Are we Killing Our Killer Whales? - Jo-Ann Carson

Are we Killing Our Killer Whales?

(This post is part of my Island Time Series)

The most iconic symbol for the Pacific Northwest is the Killer Whale, also known as the Orca. Its black, and white image is plastered everywhere, in art, jewelry, and the media. They have a special place in the hearts of the people who call this area home.

Not all Killer Whales are Alike

When I was eighteen and too young and stupid to be believable, I saw my first Killer Whale. As it breached in a small tank in the Vancouver Aquarium I fell in love. I didn’t even think about the fact that the poor whale was being forced to perform in a space the size of my living room back home in Toronto. I was overwhelmed with awe. They are magnificent mammals.

That was then. Killer whales are no longer kept at the aquarium and I’ve learned a few things.

Such as … there are different kinds of killer whales. One group lives out at sea and eat sharks. They have a healthy population. Another group eats large mammals such as sea lions.  They too have a healthy population.

The Southern Resident Whales

The southern resident whales (i.e., J Pod, K Pod and L Pod) frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. Each pod is a closely knit, matrillineal group. They feed exclusively on Chinook salmon. While they are similar to the other groups of Killer Whales they have their own dialect. J Pod is the group that is seen most often in the Salish Sea, off the west coast of Vancouver Island, around the Gulf Islands and in Vancouver’s busy harbor.

What threatens J Pod?

According to research there isn’t one single factor that is responsible for the declining population of whales. As the apex predator of the sea they have a complex relationship with everything around them. There are four main factors negatively affecting their lives:

  • Food scarcity – a diminishing supply of Chinook salmon, which they eat almost exclusively
  • Noise Pollution in the water created by boat traffic, keeps growing.
  • Water Pollution –  micro plastic contamination being one of the worst
  • Climate Change – the growing warm body of water, referred to as “the blob” floats off our coast changing the ecosystem for all marine life

Experts caution that decisions about regulations regarding any of these factors need to be evidence-based, or we will create other problems.

The story of J35 and her calf

Time to take out the hankerchief.

All whales in J pod are known by numbers. When J35’s calf died, she carried it for 17 days, over one thousand kilometers. A group of whales circled around her in an unusual ways. The sight was heartwrenching and galvanized many onlookers.

Some believe that what they witnessed was grief. Others believe  the whales were sending us a message to stop messing up the ocean. Some scientists say that it’s dangerous to anthropomorphize whales or any other animal. They act on instincts.

Whatever you want to call their behavior, one truth remains, J3’s seventeen day journey with her dead calf put the plight of the whales front and center in the news.

Whales and politics

Whether the controversy is about pipelines, whale watching, salmon fishing or port expansion, whales play a pivotal role in polarizing opinions. They have become a symbol for the environment, the canary in the ocean, a harbinger of change.

Is There Hope?

Yes, there is always hope.

Responsible boaters, fishermen and commercial vessels are voluntarily slowing down in our harbors. B.C. Ferries, which is the largest ferry service in the world, is looking into ways to decrease the noise their boats make as they motor through the Salish Sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has started a 1.1 billion dollar initiative and the Canadian government has 174 million dollar initiative to help the whales.

Environmentalists continue to remind us that everything we do impacts the whales and people are beginning to listen.

The following video was made three years ago:

Why am I talking about whales?

I write stories set in the Pacific Northwest, and my characters are shaped by their enviornment. So … I decided to write a series of posts about the geography of the west coast.

The Island Time Series

  1. I Choose to Live by Island Time

Posts in this series will be published on Wednesdays. Maybe not every Wednesday, but some Wednesdays:)

Next time, I plan to talk about Peregrine falcons.


Photo Source: Skeeze on

Two excellent podcasts:

CBC Radio Podcast Killers: JPod on the brink with Gloria Macarenko

A Podcast for Killer Whales with Dawn Noren