How to Help the Southern Resident Orcas of the Salish Sea
by Stacy Lynn Gilbert
It’s a Thursday night at the Patagonia store in Ballard, and the room is packed, with standing room only. Playing on a large screen at the back of the room is Return of the King, a wildlife documentary by local filmmaker Florian Graner. Images of orca whales gliding effortlessly through the Puget Sound waters flick across the screen as the telltale “puff puff” sound of their blowholes spraying water into the air plays over the loud speakers. Ginny Gensler, a local and avid killer whale enthusiast, tears up a bit as she watches a film whose message is clear; change our destructive ways, or lose our southern resident orcas forever.
It is a hard message to hear, especially for enthusiasts who have followed the stories and lives of the southern resident orcas for decades like Gensler has. She moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2002, and though born in New Mexico, she says she feels like she was always meant to end up watching the waters of the Puget Sound. The southern resident orca whales made her feel like she was truly home, as she explains that she has been following them for over the past 30 years. “Recently,” she said excitedly, “the J and L pods haven’t been seen in their normal waters, but a couple of weeks ago they showed up when I was camping in the San Juan Islands. It was the best birthday present in the world just to see them!”
It is clear that many in the room share the same fondness and love for these whales that Gensler clearly feels. Hands raise at the end of the film to ask Monika Wieland Shields, co-founder of the Orca Behavior Institute, how they can personally help our unique ocean dwelling neighbors. The resident orcas survival largely depends on the future of their main food source, the Chinook salmon. Other threats to these fish-eating whales are toxic chemicals in their water, and the effects that boats and vessel noise can cause on their marine habitat. Shields discusses attempts to remove four damns from the Columbia River Basin in order to make it easier for salmon to return and spawn in their native waters.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, here are five things we can do personally to help orcas:
Orcas are sensitive to noise and disturbance from boats. Instead of approaching them in personal vessels, spend a day watching them from a responsibly-managed whale watching vessel, or watch them from shore.
Engage in citizen science by alerting researchers when orcas are spotted so scientists can track their travel.
Get involved in efforts to protect and restore salmon habitat in local communities.
Chinook salmon are especially important to killer whale populations in the Salish Sea. Choose to eat sustainably-harvested salmon and other seafood to help protect wild fish populations.
Dispose of unused medicine and chemicals properly. Never dump them into household toilets and sinks or outside where they can get into ditches or storm drains. Contact local household hazardous waste collection facilities that accept old or unused chemicals.
For more information, and to learn about volunteering, visit OrcaBehaviorInstitute.org, WhaleScout.org, and Defenders.org.