The Orcas of the Salish Sea

T he glistening tip of a black dorsal fin slices up through the ripples. It rises about a foot above the surface. Looking like a submarine's periscope it travels straight ahead for twenty feet until the mighty downstroke of the flukes lifts the six feet of dripping, wavy fin into the air. A huge torpedo-shaped head then pushes out just far enough for a rapid blast out the blowhole and quick suck of air to refill the orca's lungs before it arcs back down into the depths.
It's J6, a male over 40 years old, rising to breathe beside his family. His mother's sister plows up next to him to heave an explosive blow, followed by three more generations of J pod orcas, all closely related, all inseparable their entire lives.
Wispy clouds of vapor linger high over their heads as they pass under the lighthouse at Whale Watch Park. One of them twists in tight circles pursuing a large salmon. The others dive into the kelp, rubbing the long soft strands along their backs and into the notches of their flukes, as they check for salmon hiding in the shadows. Above them the stark snowcapped Olympics stand watch over this vast inland sea, wearing red-orange hues in the early morning sun.
The orca, or killer whale, is a wondrous and impressive creature by any measure. For tens of millions of years there has not been a predator in the sea that can touch Orcinus orca, the largest member of the dolphin family. And yet, there is no recorded case of a free-ranging orca ever harming a human. In fact, even when orca mothers are being herded out of the way so their young can be wrestled into nets and loaded onto trucks, as occurred in Japan in February of this year, they have never attacked a human being, or even hurt one accidently. When seen in movies like Free Willy, or doing tricks at marine parks, it is easy to see that they often show extreme responsiveness, even affection toward humans. Having little else to do in captive situations, they often initiate interactions and engage in mind games with their keepers.

W hen encountered in their natural marine environment, however, their behavior is much different, much less interested in human affairs. They usually seem indifferent to human observers. Though always mindful of boats large and small that jockey for position over their heads much of the time, they tend to simply continue travelling, foraging and socializing with one another, as though thoroughly engaged in the complex social life of their families. Occasionally, however, one may pass surprisingly close to a boat as if to inspect the passengers.
The inland waters of Washington State and British Columbia, known as the Salish Sea, are blessed for much of each year with the presence of an extended family of orca whales, actually a clan of almost a hundred related members, known as the Southern Resident community. Usually found in multi-generational pod groupings, designated J, K and L pods and numbering 21, 18 and 55 members respectively, they appear to be led by elder matriarchs as they glide with masterful ease through these vast estuaries. The fourteen adult males, about forty adult females and more than forty juveniles under 12 years old are all capable of swimming at speeds of 20 mph for up to an hour. They typically travel 75 to 100 miles every 24 hours. From April through September, the Southern community pods travel continuously up and down the turbulent inland waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and Georgia Strait in British Columbia. From October through June, K and L pods often disappear completely to parts unknown, while J pod usually continues patrolling the inland estuaries. Each individual has been identified with a specific alphanumeric designation, such as “J6.”

U ntil field studies began just over 20 years ago, very little was known about the lifestyles or abilities of these powerful and elusive animals. They have the widest global range of any mammal except humans and may be seen in all types of marine ecosystems. Their highly varied communities, unpredictable movements, and the fact that they spend about 95% of their time under water have made them difficult to study. Today, however, thanks to the dedication of whale researchers such as Michael Bigg, Paul Spong, Ken Balcomb, Graeme Ellis, John Ford, Robin Baird and others, a picture is beginning to form of the highly refined physical adaptations and social sophistication of this remarkable species. Because each animal has unique shapes, markings and color patterns, they can be individually identified by sight or photograph and studied over long periods of time. As a result, we now understand a little more about the long term relationships that characterize their families and societies, and about their extraordinary abilities.
Less than ten years ago it was established that female orcas average over fifty years longevity and can live for eighty or more years in the wild, while males average around thirty years and may live to around fifty. Thus a great deal of accumulated knowledge may reside in orcas of advanced years, to be passed down through generations.
In the early 1980's, Dr. John Ford, a researcher with the Vancouver Public Aquarium, formulated the results of ten years of listening in on orca conversations. Ford discovered that each community has a distinct set of characteristic calls. In other words, the Transients and Residents, for instance, speak different "languages." It is believed that every community around the oceanic globe uses its own, completely unique, set of calls. Orcas are intrinsically communicative, and the ability to use their particular community's calls is essential to their survival. When maintained in marine parks they retain their native calls even after decades, even while they learn new calls from fellow captives caught from other communities.

