males remaining with their mothers for life, and females sometimes splitting off to start their own pod. It has been a long time since this happened, though. The local orcas are in trouble.
Southern resident orcas were classified as endangered in Canada in 2002, and the U.S. in 2005. The Endangered Species Act protective restrictions, loose as they are, may disappear in the current political quagmire. Orca populations are threatened by pollution, declining salmon numbers, and boating.
Pollution enters the strait through storm runoff, industrial accidents and marine engines. Smaller fish are eaten by bigger fish, and toxins accumulate until the orcas eat what fish they can find and become the final repository of a load of toxins. Salmon face the same pollution problems, in addition to overfishing, habitat loss, and the damming of their spawning streams, which prevent them from reproducing.
We need to hear some good news: in 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, which decommissioned two dams on the Elwha River. The restoration of fish runs has begun. As more rivers are freed, salmon may return in numbers sufficient to save the orcas (an adult orca needs about 25 fish a day to survive). Will we recognize the connectedness of all things and act in time to prevent more orcas from starving to death in this land of riches?
Another key threat to recovery of the southern resident orcas is acoustic disturbance from underwater vessel noise, as it interferes with their ability to hunt, navigate and communicate.
Each orca pod has own distinctive “dialect,” or set of calls, passed down through generations; it is possible to identify a pod through its vocalizations. Though each pod’s calls are slightly different, they can communicate with each other. What are they saying? We actually have no idea.
Using echolocation, a process similar to sonar, orcas navigate and find prey. A chain of high-frequency, broadband clicks produced in the air sacs of their brain forms a directional beam of sound which bounces off objects in the water. The echo is received through the orca’s jaw and transmitted to its inner ear. This information allows the whale to determine distance, size, shape and even the texture of objects that bounce back its clickstream.
Commercial and private boating, not to mention naval testing of explosives, fills the water with vibratory noise that disrupts the whales’ ability to communicate and navigate. Unfortunately for the whales, their critical habitat overlaps shipping routes and other marine traffic and the cacophony must be continual.
Ready for some more good news? There are regulations in place, due to their endangered species status, that specify 200 yards as the distance vessels must keep from the southern resident orcas. Limited as this protection is, it is a big step toward granting these whales a little space.
We live in the desert, so why should we care about the fate of the orcas? The Endangered Species Act is now under attack by those who prioritize commercial ventures above the rights of the animals we are displacing with our actions. By safeguarding the lives of animals, we give them the voice they lack in today’s world. A world without orcas is a world diminished.
Alice Drogin is a crotchety NYC transplant living the good life in Castle Valley; a Utah State University alumni; and lover of flowers and lizards.