From the first time he saw their tuxedos glistening in Salish Sea waters and heard their calls, marine conservationist and noted author Erich Hoyt was captivated by orcas. Protecting and understanding one of the ocean's most fearless and intelligent creatures became a lifelong obsession.
This month, Hoyt is on tour with The Whale Trail, a local nonprofit dedicated to making sure the area's southern resident orcas don't go extinct. He's tracing the journey they make in search of salmon from Vancouver Island to as far south as Monterrey, California and giving talks along the way.
"This is a way we can keep in touch with this endangered group of orcas," says Hoyt. “They're on a knife edge, about 80 of them left, and if we don't really watch in terms of the salmon available for them as well as our everyday actions of what we put into the water and how we live, they won't be around for our children and grandchildren."
The primary threats today are diminishing food supply — Chinook salmon are local orcas' food of choice — growing vessel traffic and noise, PCBs and other contaminants. But when Hoyt participated in the first sailing expedition to film them in the '70s, the main toll came from aquariums capturing orcas and removing them.
Of 127 captured orcas, 55 came from B.C. and Washington waters. Many were orcas from J, K and L pods, the names for the closely knit family groups who seasonally fish in local waters. Hoyt had a harsh awakening when he visited Seattle and Vancouver.
"We found that some of those individuals in the tanks were related to the ones we saw in the wild. They were like the sisters and brothers and mothers and that was very chilling,” says Hoyt. He'd spent eight summers studying orcas and they were like family. Highly social, resident orcas stick together for life. They work together to catch prey, they play together and grandmothers help raise the young. Few, says Hoyt, thrive in captivity isolated from their pods.
In the talk he gives for The Whale Trail, Hoyt recounts his first encounters with a pod off the coast of Vancouver, but also his current work in Russia's Far East. That's where he and a group of Russian graduate students have been working to identify 1,500 orcas, including a magnificent albino Hoyt has named Iceberg. Rich in fish and free of vessel traffic, Russia's remote Kamchatka Coast in the North Pacific is free of noise and contaminants. Like orcas everywhere, Hoyt's Russian subjects rely on sound to communicate and find food. Using a series of pulse sounds, echolocation helps them read their environment, tells them what the ocean topography looks like and what fish are ahead. “It's really quite an extraordinarily precise tool that they have,” explains Hoyt. “Human sonar is really based on thinking about how whales and dolpins do it.”
Hoyt and a colleague began the Far East Russian Project because little was known about the orcas who live there and because they'd heard that captures were about to begin.
The United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 but it didn't ban captures outright. Instead the Act only required that captures be “humanely conducted.” Washington became the first state to ban orca captures in 1976 with British Columbia following suit in 1990. SeaWorld and other aquariums continued to capture orcas wherever they could, a practice that continues to date in some places. Asia is building new aquariums almost every month, Hoyt says, prompting a huge wave of orca captures similar to what the U.S. saw 30 or 40 years ago.
In the last 18 months, seven orcas were captured in Russia's North Pacific. Two went to China and two to Moscow, while the fate of the others is uncertain. One capture was caught on camera. Video showed one reproductive age female suffocated in the net; another orca died 13 days later.
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