Blackfish, wild: 100 days with sacred whales

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I could hear breathing in the charcoal dark as silent bodies passed the shoreline; huge lungs, in huge animals, blow salty ocean spray into the night. It was my first of almost a hundred nights at an observation outcamp in Johnstone Strait, a channel along the North East coast of Vancouver Island, and I was carved of calmness. My eyes squinted, seeking out the black knife-like dorsal fins that occasionally glinted the moonlight as they surfaced. I turned up the volume of the hydrophone monitor to listen for the distinct underwater vocalizations of the northern resident orca ecotype. Hearing nothing, it was safe to presume they might be in a “resting line”—orcas version of “sleeping”—and were not exhibiting their commonly known and highly conversational behaviour amongst their family units.

For the next three months, 24 hours a day, I would have my ear cocked toward the monitor that constantly played the underwater sounds from six hydrophones around the Johnstone Strait area. During daylight hours, my eyes were glued to spotting scopes, binoculars and video cameras. For this short period of time, my natural schedule mimicked that of the movements and activities of these aquatic angels from below (a characterization that juxtaposes the oft-stated title of Orcinus, or “demon from below”). I would listen constantly to the electronic static of the hydrophones, hoping for the white noise to be interrupted with sounds of their underwater culture. My job was to conduct the video-monitoring portion of Pacific Orca Society’s 20-year non-invasive—and therefore land-based—behavioural documenting program. My specific field season was based at the Society’s Hanson Island acoustics field station, OrcaLab, and I was stationed at a 20-by-8-foot satellite hut on nearby West Cracroft Island, which was a short boat ride away, advantageously positioned at the epicentre of whale-watching paradise.

The waters of the Johnstone Strait are a nexus for the northern resident populations of orcas, whose habitat spans from southern Alaska to Campbell River. Sightings of at least one member of the order Cetacea were almost daily occurrences—I watched orcas breaching and foraging, humpbacks feeding on herring, dolphins travelling by the thousands, and shy harbour porpoises evading contact with the aforementioned. In this unique, highly remote location, I had found paradise.

When whales were within video camera shooting range, my feet would be firmly planted behind the camera tripod, framing the shot for the next anticipated patch of water to break open with dorsal fins, breaches, or spy-hops. Throughout the months of July, August, and September, I documented over 45 hours of raw footage, which was followed by the editing, production, and broadcasting of short videos for the Pacific Orca Society. I also facilitated over 150 hours of live-streamed footage of Johnstone Strait above- and below-water marine ecology for the online community called Orca-Live.net, where orca enthusiasts from around the world could tune into Orca-Live.net to watch two underwater cameras embedded in kelp forests, just off our station’s observation hut; the images they saw were filled with rockfish, perch, sea lions, seals, sea anemones, red and green urchins, and salmon, with the odd glimpse of humpbacks, dolphins, and the cherished orca.

Behind the scenes, working tirelessly to provide resources for researchers, communities, tourism, and marine mammal conservation, is cetacean acoustic specialist Helena Symonds and Dr. Paul Spong, a long-time orca researcher and advocate. They have been running the Pacific Orca Society and the remote OrcaLab since Spong founded the land-based lab in 1970 with extensive underwater acoustic-monitoring hydrophones—underwater microphones, essentially—installed throughout critical habitat regions. Each season, as the orcas return, Symonds and Spong work with dedicated international volunteers, pouring their life’s passion into creating a database that I would soon learn contains innumerable hours of underwater recordings.

Evolution’s masterpiece

The waters of Johnstone Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound are a bottleneck to where some of the world’s most plentiful salmon runs enter the Inside Passage of Vancouver Island. The fish make their way to riverbed spawning grounds deep within the forests of British Columbia, including the far-reaching fingertips of the headwaters of the mighty Fraser River. As a consequence of this ecological phenomenon, the resident orcas, who eat predominantly chinook salmon, follow major salmon runs back from the open Pacific Ocean and into the Inside Passage. Salmon and orcas spend much of the summer feeding in the traditional waters of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, off the northeast corner of Vancouver Island.

Orcas hunt using an extraordinary organ located in their forehead called a “fatty melon,” which is a unique organ in their brain that allows them to project echolocation pulses and clicks out into the ocean in front of them, seeking sonic silhouettes of their prey. They then receive the return echo in another organ located in their lower jaw, similar to the way bats navigate through the dark night. The orcas’ repertoire of noises and acoustic capacity is beyond detection by the sound-range of humans (at least at this point in time), but nonetheless a large portion of OrcaLab’s work is dedicated to compiling archives of recordings from the hydrophones. Interestingly, each pod uses distinct calls, and some of the most trained ears can even listen in on the hydrophones and identify who is in the area faster than if they were to use visual identification.

The kinship system of orcas is matrilineal. Researchers identify the different types of orcas through a categorization system that breaks down from a larger category of the species known as “ecotype.” The three ecotypes are transient (mammal eating), resident (fish eating), and offshore (unknown dietary choice, which is likely to be squid, octopus, and/or shark species). Then within the resident populations there are larger family units called clans, which share linguistic characteristics and other behavioural similarities. Within a clan, there are pods, as well as more focused family units called matrilines, which centre around a mother and her children. Matriarchs carry most of the dialectic distinctions between different pods and clans, and offspring spend much of their early life before sexual maturity as close as possible to their mother. Often, it seems that the mammals even breathe in harmony—young orcas tend to surface at exactly the same intervals as their mother, literally remaining side to side as they swim.

