Saving the great giants of our seas
For 23 years, Troy Bright has been watching whales. When I meet him on the shore of Beautiful Bay on Malcolm Island, BC, on a hazy late August afternoon, he is perched atop a log, hydrophone system at the ready, scanning the horizon for signs of the orcas that mysteriously come to rub themselves along the shallow beach’s smooth stones. A self-taught orca expert, Bright has spent the past 23 summers living on the beach and studying Northern Resident orcas. He knows them so well that he’s even able to recognize them by ear. But this iconic Canadian species is under threat due to salmon stock decline, habitat disturbance, and the pollution of our oceans.
Orcas, also called killer whales, are technically the largest species of the dolphin family. Three distinct types of orcas inhabit the waters around BC: Northern Residents and Southern Residents, who mainly feed on Chinook salmon, and Bigg’s orcas—also known as transient orcas—who hunt a variety of mammals, including seals. The three types of orcas do not interact or interbreed.
While Bigg’s population numbers have been stable, resident orcas are at risk. Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) now classifies the dwindling Southern Resident population as endangered and considers the flatlining Northern Resident group to be threatened.
In the 2018 federal budget, the Canadian government committed $167 million over five years to help protect and recover endangered whale species, including Southern Residents. And for good reason: orcas face threats from all angles, says Bright.
In our oceans, everything is connected, and declining stocks of Chinook salmon—resident orcas’ preferred snack—have been in decline, largely due to habitat degradation, overfishing, fish farming, and the building of dams that sever salmon from their spawning grounds. As a result, resident orcas are going hungry. This has dire consequences: salmon scarcity has been linked to late pregnancy failure, a devastating trend for a species with already low birth rates.
As the world’s largest apex predator, orcas are exposed to a range of contaminants that flow up the food chain and lodge themselves in orcas’ blubber. This includes pesticides and now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
To compound the issue of salmon scarcity, starving whales are at risk of these toxins leaking from their blubber into their bloodstreams, leading to further health problems. One study found that PCB pollution is likely to have had a significant negative impact on the now-negligible orca populations in Europe.
According to Jared Towers, a cetacean research technician at DFO, orcas rely on a relatively silent environment to locate their prey and communicate with their pods. Pervasive noise from boats, both personal and commercial, is interfering with these sounds and appears to disrupt orcas’ natural behaviour.
In essence, says Bright, “We’re making orcas work harder now—they need to look farther, call louder to communicate, and travel faster to survive.”
Most of us don’t interact with orcas as a part of our daily lives, unless we’re lucky enough to spot their blow from the distance as we pass by on a ferry or kayak. In fact, Bright first became enthralled by killer whales on a ferry to Alert Bay, BC, in 1997. Another way to see them is whale watching.
According to Bright, whale watching plays an important role in introducing humans to our aquatic neighbours. “People come from all over the world to see orcas and to make a connection,” he says. “If whale watching didn’t exist, many people would not have gotten involved in conservation.”
Towers agrees. “Whale watching trips help people to take conservation seriously,” he says. “It can really benefit people to go out and learn from an experienced naturalist on board.”
Did you know?
A female resident orca can expect to live for an average of 50 years, while a male averages 30.
Orcas use sounds to navigate, communicate, and hunt. Each pod has a distinct pitch.
Whale watching companies have come under fire for disturbing whales’ habitats and interfering with their underwater communication. Thankfully, the federal government has recently enacted new legislation to prevent commercial boats from approaching closer than 400 metres of Southern Residents, and 200 metres of Northern Residents.
If you go whale watching, look for companies that are members of a whale watching association: they adhere to even stricter codes of conduct, and a portion of profits go toward conservation efforts such as beach cleaning, research, and salmon habitat restoration.
In addition to supporting conservation efforts, there are other ways you can help orcas.
If you’re going to eat salmon, opt for a species other than Chinook—leave those for the orcas. And say no to farmed salmon, whose feedlots spread disease among the wild population.
Towers also highlights the importance of efforts to restore damaged salmon habitats: without a healthy spawning habitat and a safe migration route, salmon cannot survive. “Our ocean’s ecosystem is like one big chain, and if you break any link, the whole thing is broken,” he says.
Even small lifestyle tweaks make a difference. For example, by switching to natural household cleaning products, you can reduce the number of contaminants that eventually drain into the ocean. The same goes for buying and disposing of products that contain PCBs.
Orcas are also affected by purchasing choices that we wouldn’t normally associate with the ocean. Take shipping traffic, for example. “We’re driving around in vehicles all the time,” Towers says. “This increases demand for oil and the risk of a dangerous oil spill.”
Finally, try building a rain garden in your backyard, which will filter storm run-off into a planting bed instead of letting it gush down the gutter and back into the sea, sucking up contaminants along the way.
“Do what you can,” says Bright. “Every person who starts doing some better things counts.”
With conscious effort, we can all help this beautiful species to thrive—and ensure that Bright has beach-loving whales to watch for decades to come.
Kid-friendly books, films, and events are a great way to engage younger generations with orca conservation. There are plenty of “fun-fact” videos available on YouTube.
For aspiring mini-marine biologists who want to dive deeper, check out OrcaLive—an initiative by Dr. Paul Spong, cetologist and founder of the research organization OrcaLab—which allows users to see and hear now-archived live footage from orcas in the Johnstone Strait.
Consider supporting, either financially or otherwise, a reputable Canadian orca conservation organization such as
A former alive editor, Isabela Vera lives for kayak trips where she can catch a glimpse of white and black in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.