Jump to content
  • Whales of the Salish Sea


    Despite all the noise, pollution and overfishing—the orca are still here.

    By Briony Penn (First published in the March-April 2017 edition of Focus Magazine)


    IT IS A COLD, WINDY MORNING in the new year at Deception Pass, a spectacular narrow channel between Whidbey Island and the mainland at the US end of the Salish Sea. Around 70 people are gathered to mourn the death of 10 members of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) in 2016 alone. Amongst the deaths are Granny, J2, believed to be over 100 years old, and nine other members of this endangered orca population—three of them newborns. The Samish people (relatives of Saanich First Nations) are holding the ceremony, sending cedar planks graced with chinook salmon and boughs of cedar out to sea as an offering to the whale families—J, K and L pods.

    Samish elder, Rose James, a granny herself, wraps the witnesses in blankets; drummers accompany the singers as they push the fish out on the makeshift boats.


    For the Samish, the whales are their family. The stories and songs have been composed from thousands of years of co-habiting these waters.

    James thanks S’ila (Granny) for showing herself to people and making them happy. Loons, scoters and buffleheads bob offshore and bald eagles, gulls and some wily crows eye up the salmon. The human witnesses are from all around the Salish Sea: whale scientists, ecotourism operators, members of orca-related non-profits, journalists and people who just love whales.

    With the population of resident orca now down to 78 individuals, our little human group mirrors the whales in more ways than just numbers and range of ages. Like us, these orca have complex cultures and diverse languages. They care for their families and are led by matriarchs, long after their reproductive years. They have rituals for sharing territory. They sing, share their food, play, court, nurse their babies and, like us, grieve at loss.

    I look around at the faces and reflect on what it would be like if this was all that was left of my community. I imagine the decimation is not unlike what the Samish and other indigenous groups endured through colonization. What would it be like to lose 10 percent of this clan in one year? Losing three of the babies to accumulated toxins in mother’s milk would be devastating. Young adults are dying from accidents with ships and starvation. For the orca, the prime food (80 percent) is chinook salmon, which have been overfished, their spawning rivers dammed and polluted.

    One of the Samish speakers notes that when matriarchs like Granny die, a century of knowledge is lost for the families. The genealogical history of Granny carries not only orca and Samish history, but our western environmental history. Moby Doll, the young L-pod male who was captured in 1964, launched international awareness of orca societies, but also led to their popularity in aquariums. Moby Doll was likely Granny’s son. Lolita (Tokitae), who has been incarcerated for 46 years in a Miami aquarium, galvanized an international community around her release. She too is an offspring of Granny. Both were captured within sound range of where we are standing.


    Every five minutes, the ceremony is interrupted by fighter jets—flying barely 100 metres above us. They are so loud that everyone immediately puts their hands over their ears. The speakers, singers and drummers stop and wait until the jets have descended to the naval airbase at nearby Oak Harbour, and then resume.

    The orca likely have a similar reaction to the noise of ship traffic. In order to catch chinook, orca need to echolocate, but if the equivalent of a fighter jet flies by every five minutes, they have no choice but to go silent and wait out the noise like we do. Earlier, I had asked a local walking her dog how she and her pet coped with this ear-shattering noise. She looked at me suspiciously and said: “It’s the sound of freedom.”

    At the ceremony, however, a young woman tells me she left Texas where she was born and raised, the offspring of a petrochemical engineer, to find a culture for whom whale calls were the sound of freedom. And I’m reminded of how whales draw people from all cultures to a greater awareness and connection to the natural world. For those who have been raised to believe humans are separate from the rest of the natural world, often their first inkling that we are all connected comes from these animals. Through the story of the Southern Resident Killer Whales, people see how orca survival is intrinsically linked to their own.


    MANY OF THE PEOPLE AT THE CEREMONY have made the pilgrimage there after attending a full-day research workshop hosted by the Orca Network. Howard Garrett, the co-founder of Orca Network, started working for the Centre for Whale Research in 1981. He and his partner Susan Berta have been tireless educators and activists ever since. The workshop raised the question: Is there hope for reversing the orca population decline?

    The answer, according to researchers, is yes, but it will require cooperation throughout the watershed in both countries. From the American side, they are working against the ecological clock to get permits to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River and restore key historic chinook spawning grounds. Jim Waddell, retired US Army Corps of Engineers who leads the charge, told me Obama had given the OK but they got stalled at the state level. Now with President Trump, they are back at square one, though no less determined.

    On the noise issue, acoustic researchers Val and Scott Veirs have documented the range of acoustical noise of large ships in US waters, measuring the noise-output of 1600 vessels in all. The Veirs team have narrowed down the offenders to specific bulk carriers, tankers and container ships. Since the 1960s, the growth of commercial fishing has resulted in a 10-fold increase in low-frequency noise. Reducing the traffic, both in terms of number and noise frequency is part of the solution.

