Why Seeing Orcas in the Wild Will both Fill and Break Your Heart
Driving from Victoria, British Columbia it takes a full day to reach the secluded Northern end of Vancouver Island. A two-lane road winds through untouched forests, over rivers bubbling to the brim with salmon, and past rusted ship wrecks; ghost like relics of a time long past.
We stop our car for a crossing black bear, tempted by the ripe blackberries on the other side of the road. The road ends in the town of Telegraph Cove, population: 20.
There is only one reason to come here: orca. Once you find yourself finally out on the water, you watch and wait; holding your breath and straining your ears for the sound of a powerful exhalation.
Then out of nowhere the calm surface of the water is disrupted by an explosive mist of breath and a black dorsal fin towering six feet out of the water.
You fall silent. You are rendered speechless by his arresting presence. As you watch, you suddenly realize that he is not alone. Another fin rises from the water, followed by another, then another. Without warning, you are surrounded.
The native people of the area, the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, call orcas the "side by side tribe." Family is the most important aspect of the socially charged life of an orca.
First we come across a sub-pod of the larger A5 pod, the A25’s. The family cruises along the coastal cliffs hunting for their meal of choice this time of year: Chinook salmon.
With them is the A23 pod, a small pod consisting of two males, Ripple and Fife. Fife has a substantial nick in his dorsal fin from a boat collision that almost took his life a few years back. After the boys lost their mother, A25 adopted them and the two pods are now always seen traveling together.
Out of nowhere the R4 pod suddenly races by us at a speed of over 6 knots. A small calf is working hard to keep up with mom and family. He tries his best to keep the rhythm of his pod, but always comes up for air just ahead of everyone else.
To our left another pod of two males appears, the A36’s. Plumper and Kaikash have lost all of the other members of their pod in recent years, including their mother and brother.
Plumper is 36 years old, 6 years older than the average life expectancy of a male orca in these waters. He is moving slower this year than he was last year. A depression behind his blowhole and a wobbly dorsal fin indicate that he may be sick or malnourished.
He dives underneath our boat and turns to his side just as he passes underneath, locking his eye with mine. He continues into the distance. His stronger brother is off fishing on his own, but is never outside of acoustical range.
To the right of the boat, more dorsal fins appear. The large I15 pod is made up of a matriarch with several sisters and all of their calves. These sisters will stay together for their entire lives. I15 cuts through the water so tightly knit that you can't tell where one dorsal fin ends and the next begins.
As the proximity to these creatures fills and overwhelms my heart, the knowledge of what they have endured breaks it.
I wonder how they can trustfully play and hunt so close to our boat. These animals were not always revered and protected in these waters.
As recently as the 1950’s the US Navy used pods of orcas here for target practice during bombing drills. Local fishermen would shoot the beasts on sight to eliminate the “competition” for fish. A machine gun was even installed at a lookout point near Campbell River to eliminate them.
Before the Marine Mammal Protection act of 1972 (which banned live-capture of marine mammals), around 300 orcas were captured in British Columbia and Washington State waters for aquariums all over the world.
The A5 pod (the first pod we encountered) was rounded up numerous times, many of their young taken to live out shortened and horrible lives in captivity.
According to The National Marine Fisheries Service, “The capture of killer whales for public display during the 1970s likely depressed their population size and altered the population characteristics sufficiently to severely affect their reproduction and persistence.”
While wild orcas have a decidedly better life than orcas in captivity, they too face many challenges. While the mortality rate of orcas in captivity is roughly 2.5 times higher than that of orcas in the Pacific Northwest, the life expectancy of wild orcas is continually dropping.
The average life expectancy for a male orca in the wild is now down to approximately 30 years, with an estimated maximum lifespan of about 60. The average life expectancy for female orcas in the wild is 45 to 50 years, with a maximum lifespan of about 90.
These declining numbers are due to the slew of deadly toxins that have entered their waters over recent years.
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are man-made organic chemicals that were once used to make insulating liquid, adhesive, paint, plastic, rubber, and even flame retardants that were applied to children’s clothing. Even though PCBs were banned in North America in 1979, they can still be found in products that were manufactured prior to the ban. These toxins have made their way into the ocean and into the fish and mammals that orcas feed on.
PCB levels found in wild orcas are several hundred times greater than levels deemed safe for humans. PCBs in orcas can cause impaired reproduction, lowered sperm count, immune deficiency, cancer, and premature death.
A recently published scientific study has estimated that the PCB levels in Pacific Northwest waters will not drop below the risk threshold until 2030. It is predicted that the levels of PCBs found in resident orcas will not drop to a safe level until 2060.
PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are a class of flame retardants that are chemically similar to PCBs. PBDEs can be found in items that you currently own from your furniture to electronics. PBDEs are used in a wide variety of products in North America.
When items containing PBDEs are not properly disposed of, they end up in the environment and cause severe harm to animals.
Orcas are also affected by dioxins and furans, the most toxic chemicals known to science. These chemicals are by-products of the manufacturing of herbicides, paper production, coal burning power plants, and waste incineration.
Dioxins and furans are disastrous in even the smallest quantities. The most toxic dose of dioxin is ten times more toxic than the highest toxicity level of PCBs. These toxins have been found in the air, soil, water, and in the animals that orcas eat.
PBDEs, dioxins, and furans accumulate in the body until they cause hormone disruption and reproductive and immune system damage.
You may have taken note that female orcas live longer than males in the wild. This is not by chance, and it wasn’t always the case. Female orcas live longer because they offload PCBs through their breast milk. This contributes to the high infant mortality rate in wild orcas.
A first-born calf will take in a huge dose of toxins which will either kill it or greatly weaken its immune system, usually leading to its death. A female orca may lose several calves before the toxin levels in her breast milk are low enough for her offspring to survive.
Unfortunately males have no way to release these toxins from their bodies, which is why they have a much shorter life expectancy.
Orcas of the Pacific Northwest are the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. If we continue to pollute and encroach on their habitat, it will only get worse. No matter where you live, you can make small choices that can make a huge difference for these animals.
Start with the products that you use in your household and everyday life. Environmentally friendly products usually cost the same and work just as well as products that are full of chemicals. If you live near an ocean, remember that every single product that goes down your drain ends up in the habitat of marine mammals.
The next time you purchase electronics, go with a product that is PBDE-free. Companies like Canon, Dell, Apple and Sony are offering more and more PBDE-free products. When purchasing furniture, ask manufacturers about their use of flame retardants.
It is also extremely important to consider where your waste ends up. Never, ever dispose of electronics in the trash. The toxins they contain will end up contaminating the environment. Find a green electronics recycling plant near you to properly dispose of these items.
Finally, the best thing you can do is spread the word. Share this article and tell everyone you know about the danger toxins pose to orcas.
The Northern Resident Orca population of British Columbia is slowly starting to rebound. The orcas of Washington State have not been so lucky. There are less than 80 endangered Southern Resident Orcas left, and their numbers continue to decline. This is attributed to their proximity to large populations of people.
Let’s do everything we can to clean up the environment and give future generations of orcas the opportunity to thrive.
For information about orcas in captivity and how you can help them, click HERE
Photos © Leviathan Project