"Encounter in the Salish Sea"
S ome of the most interesting questions about orcas are about their social and cultural behaviors. Each community so far studied shows tremendous originality in their habits and social systems. Their diets, feeding styles, patterns of movement, and of course their communication systems, vary tremendously. Cetologists (researchers of whales, dolphins and porpoises) are just beginning to look at the differences in cultural adaptations between orca populations, and are coming to the realization that we are dealing with cultural mammals much like us, that determine their social behavior by the use of meaningful symbolic communication. Such studies can't be done from poolside. Studying orcas in captivity is like learning all about Michelangelo by observing his paint brushes - it's what they do with their capabilities in their natural environment that is most fascinating.

T here are probably less than 50 completely distinct orca communities worldwide, with the total number of individuals only about 10,000, most of which can be classified as either Residents or Transients. All orcas travel over fairly large areas, but Residents tend to frequent a specific territory and return with regularity to the same areas. Resident pods usually have 20 or more individuals and seem to eat only fish. Among Residents, several pods make up a community, which usually comes together a few times each year in active, seemingly festive gatherings. A vast range of intense underwater vocalizations and spectacular "play" behavior such as breaching, spy-hopping, tail-lobbing and cart-wheeling are most commonly seen during these gatherings. Though erections are often observed and sexual arousal seems to occur often, the mating patterns of any orca populations are so far completely unknown. Conflict of any kind occurs only very rarely, and male to male aggression is virtually unknown among orcas of either type. They seem to truly enjoy their time together.
Among the Southern Residents, both male and female offspring remain with their mothers for their entire lives, which is unheard of for any other mammal. This allows incredible continuity of behavior patterns within each particular community, because when habits and traditions are passed down to both male and female offspring, neither of which disperse from the family, those behaviors are likely to remain virtually unchanged through many generations.
Transient pods are typically comprised of only three to five whales. At least two transient males have been documented travelling alone, although even they occasionally join up with other transients. In sharp contrast to the Residents' piscivorous diets, the Transients' prey selection consists almost exclusively of marine mammals. The many dramatic accounts of bloody attacks on seals, dolphins and whales by Transients surely served to reinforce the view of orcas as killers. Transient pods may pass through the Salish Sea at any time, but especially in the spring and fall. Juvenile Transient females have been known to disperse from their mothers, but at least in one case, a female returned to her mother after giving birth to a calf of her own, indicating that the family's emotional bonds had not been broken even though mother and daughter were separated by more than a thousand miles for several years.

R esidents and transients don't mix, nor do they interbreed. All indications are that the mutually exclusive life styles of the two distinct groups, or races, of orcas are due to differences in cultural patterns. The two communities share the same habitat and each is fully capable of eating the diet and of interbreeding with the other, and yet they do neither. Residents and Transients are in the process of becoming separate species, even though they share the same habitat. This allocation of overlapping habitat with a totally separate community of the same species is another facet of the life of an orca that does not occur for any other mammal. They apparently accomplish this pattern of mutual coexistence by apportioning the available prey resources and thus avoiding the dangers of competition. With the benefit of tens of millions of years of evolutionary history, their ancestors have developed satisfactory social arrangements between communities. These understandings are now deeply ingrained in the cultural mores of each community, passed down from generation to generation for thousands of millennia.
In addition to the Southern Residents and the Transients, a “Northern community,” with almost 200 members, may be found in northern British Columbia waters. Defined linguistically, there are three separate clans in the Northern community, and they are generally less cohesive that the Southern residents. Yet another community of orcas, numbering around 300, was just discovered in 1991. Known as the Offshores, these whales are usually found in groups of from 15 to 75, traversing the coastal Pacific waters of North America, at least from California to Alaska. These offshore populations have not yet been observed in any detail so little is known about their behavior or association patterns, but like each other community so far studied, the Offshores share a distinct repertoire of hundreds of discreet calls, unlike those used by other communities.

