In 2018, the world watched as a southern resident killer whale mother called J35, or Tahlequah, appeared to grieve for her deceased calf, carrying its corpse for 17 days and 1,000 miles.
For some, the calf’s death appeared to symbolize the sad state of the southern resident killer whale, whose numbers have dropped to about 76, and the declining health of the oceans that are their home. CBC Vancouver’s new five-part podcast, entitled Killers: J pod on the brink, enlists the help of experts on the southern residents, including Ocean Wise’s Dr. Peter Ross and Vancouver Aquarium veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena, and representatives of Aboriginal stakeholders like Washington State’s Lummi nation.
In the podcast, these passionate defenders of the southern residents explain the issues affecting the whales, and their overall significance to the ocean and coastal life. These experts and others also explain what their groups and organizations are doing to try to save J pod, one of the three pods that make up this endangered species.
Often spotted in the area around the Georgia Strait and the Gulf and San Juan Islands, the southern residents’ pods are tightly knit and matrilineal. Unlike the other killer whales roaming B.C. waters, which dine on seals, these whales rely on Chinook salmon for their diet, and in recent years, they haven’t seemed to be able to find enough for themselves or their young. Although healthy southern resident killer whales can live to be as old as 70, their babies are now dying, which might mean extinction within a decade.
There are actually four populations of killer whales off the B.C. coast; the species as a whole is considered to be extremely complex in terms of each pod’s individual societies and ecologies. But it’s the fish-eating southern residents that are endangered. The supply of Chinook salmon has decreased in local waters due to climate change, fishing, and habitat degradation.
Ocean Wise’s Marine Mammal Research Program is working with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Southwest Fisheries Science Center and SR3 SeaLife Response to learn how the changes to their food supply affect the whales. The team uses a drone to take high-resolution aerial photos of both the northern and southern resident killer whales, analyzing them to determine their length, shape and degree of body fat, which indicate the state of their health. This is helping the experts figure out why the northern resident killer whales — designated as threatened — seem to be at less risk than their endangered southern resident cousins.
Another issue that may be affecting the killer whales generally is underwater noise, which hampers their ability to echolocate, a natural mode of detection that allows them to forage, navigate and avoid physical hazards. The underwater clamour of vessel traffic in the Salish Sea may also impede the whales’ ability to communicate with each other, a problem for this close-knit community. In an effort to contribute to conservation-minded solutions, the Marine Mammal Research Program’s Kathy Heise and Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard are working to isolate the elements of underwater noise that affect killer whales.
Whales are also plagued by the bio-accumulating contaminants found in industrial and agricultural runoff. Dioxins, furans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT and flame retardants that enter the fatty tissues of marine organisms wind up in the bodies of killer whales, affecting their immunity, reproductive ability and mortality. Whales that are not getting enough to eat must then rely on their fat reserves, which mobilizes these unwelcome toxins. Doctors Peter Ross and Marie Noel, of Ocean Wise’s Ocean Pollution Research Program, are investigating the effects these toxins may have on killer whales.
In the meantime, there’s a bit of good news. Among a group of southern resident killer whales spotted this summer was a new calf, J56, born at the end of May. The calf, which has been identified as a female, was seen swimming alongside her mother, J31.
How can you help the southern transient killer whales? We have ideas. And if you happen to see killer whales in the wild, please report your sighting — details are below.
Vancouver Aquarium B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network
The Vancouver Aquarium’s B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network collects data on cetaceans and sea turtles in British Columbia in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Public sightings are reported by residents, boaters and professionals and are used to inform research, conservation and recovery actions. Report your sighting to 1 866 I SAW ONE or [email protected]. www.wildwhales.org