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A whale tour to keep Puget Sound orcas in good health

A white killer whale and other orcas off the Commander Islands near Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula Credit: Photo © E. Lazareva, Far East Russia Orca Project

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.

"We're absolutely afraid that this is going to be a very long and painful learning curve for them, and realizing all of the things that happen when you bring these animals into captivity," Hoyt said.

Since his early work with orcas off Vancouver Island, Hoyt has recognized the need for protected habitat. Co-founder of the International Committee on Marine Mammal Protected Areas, he's spent the past decade working with countries to identify ecologically diverse, food-rich habitats. For a protected area to work, says Hoyt, the entire ecosystem has to be considered along with the universe of problems whales face in today's oceans. Hoyt's thinking coincides with the idea of The Whale Trail itself: Help people become aware and connected with where orcas are and what they need to thrive and orcas will acquire much-needed human allies.

J-pod was recently spotted near San Juan Island, where all three pods (J, K and L) have historically spent their summers, feeding and playing with their young. Marine Mammal Protected Areas have been considered in the San Juan National Wildlife Refuge but there are no designated federal or state Marine Protected Areas for southern resident orcas. The orcas are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and National Marine Fisheries Service has defined the entire Salish Sea, except Hood Canal and a few other smaller areas, as critical habitat in their recovery plan. The NMFS also passed vessel regulation in the state prohibiting vessels from approaching killer whales within 200 yards.

All three southern resident orca pods, J, K and L, have been seen off the coast of California during the orca tour. The Whale Trail founder Donna Sandstrom says that's both bad news and good news. The bad news: When she began the project six years ago, there were 86 resident orcas — now there are 80.

“If this population trend continues, they could disappear completely in less than 100 years. That was unthinkable to me, that these whales who have been here tens of thousands of years, much longer than people, that we could be witnessing their last gasp. And the factors that have brought them to this edge are all human caused,” says Sandstrom.  

The good news is that she sees a seed of hope that things can change. Southern resident orcas have been spending more time in California because of healthy salmon runs there.. Plus there's always room for better monitoring of contaminants and pollution and limits on vessel traffic during breeding season and within feeding areas.Extending The Whale Trail along the entire range of the southern resident orcas from Vancouver to Monterrey is one way to generate commitment to improve conditions for the orcas. It's a commitment the orcas need from those with whom they share a very complex 21st century world.

Hoyt concludes The Whale Trail orca tour in Seattle with a talk at McCaw Hall on May 18.

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