Finding Light in the Dark for the Whales

J-46 and J-34 near West Seattle, 10/3/2016. Photo by Kersti Muul

Yesterday we learned the distressing news that another southern resident orca, J-34 (aka Double Stuf), had been found dead near Sechelt BC. The male was just 18 years old – another orca who died too young, from causes yet unknown. (DFO is conducting a necropsy.) With his loss, the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population is down just 79 individuals – very close to their historical low. 

Let the untimely death of this young whale inspire us to address the issues that are impacting these orcas: lack of salmon, toxin accumulations and noise and stress from boats. It is not one of these things, but all.

A well-meaning and concerned public has been led to focus exclusively on bringing down the Snake River dams, as if that was the only or even the best thing we can do to help these whales.

Bringing down dams is a complex challenge that will take decades to accomplish. Meanwhile, these pods are disappearing before our eyes. There are plenty of things each and all of us can do *right now* to help.

  • Watch from Shore. Noise and stress from boats makes it harder for hungry whales to catch the fewer salmon that *are* there.  The next time J, K or L pods are near, find a Whale Trail site near you and watch them from shore. Know that by reducing sound in their environment,  you are giving them a better chance to make it.
  • Support a Whale Protection Zone. Orca Relief and others have petitioned NOAA Fisheries to establish a protected zone for orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. Sign the petition now, and encourage NOAA to give the whales acoustic space in a critical part of their range.
  • Reduce Toxins. Living on the edge of the Sound, the choices we make in our daily lives have an impact on whether these whales will survive. Orcas are at the top of the ocean food chain. Toxins like PCBs, PBDEs and DDT bioaccumulate in orcas, stored in lipid cells like blubber and mother’s milk. When the orcas are stressed, the toxins may be released into their bloodstream, and make them more susceptible to diseases.  Any actions we take to reduce toxins from entering Puget Sound is a win for the whales. 

A few simple suggestions:

  • Don’t use pesticides on your lawns. Plant a rain garden, or a native plant, to filter toxins and prevent them from entering the Sound as runoff.
  • Walk or take the bus instead of driving once a week, and reduce the oil that runs off pavement into the Sound.

Learning from Success. Next year we will celebrate the 15th anniversary of Springer the orphaned orca going home. In 2002, she was rescued, rehabilitated and reunited with her pod on the north end of Vancouver Island. Three years ago, she had her first calf.  It’s the only successful orca reunion in history.

Why does this story matter, and what bearing does it have on the survival of the southern residents?

  • To get the whale home, we had to learn how to work together, as individuals, and across organizations, agencies and nations.
  • Above all, we put the whales’ best interest first.

What hope there is for the whales begins with being honest about the issues that are impacting them. That means, putting their best interest ahead of our own, whether commercial, financial, or simply a desire to get closer that puts them further at risk.

We must encourage and embolden our governments to move urgently to protect this population.  We must also understand that NOAA and DFO can’t do this alone—as with Springer, we each have a role to play.

As the days lengthen, let’s match the sadness we feel about J-34’s death with a strengthened resolve to protect his family. Their fate is in our hands—that is our challenge, and our hope.   Together, we’ll find light in the dark for the whales.

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Donna's Bio

Donna Sandstrom has been interested in orcas since 1982, when she moved to Seattle. She saw her first orca from the deck of the Gikumi in Johnstone Strait in 1985.

Over the next years she produced events like OrcaFest 1995, and a symposium "Lolita Come Home" in 1996. She is expert at bringing diverse people together to achieve a common goal, a skill honed during her 14 years in software development at Adobe Systems.

In 2002, Donna was part of the effort to return Springer, an orphaned orca, to her pod and native waters on the north end of Vancouver Island. The project is the only successful orca rehabilitation in history. In July 2013, Springer was seen with her first calf!

Inspired by Springer's success, and alarmed at the plight of the southern resident orcas, Donna started The Whale Trail in 2008. Contact her at donna@thewhaletrail.org. 206.919.5397

The Whale Trail is a nonprofit organization in partnership with
Partners NOAA Seattle Aquarium People for Puget Sound Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife The Whale Museum National Marine Sanctuaries