T heir brains are enormous, 4 to 5 times human brain size. They are masters of self control. They have brought their breathing under completely conscious command. They rest by relaxing one hemisphere of their brain while guiding their swimming and breathing with the other half. The regulation of their body heat appears to be subject to their will. Ovulation is totally unpredictable among orcas, indicating the possibility that conception may be a matter of choice. They use a codified system of vocalizations that appear to serve as symbols, which they presumably use to broadcast data or instructions instantly across vast volumes of marine habitat, and to transmit cultural information across generations. There are wide variations between communities, but most of those studied so far have shown intense family cohesion. They pose no threat to humans. Aggression of any kind is rare among orcas except when procuring food. They live well within the historical productive capacity of their ocean environment, and are not the cause of declines in fish populations or any other resource. Their physical adaptations and overall health have evolved over tens of millions of years to a peak of metabolic robustness. Give a captive orca room to move in a natural setting and chances are the whale will rebound to the strength and stamina that is normal for the species. Though the traumas and isolation of captivity tends to exhaust their resources, their mental resilience seems to be extraordinary.
Between 1965 and 1976, all the orcas of the Salish Sea were fair game for capture teams collecting whales for marine parks. At least 58 were captured or killed during capture operations in these waters. Orcas in captivity tend to die by the time they reach maturity and of those captured in Washington State, only one remains alive today. Many people are urging the return of Lolita, the last surviving Puget Sound captive, from the Miami Seaquarium back to her home waters among the Southern Resident community. Researchers believe she still holds memories of her family and the skills needed to rejoin them. At birth, orca brains are about three times the size of adult human brains, so we should perhaps be hesitant to assign limits to an orca's memory capacity. They may begin learning essential knowledge and skills sooner after birth than human babies. Thanks to the political and legal efforts of concerned citizens, captures have been stopped in the U.S. and British Columbia, but orcas are still at risk of capture in other parts of the world. In February, five orcas were caught in a harbor in southern Japan, for shipment to various Japanese marine parks. Efforts continue to have them released.

"The Salish Sea"
M ost of the elements in this new portrait of the orca derive from very recent studies, but when these facets of orca lifestyles are considered together, it seems anachronistic to assume that orcas can belong to any nation, or to any corporation or person. The act of capture and confinement, regardless of motivation, annihilates orca family bonds, and with rare exceptions kills the captured whales after only a few years. When captures are taken to extremes, as almost occurred in Washington three decades ago, and as has probably already occurred in Japan, the fabric of these fascinating mammals' cultural communities may be destroyed. From an orca's point of view they no doubt belong only to their own families, and an increasingly large segment of the public is declaring that it is our responsibility to respect and appreciate them as they live naturally.
Over the past 50-plus million years the order Cetacea has filled the seas with 75 or more species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, radiating into a complex and harmonious diversity, growing very large in some cases and very small in others, some going to shallow water, some to deep, some to warm seas and some to cold, some having teeth and some with gigantic brushes for use as filters in place of teeth, all to find their sustenance in some small niche, available only if aggressive adaptations are made, and anatomies drastically modified. Orcas and a few other species prey on other marine mammals, and humpbacks whack each other with their tails during mating season, and male bottlenose dolphins may team up to chase other males away from females, but overall, battles for dominance, resources or territory are rare among cetaceans. Orcinus orca has replicated that paradigm by apportioning available resources between communities and thereby avoiding the dangers and damage of conflict.

R ecently, a great deal of concern has been expressed due to the rapid growth in the number of whale watching vessels, which are predicted to increase almost 40% this year alone in the Salish Sea. Fortunately, most boaters and commercial whale watch operators have learned to give the whales a wide corridor, keeping at least 100 yards from the whales, and moving very slowly whenever whales are seen. A healthy measure of common sense, and of common courtesy for the orcas, whether resident or transient, are called for if we humans are to exhibit a modicum of the consideration the orcas have shown for us.
The fate of our local orcas, and all other killer whales around the globe, is inextricably linked to the health of marine ecosystems. These intelligent and resourceful creatures will do well as long as the basic food supply on which they depend is available. Killer whales are at the top of the food chain so all the other sea creatures from krill to sea lions must prosper, if the orca are to survive. Here in Washington State and British Columbia, our marine water quality and healthy salmon runs are crucial to the presence and survival of the Southern community. According to Dr. Bernard Shanks, Director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “If we restore our watersheds, we will create the conditions needed not only for salmonids, but the entire wild community.” Watershed habitat, including mountainsides of deep forests and clear streams, must be viable enough to support large populations of spawning salmon, or our Southern resident community will have to find another place to live. If we care responsibly for our natural environment in the years to come, our lives will continue to be enriched by knowing that we share this region with the magnificent and mysterious orca.

By Howard Garrett, © 1997

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