    A traffic reduction or limit in terms of area would also help to reduce ship strikes, which was what killed J-34, Doublestuff, this December.

    Canadians have also started their own acoustic research project, ECHO, with Port Metro Vancouver setting up a hydrophone listening station to monitor underwater vessel noise.

    At the research workshop, attendees also heard about Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s Population Viability Analysis which ranks the various threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whales, and determines the ability of the population to recover. The analysis shows that by increasing chinook populations and quieting the sea, we can almost eliminate the risk of them going extinct within the next century.

    As a result of its analysis, Raincoast has launched a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion. The judicial review is requested on the basis that legal protections for marine species at risk were not applied. Raincoast wasn’t the only one stating that the Southern Resident Killer Whales would have a high chance of extinction with the project. Kinder Morgan and the National Energy Board came to the same conclusion, with NEB acknowledging there would be “significant adverse effects.”

    Despite that, the project was greenlighted by both federal and provincial governments in their determination to expand ports to get bitumen to market.

    As for increasing their food supply, according to a 2010 DFO scientists’ study on chinook salmon, the Southern Resident Killer Whales need 67,000-81,000 chinook over the peak summer feeding period. The conclusion was that chinook fisheries management plans should take the orca’s needs into account “in order to ensure adequate chinook availability for the whales in their Critical Habitats.” Not surprisingly, the federal government under Stephen Harper in 2015 ignored its own scientists and drew up an Action Plan for the Southern Residents that would only “investigate” fisheries closures as a “possible” tool in poor chinook return years.

    Fishing levels of chinook are pretty high these days, sometimes at 40 percent or more of stock assessments. This is in a population where spawners have declined in rivers by more than 50 percent over the last 15 years. A 2015 study by Lacey et al showed that just a 20 percent increase in chinook consumption would reverse the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whales and provide a 1.9 percent growth rate of the pods.

    But the forces are stacked against that happening. In 2015, the US and Canadian fishing industries caught close to 2 million chinook. About 80 percent of the salmon caught in BC waters is harvested by Jimmy Pattison Group’s Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco), and there seems little appetite to let a pesky pod of orca get between the corporate fishing industry and its profits. Another division of the Pattison Group, Westshore Terminals, is Canada’s busiest coal-export terminal, catering to those noisy coal bulk carriers at Robert’s Bank. Pattison has been a big supporter of the BC Liberals; in total, Pattison-related corporations have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Liberals over the past decade.


    IT WASN'T ALL BAD NEWS at the Orca Network’s research workshop. Veteran whale researcher John Calambokidis brought some good news about the other whale populations of the Salish Sea. Since 1990, researchers have noticed growing numbers of what constitutes a Salish Sea resident grey whale pod, affectionately known as Sounders. With grey whales returning to historic levels and reaching a carrying capacity on the feeding grounds off the outer coast, a group of greys have moved into the Salish Sea where they spend their spring.

    Using amazing footage from suction cup video tags, Calambokidis’ research shows that these whales forage on ghost shrimps in the mudflats of the Snohomish Estuary. As their numbers rise, they could well return to the mudflats of the Fraser Estuary. Calambokidis has found these animals equally as sociable and complex as orca. Unfortunately, they are subject to the same threats of oil spills, ship strikes, and habitat destruction from shipping ports that orcas are.

    Humpbacks are also returning to their historic numbers with a population that has levelled off after increasing at 7-8 percent a year. Humpbacks are recolonizing the Salish Sea not just seasonally but overwinter, providing frequent sightings on ferries for visitors.

    Likewise, fin whales are increasing at 3-5 percent a year and were spotted in the Juan de Fuca Strait last summer for the first time in a century. Fins are the second-largest whales in the world and forage after krill (small crustaceans). Prior to the voluntary arrival of the fins, the only time you would see these whales around here was dead, wrapped around the bow of a ship. The US banned krill fishing in 2009 to provide for marine mammal foraging and the well-being of other species; Canada wouldn’t follow suit.


    BACK AT DECEPTION PASS, the ceremony ends with a feast for the humans. We retreat into a little park hut to get out of the cold wind and reduce the jet noise. There we find a welcoming table of bannock, smoked salmon and hot drinks.

     The Samish ceremony left me with a lot of hope. The whales are still here, despite everything thrown at them. They are strong, determined, and have kept their language even with a century of suppression. They are reminding us all what the real sound of freedom is.

    Briony Penn’s most recent book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize.

    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments

    There are no comments to display.

    Join the conversation

    You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

    Add a comment...

    ×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

      Only 75 emoji are allowed.

    ×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

    ×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

    ×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...