Meet the people behind Victoria’s pod of inflatable orcas

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

Local group raising funds and awareness for marine life through life-sized orcas has become a mainstay at Victoria events and protests 

Photo by Emily Fagan, Editor-in-Chief

A pod of orcas breaches a crowd of people marching down the road — not a rare sight on the streets of downtown Victoria. Rain or shine, anti-Trans Mountain pipeline protest or trans-inclusionary celebrations, you can count on the members of the Canadian Orca Rescue Society to show up, life-sized inflatable orcas in hand.

The Canadian Orca Rescue Society was founded by Gregg McElroy and Eric Pittman two and a half years ago. It’s a passion project for both men, who spend a large amount of their time creating inflatable orcas, attending demonstrations, and collecting donations for conservation efforts.

“The 74 remaining southern resident orcas are among the most endangered whales on the planet,” the front page of the Canadian Orcas Rescue Society website reads. “Make no mistake, this is a rescue mission.”

It started with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Pittman says. Both he and McElroy oppose the pipeline, and specifically the impact it could have on orcas and other wildlife off the B.C. coast. Frustrated with the lack of action they saw from many other organizations, the two men decided they wanted to help create positive change. 

United behind the goal of stopping the pipeline’s expansion, the Canadian Orca Rescue Society was born. And with it, so were the pod of life-sized inflatable orcas.

“We decided to make these inflatable orcas to provide good imagery, get people inspired, and remind people about why we’re actually doing this,” said Pittman. “It took a while, of course, to figure out how to make one.”

Each of the orcas are made life-sized to mimic one of the 76 real orca whales living off the coast of Vancouver Island. For their first inflatable whale, Pittman and McElroy chose the matriarch L-94, otherwise known as Calypso, partly because she had a baby, mother, and family lineage.

It took about four weeks before the members of the Canadian Orca Rescue Society finished Calypso. After their full-time jobs and on weekends, they taught themselves to sew, created a pattern, and stitched her together from ripstop nylon. 

Eric Pittman, co-founder of the Canadian Orca Rescue Society, with Calypso. Photo by Emily Fagan, Editor-in-Chief

After Calypso came Mega, which at 32 feet is the biggest of the pod, and soon seven other members of the pod. 

Since the early days, a lot has changed. Pittman and McElroy quickly realized that the expense and time-consuming nature of using helium to inflate their orcas was unsustainable, and switched to fans with rechargeable batteries that can inflate a whale in about four minutes. Their first whale, once Calypso, has been renamed J-35 after the mourning mother that carried her deceased calf for 17 days and over 1 600 km. A baby was added to the original whale, and a new L-94 was built.

The biggest change, however, is the group’s mission. Over time, they realized that it might not be possible for them to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline from expanding, but McElroy and Pittman still wanted to find a way to help represent and advocate for the orcas.

To find a new direction, Pittman says he asked locals, organizations, and politicians how best to help the orcas — all but one told him to write letters or sign a petition. The single outlier, Kenneth Balcomb from Center of Whale Research, told Pittman about the importance of reviving salmon to aid in the survival of orcas.

“Now, our mission is to bring salmon back to every river and creek in B.C.,” says Pittman. It’s an accessible, bottom-up goal that he feels can have a big impact. “That’s gonna feed the orcas, it’s gonna allow [for] things to thrive, and in doing so you help the environment.”

Whether they’re taking to the streets, canvassing in front of Save On Foods, or accepting donations on their website, the Canadian Orca Rescue Society is fundraising for the Four Mile Creek Hatchery in Port Renfrew. It’s a restoration hatchery, which raises indigenous salmon in the water of their native rivers and releases them into their restored estuary.

They have a dedicated team of over a dozen regular volunteers that come out to protests, with more that join in at protests around Victoria to help hold members of the pod. Most volunteers are people over 60 years old who are looking to do good in the community.

“It’s not about money, it’s not about riches, it’s about making things better,” Pittman says. “You haven’t seen what’s lost, but I’ve seen it.”

