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Killer Whales and the Tanker Trade

Volume 31, Issue 1,2 & 3, March 21, 2017

Barbara Julian, Victoria

     Around the “Salish Sea” (southern Georgia Strait, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and the Canadian and American Gulf Islands), there live about eight million humans, and 78 southern resident killer whales. Reflecting these numbers, some people say the whales’ chance of survival is about one in 80,000. That isn’t stopping whale conservation activists from fighting for them, however. Along with the grizzly bear, the black and white orca is the most internationally famous signature species of our region. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister and the Premier of B.C. seem to be whale-blind when it comes to crafting economic policy. To residents of Vancouver Island though, these black and white lives matter.
     To whale defenders, a 43 per cent increase in tanker traffic which would result from a new Kinder Morgan pipeline to the coast is anathema, and people who care about the health of the Salish Sea and the thousands of species that call it home are committed to fighting KM fluke and fin.
     B.C. proclaimed its first official Orca Awareness Month in June 2016 at the request of a handful of conservation activists, and it’s an informational tool which activists will use again this year. They chose June because it matches the month during which Washington State celebrates the same three pods of orcas. Events are being planned which will bring panels, speakers, authors, musicians and artists together for inspiration, information-sharing and practical steps we can take to protect our threatened orcas.
     It was the federal Government that declared them threatened, under the Species At Risk Act in 2003, but precious little has been done for them since. The harm they suffer from shipping noise has increased and the Chinook salmon run they rely on has decreased (due to human fishing and destruction and damming of salmon spawning rivers). Ship collisions, industrial pollution and plastics in the ocean including entangling fishing gear are additional hazards, but perhaps worst of all is the underwater shipping sonar which disrupts the whales’ ability to communicate, socialize, hunt and navigate by echo-location. Through sensitive pulse-receiving and emitting membranes in their skulls and jaws which send signals to their large brains, orcas perceive the ocean topography as a soundscape. Underwater sonar physically ruptures their membranes and lungs causing some whales to beach themselves, apparently in despair.
     Why should we care about the suffering of killer whales? Isn’t there enough already to worry about in a world beset by war, famine and injustice? Yes, there is enough, but why add to it when the delivery of a whale recovery strategy is one of the do-able improvements? We could reduce shipping in whale zones, we could set aside salmon for whales. Unfortunately, even though such measures are legally mandated under the Species At Risk Act, it would mean changing the Federal Government’s economic and trade plans. When it comes to orca survival, we cannot save them and have what the Trudeau Government calls environment-economy balance. There is no balance between growth on one side and death on the other.
     Why, some ask, shouldn’t the economy come first? One answer is that “the economy” is not a being, a claimant, it is merely the sum total of how consumers and businesses act. We don’t need to feed and tend it as if it was a living thing, we need to cherish and protect the things that really are alive. The ocean, rivers, soil, ecosystems where organic and inorganic energies merge are alive, and the source of our own earthly existence.
     A local society is currently campaigning to obtain UNESCO Biosphere status for the Salish Sea, and others are asking the International Marine Organization for “Particularly Sensitive Sea Area” designations off BC. Protected zones and buffer zones around areas of commercial activity need to be established for marine species. An Orca Sanctuary Project has also emerged, which wants to set aside protected bays for captive whales when and if they are finally released from aquariums. These captives, such as local L-pod member Lolita, have been incapacitated by decades of solitary confinement in tiny tanks. Nature evolved them to travel in family groups through a hundred miles of ocean per day, but those born in captivity might be unable to catch salmon or work with their pod; monitoring their adaptive success will be an interesting future study for cetacean scientists, from which much more will be learned than from watching trapped whales perform tricks for food.
     Anyone who has been out on a quiet boat or kayak among a group of orcas knows them to be powerfully intentional, conscious and communicative. For most people lucky enough to have one, an encounter with whales is a spiritual experience. “Granny”, the oldest of the local orcas, died recently and the loss of the orca-elder knowledge she took with her has left the wisdom pool of her family, and of us had we learned to see into the orca-mind, that much emptier.
     Certainly the presence of the killer whale is “good for tourism”, which is why its black and white image is so popular in civic and business marketing, but that's a thin reason for saving this extraordinary repository of earthly consciousness before we have even gained the ability to plumb its depths. People who boat among orcas perceive them as trying to communicate with us, but it seems we lack the ability to communicate with them. Yet it shouldn’t be beyond our ingenuity to find a way to give them sanctuary in what is after all their own home. The ocean is not just an empty space across which to send tankers and freighters. Underneath, it is a living kingdom and in art and mythology it has always symbolized the unknown and the unconscious. “Orca Awareness Month” asks British Columbians to go deeper into conservation-consciousness. We need to dive to a veritable Mariana Trench of resolve and commitment, if orcas are to survive.
     Anyone who would like to help or comment is welcome to contact or phone 778 433 ORCA, or visit For more on the plan to create a captive orca sanctuary on BC’s coast, go to