Blackfish below white world

August mornings on the Johnstone Strait are marked by an impermeable veil of fog. On one such morning, I look out at the veil as I wake from a dreamworld that had been narrated by the late night chattering of Tsitika and her matriline comprising three generations. They have spent the night partying in the nearby Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. Here, the northern residents have been returning since time immemorial, gathering to share dialects, to mate, to hunt, and to rub their bellies on beaches of smooth rocks and pebbles of a very specific size. As the hydrophone fades to a low buzz of the endless motor vessels in the area, the fog lifts off of the Kaikash River valley opposite me. Something doesn’t make sense in this newfound quiet. Where are the orcas?

As soon as I ask this aloud to myself, I hear chattering on the VHF radio that is made up of the varied voices of whale watchers, Robson Bight Park Wardens, local fisherfolk, and kayak guides, all asking the same question: “Where are the whales?” Considering that during the summer months the whales of Johnstone Strait are under an almost military degree of constant 24-hour visual and audio surveillance, they have in this moment all but disappeared. As the largest members of the Delphinidae family of cetaceans, this is no small feat.

The deductive communications of all concerned parties have narrowed down two likely locations of the orcas: either they had drifted southeast down Johnstone Strait toward Quadra Island and out of the north island range of surveillance, or they were somewhere near me, at Cracroft Point. I rub my dry eyes before quickly returning to my spotting scope, which is pointed at the distant Sophia Islets. I didn’t want to lose my chance at spotting one of them on the now clear horizon. From this distance, a single blow or dorsal fin could be missed if I wasn’t looking in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. As I strain my eyes for one more scan across the waterline, I hear the familiar “KAA-POOF, wwooooop” right in front of my little platform. A large male orca bursts out of the water as if he has been holding his breath for the last two hours. I stumble backwards, knocking over my coffee as I grasp frantically along the contours of the video camera, searching desperately for the red record button. I miss him, but now I’m poised as the rest of the pod follows behind.

The rest of my day will be spent eating salmon caught the previous day in my kayak (a more difficult feat than it sounds), filming the whales foraging in the tidal flood of Blackney Pass, and listening to their echolocation amplified over the hydrophone speakers. “Tick tick tick tick click click . . . click . . . click . . . click…tick tick tick tick tick.” I am positively fascinated by these noises, and I realize that what was initially a foreign noise to me has now become soothing.

Yes, they are threatened

Despite my newfound orca obsession, after three months of full-time focus and research I came away from my hut feeling a sadness for these revered giants. Undoubtedly, their intelligence and complexity captures the hearts of people worldwide. But fewer and fewer of the 250–275 whales from the northern resident orca population are returning to the Johnstone Strait area each year. Many of the whales are spending more time farther north in the central coast regions where there is less boating traffic and more potential for an abundance of chinook salmon.

Oftentimes when a slow-moving tug boat or a mammoth cruise ship passed where the hydrophones are mounted, I had to turn off the sound monitoring altogether—I could only imagine the effects of the noise pollution on these beings who rely so heavily on their sonic environment. The consistent barrage of motors directly impedes the highly complex social and family dynamics that are played out in the acoustic environment of the orcas. In a recent study published by the Zoological Society of London in the Journal of Animal Conservation, researchers Erin Ashe and Rob Williams from Oceans Initiative cite that critical orca and humpback habitats on the Pacific coast are some of the loudest locations in terms of marine noise pollution.

The busy waterways of the Salish Sea, north of Puget Sound, are home to the endangered populations of the southern resident orcas. The southern resident whales are recognized as an endangered species in the Species at Risk Act (SARA), while the northern resident populations are identified as threatened species under the Act, due to their larger populations and fewer immediate risks within the more remote coastal waters of the central coast. Though not officially endangered, the northern resident orcas are subject to multiple threats beyond noise pollution. For example, the highly carcinogenic compound benzene is shipped through the Inside Passage with increasing frequency, as demand from Kitimat seeks the substance as a constituent in crude oil mixtures and other petrochemical products.

The removal of habitat protection from federal conservation measures for endangered species, as well as unprecedented fish-farm expansion in the area paint a bleak future for these sacred animals. Not to mention the orca’s peak-predator position in the bioaccumulation pyramid, resulting in extremely high amounts of toxins occurring in a single fat sample. In my role as an observer, my sense of hope would erode further as I watched the story of humans in the habitat of these beautiful mammals play out. With diminishing chinook salmon runs throughout B.C., northern resident orcas are forced to spend more time travelling in search for their food, which means less time mating, communicating, playing, resting, and, according to some research, expressing their fascinating cultural rituals in the areas they once frequented. They must also now travel longer and farther to seek out chinook, which means they spend less time together as larger family units, ultimately finding new mates in other pods. This results in the matrilines diversifying their genetic variety, ultimately changing their overall resilience to threats such as climate change and ocean acidification. Orcas do not seem to be naturally evolving into new foraging habitats, but rather, they are being driven out of their home at an alarming rate, due to these modern, detrimental factors.

Despite the troubling precipice that much of our coastal ecosystems appear to be on the edge of, many dedicated individuals and organizations continue to work tirelessly toward orca conservation. As well, orcas continue to be held in the public consciousness with renewed sentiments, such as the speaking out against the poaching of wild orcas for the Sochi Olympics and the examining of orca captivity in the documentary Blackfish, which suggests that a more hard-line defense of the orcas’ habitat may take priority in the decade to come. The question that remains however, is will it be too little, too late? Will we acknowledge the disrespect we have shown for the most widely dispersed marine mammal on earth and put into place strict protective measures—including restricting our own resource extraction—or will we continue to drive the loss of what many perceive to be the most intelligent creature on the planet

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