The Black and Whites
Story and photos by Amanda Halle
Heads turn and eyes search the vast area of the water in front of them. Suddenly, a single, black fin slices through the water followed closely by two others. A burst of squeals and gasps erupts as the spectators take in the magnificence of a Pacific Northwest legend: the orca whale.
The species, identifiable by its contrasting black and white coloring, is well known from the "Free Willy"movies and marine parks. But orca whales, also known as killer whales, have a close connection to coastal residents of the Pacific Northwest. Orca whales have lived and fed in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands for hundreds of years. Due to a continuous decline in their population, orca whales became listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005 and continue to face threats to their existence today.
STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE
Between April and October, the Puget Sound waters are home to three pods of orca whales known as the Southern Residents. Before Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972, Puget Sound was a gold mine for capturing and selling orca whales into captivity. In the early 1960s, the Southern Resident population was largely depleted after 45 whales were captured and sold to marine parks across the country, and another 13 were killed instantly in the process.
One of these captured whales was Shamu, who was sent to a Seattle aquarium before being sold to SeaWorld in San Diego where she performed until her death in 1971. The only whale still surviving in captivity from the Southern Resident captures is Lolita, a 43-year-old female who still performs at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida. Jenny Atkinson, director of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor says researchers believe Lolita's mother is still alive and think that if the whale were returned to her pod, she would be welcomed back.
BLACK AND WHITES
The orca whale's distinctive coloring is not only visually stunning, but also assists in hunting. According to the Center for Whale Research, the whale's black upper body acts as camouflage in the dark water when it approaches prey from below. Its white underbelly blends with the sunlight on the water's surface when hunting from above.
Orca whales feed almost exclusively on fish and travel and hunt in family groups called pods, which usually consist of 20 to 30 whales related to each other. The Southern Resident population is currently at 89 whales, including a female who is estimated to be 99 years old, Atkinson says.
A GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS
In 1976, the Center for Whale Research created the "Orca Survey"as a census to identify and keep track of whales in each pod. Because it is dangerous and illegal to tag orca whales in the wild, researchers identify each whale by the white patch behind the dorsal fin, known as a "saddle."
Like a human fingerprint, each orca whale's saddle is unique, says Cindy Hansen, Whale Museum naturalist. Through photo identification, scientists can identify and study individual behaviors. Once identified, whales are named and given a number, which links them to their pod. Hansen says because of the identification, people can understand the uniqueness of each whale.
"It's not just a pod of whales,"she says. "They are a bunch of individuals that we know and they all have their own story."
Although orca whales also reside in other waters of the world, the Southern Residents are the only community of whales considered "endangered"under the Endangered Species Act.
The first danger facing the Southern Resident population is a shortage of prey, says Heather Hill, a whale naturalist for the whale-watching company San Juan Excursions. Salmon farming and over-fishing have depleted the Southern Residents' main source of food, forcing them to migrate long distances to find prey. Hill says she is concerned the food shortage will become so low the whales will not return to the Puget Sound waters.
Not only is the whales' food source depleting, it is becoming poisonous. Due to years of pollution and toxic runoff dumping into the Puget Sound, the ocean's inhabitants embody a high level of toxins. The toxic chemicals stay safe in the whale's blubber, but through starvation, the whale's body begins to absorb the harmful substances, she says. A female whale's first calf has a low chance of survival because of the poison passed from her body during breastfeeding. Hill says the water pollution is hampering the Southern Residents' ability to grow the population effectively because of the low survival of new life.
A NATURAL BOND
The importance of community, which is apparent in the lives of the Southern Resident pods, is also present in the lives of those who work to protect and preserve the whales and their habitat in the Pacific Northwest. Many organizations, such as The Whale Museum, are devoted to educating and monitoring the health of the Southern Resident pods.
Jeanne Hyde, a retired accountant from California, came to the Pacific Northwest in June 2004 out of a desire to see whales in their natural environment. Now in her 60s, Hyde works part time at The Whale Museum and full time as what she calls an "orca-geek."Hyde says she desires to educate others and share the connection she feels with the Southern Residents.
"I'm not out there to force people to love these whales," Hyde says. "I just do, and I want to share that with them."
Natosha Gobin, a native language teacher for the Tulalip tribe, says she often shares the story and significance of the orca whale as the tribe's emblem to the reservation's school children. Tulalip-area tribes believe orca whales are their ancestors, Gobin says, and she fears the whales' extinction would take away an important part of her people's history.
"Once something like [the whales] are lost, you can never get them back," Gobin says.
Although research has revealed the dangers the Southern Resident orca whales face, so much is still unknown about the origin of the species, Hill says. The mammals' choice to hunt and live in family groups and their fearless interactions with humans prove that the complexity and intelligence of the species will most likely never be fully understood. Hill believes that this attribute is a beauty in itself and would be heavily missed if the Southern Residents were to become extinct.
"Losing the whales would be like losing your hearing," she says. "You could still live on without it but it would be a less beautiful world without it there."
Bill Wright, owner of San Juan Safaris, a whale-watching company based out of Friday Harbor, has worked in the whale-watching business for more than 30 years and says he is still amazed with the whale's behavior toward humans. Due to federal law, vessels must remain 100 yards away from marine mammals at all times, but the whales will often come right up to the boat. The relationship between whales and humans has changed drastically in the last 50 years, from hunting and capturing the whales to watching and protecting them, Wright says.
"What is amazing to me is that they have forgiven us," he says.
Although whale hunting and capturing will likely never again affect the Southern Resident pods, their environment continues to be threatened by humans.
There is a haunting possibility the Southern Residents will eventually be forced out of Puget Sound because of lack of prey, which may lead to eventual extinction.
Although many people are working to educate others about the dangers facing the Southern Residents, the Pacific Northwest could lose the whales Ñ a creature that's crucial to local history and identity.
The day may come when the passengers of the Odyssey will wait silently on the bow of the boat searching the water for a fin, but will never see one.