A whale of a dilemma – An update

Almost 2 years ago I wrote a blog about whales in captivity and whale watching. In “A whale of a dilemma”.  Since then I have gone on a whale watching tour, which was quite exciting and rewarding. The guide was respectful of the whales, and I did not feel that we harassed the whales (humpback whales, orcas, and harbor porpoises). As I wrote in my blog, I am not so sure that all whale watchers are equally respectful.

There was some good news for the southern resident (salmon eating) orcas starting in 2014, when a “baby boom” started. Unfortunately the joy was short-lived, as several of the youngsters and several mature orcas died. The youngsters presumably perished primarily due to poor food availability, and all of the whales likely suffer in an increasingly toxic and noisy environment, exacerbated by harassment from boaters. Over the past few days, several sad news stories have appeared. One is a grieving mother orca, who has been carrying her dead calf with her for 7 days. The second is a lone northern transient Bigg’s orca (marine mammal-eating) that has been hanging out in and around Comox harbor, an hour and a half drive north of where I live. As a result of the recent deaths, and the endangered status of the southern residents, new regulations were introduced this year, mandating a 200 m approach distance to whales for all watercraft. Compliance appears variable as curious onlookers try to get a glimpse of the orca, and officials trying to educate boaters and enforce the regulations have sometimes been met by hostility.

Orcas and Humpbacks-8232

A male orca. Nicks and scars on the dorsal fin and the shape of the saddle patch uniquely identify individual whales. This photo is taken from the “wrong” side, however.

The latest book I have read made me feel that I needed to update the original blog. “Orca. How we came to know and love the ocean’s greatest predator” was written by University of Victoria Associate Professor Jason M. Colby.  His book is the story of how a despised and hated animal became a source of fascination and love after capture and display revealed that these animals are far from the monsters they were depicted as. Ted Griffin, the main individual around which the book is written,  was originally hailed as a hero after displaying Namu in Seattle, allowing the public to get a close-up look at the orcas. His role in changing our view of orcas eventually led to him being despised by the orca-loving public, however. The word “love” may seem a bit over the top, but Colby’s book clearly shows the strong emotional bonds that people formed with the orcas they cared for, and eventually for orcas in the wild.

Before this change in attitude kick started by the capture of Namu and Moby Doll, orcas, or blackfish as they were often called, were regularly shot at by fishermen. The appearance of orcas sent people scrambling for higher ground as it was assumed that the whales would attack anything that moved (hence the name “killer whale”). The Latin name Orcinus orca can be translated to “Demon from hell” according to Colby, although that appears to be folk-etymology, perhaps evolved from the fearsome reputation of the animals. “Orcinus” means “belonging to the realm of the dead” and “orca” simply means a type of whale.

The author tells the story of how orcas went from enemy to sought after commodity to beloved visitors worthy of protection at all cost in the Salish Sea over a couple of decades. The display of these intelligent animals at aquariums drove the change in attitude, and it sparked research on live orcas. Michael Bigg’s photo identification system provided a key tool for studying population structure, and also individualized the whales. All of a sudden they were not just “blackfish”, but individuals. Bigg’s system led to our current knowledge that different groups have different food cultures. They are very food specific, which became painfully evident when Moby Doll refused to eat seal meat and several Bigg’s whales almost starved to death when they refused to eat the fish they were offered. (this part of the story was quite touching, showing how deeply these whales care for each other). The emerging public protectionism of orcas even had a role in the rise to prominence by Greenpeace.

I arrived in Canada in 1977, at the end of the free-for-all capture and selling of orcas in the Salish Sea.  I visited Vancouver Aquarium several times, and like others I was fascinated by the whales. At the same time I was disturbed to see these obviously intelligent animals confined to a featureless pool only a few times longer than the whale itself. Over the years my feelings have become stronger, and I now feel that it is morally wrong to keep whales of any kind in captivity. At the same time I recognize that without the display era, our current view of orcas may have taken a lot longer to develop, leading to countless whales being slaughtered. Perhaps that is why I found Colby’s book so captivating. I strongly recommend that you read it. Losing orcas in the Salish Sea would be a tragedy, in my opinion. Seeing a pod is one of the most exciting wildlife encounters one can experience. Should the southern residents go extinct, there is some comfort in knowing that the Bigg’s orcas are doing well thanks to increasing seal and sea lion populations. However, that could change very quickly if we suffered an Exxon Valdez-type oil spill. (That spill wiped out one northern population).  Let’s hope that won’t happen.

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About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
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