“With nine orcas, two people per orca, you need at least 18 people. There’s always somebody like myself or Greg running around to make sure they’re all working right.”

Thanks to these volunteers, the inflatable orcas regularly swim atop the crowds at protests and events in downtown Victoria, and recently marched in the Victoria Pride Parade. At the 20 km Trans Mountain pipeline protest on June 22, Indigenous elders asked the Canadian Orca Rescue Society to follow them with the orcas instead of marching further back as planned.

However, the orcas’ appearance at these events — sometimes without invitation — isn’t always welcomed by all.

 “The physical enormity of the blow-up orcas can have the effect of taking the limelight away from the Indigenous leaders of the anti-pipeline movement,” said Mike Graeme, a regular attendee of protests in solidarity with Indiegnous peoples and environmental movements.

“I think there’s multiple sides to it,” he added. “The blow-up orcas offer a powerful image because they’re those iconic higher mammals that will be affected [when the] Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project goes ahead but can’t come to the decision-making table.”

On the other hand, Shay Lynn Sampson, leader of the Women’s March Victoria chapter and third-year student at UVic, recalled her pride in first time seeing the inflatable orcas for the first time at a rally in solidarity with the Unist’ot’en people last January.

“I remember thinking that they were really neat, and in a way reminded me that what we were doing there was bigger than just us,” said Sampson in an email to the Martlet. “It really showed me the community coming together for intersectional causes, and how important it is that we are standing in solidarity with one another.

“Whether it’s for a good activist photo for their Instagram, or bringing people together I think the inflatable orcas really provide an atmosphere for the people attending these actions.

Soon, Pittman hopes his orcas won’t just fly, but soar — he’s received permission from Transport Canada to fly them as drones in a contained area over future events, and has been talking with the UVic AERO team about making this dream a reality.

His ultimate goal, however, is much bigger. “Greg and I don’t think in the box,” Pittman laughs.

Picture Save On Foods arena, awash with cool, wavy light. Glowing jellyfish and sea life float high above you, colourful sea anemones sway from the ground. In the middle, a storyteller stands on a high rock pillar. And all around, seals, salmon, and orcas glide freely through the air.

Pittman figures that this stadium show, “Legends of the Orcas,” is still a few years away. But in its final form, he hopes to work with local Indigenous peoples to feature a storyteller that will the story of orcas from their perspective. As the show travels around Canada, profits from ticket sales will be donated to groups working to protect the local watersheds of each city they visit.

“It’s gonna be a spectacular show, and a great exhibit for somebody like [UVic Aero] to get into,” Pittman says. 

An early look at “Legends of the Orcas.” Image provided by Eric Pittman

In the short term, he hopes to keep building orcas — this summer, he hopes to add three more to the pod.

“I’m really excited — when we get up to like 25, 40, 50, or 76 [orcas], that’ll be quite the scene,” says Pittman, who aims to build one inflatable orca for each of the real whales. “We’re looking forward to that.”

Both he and McElroy are nearing their 60s. To Pittman, the Canadian Orca Rescue Society — and the protection of the 76 orcas in the Salish Sea — is his legacy project.

“It’s not about money, it’s not about riches, it’s about making things better,” Pittman says. “You haven’t seen what’s lost, but I’ve seen it.”

Years ago, Pittman used to build and fly helicopters  all over Canada — aeronautical experience that was crucial in making his orcas fly.

“I’d look down [and] see these vast stretches of wilderness, nothing in sight,” he says. “Now, you get up in a plane and within five minutes you see a pipeline, you see a powerline, you see a dam, you see a river.”

Bit by bit, orca by orca, the Canadian Orca Rescue Society wants to do their part to preserve and protect the planet.

“We want to do a lot of good for a lot of people,” says Pittman. “It’s [humanity’s] responsibility to keep the world alive.”

To get involved with the Canadian Orca Rescue Society or local preservation efforts, contact Pittman at eric@orcarescue.com. You can donate on their website to the Four Mile Creek Hatchery.