They are an icon of British Columbia’s coast, a star of the tourism industry, an indicator of the health and quality of our marine ecosystems and a beautiful spiritual mammal we are proud to share our coast with.
Also known as killer whales, orcas are actually large, black and white dolphins. These majestic marine mammals roam coastal waters as pods, spending 60% of their time foraging for food. They communicate through a variety of calls and whistles, which differ from pod to pod, as do languages and accents between people in different parts of the world.
There are two different types of orcas in BC coastal waters: residents and transients. Offshore orca populations were discovered in 1991, but we still know very little about them.
Transient orcas migrate along our coast from as far north as Alaska to as far south as California. These orcas eat large marine mammals like seals, sea lions, dolphins and porpoises.
Meanwhile, two populations of resident orcas call BC’s coast their permanent home. Southern resident orcas live around southern Vancouver Island, throughout the Gulf Islands and in the state of Washington’s waters. Northern resident orcas live from Haida Gwaii to northern Vancouver Island and are often spotted in Johnstone Straight. Unlike transient orcas, these resident orcas live almost exclusively off of Chinook salmon.
Since 2003, southern resident orcas have been listed as endangered under the Species At Risk Act, and as of 2013, we have only 81 southern resident orcas remaining. Meanwhile, transient and northern resident orcas are currently listed as threatened.
The lack of prey, noise pollution and chemical pollution all have an effect on orcas. Resident orca populations are dependent on Chinook salmon: during years of low Chinook salmon populations, the mortality rate of orcas often rise.
The noise created by the engine of a motorboat may not sound like a significant threat to a large marine mammal, but noise pollution affects communication between whales, as well as their ability to locate prey. A significant presence of boats also distracts orcas from feeding and breeding.
Orcas have become increasingly polluted with toxins through a process called bioaccumulation. Because they are at the top of the food chain, orcas accumulate the toxins in all the animals they eat, which have also accumulated toxins through their diets. As a result, orcas end up with concentrated levels of toxins that they accumulate faster than they can lose.
On a larger scale, oil spills can be detrimental to orcas and their entire ecosystems. Orcas have little sense of smell, so they are unable to detect the threat of oil, despite the fact that inhaling oil vapour is extremely harmful to their reparatory systems, and that eating oil contaminated prey is destructive to their internal organs. The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline is currently a huge potential threat to BC’s entire coastline, orcas included, because of the potential for oil leaks, tanker collisions and spills, and increased noise pollution.
What can we do for orcas?
As boaters, whether whale watching, fishing or kayaking, we can admire and appreciate orcas in a respectful manner by following marine wildlife guidelines. These guidelines require us to keep speeds under 7 knots within 400 meters of an orca, not make any abrupt course changes and stay at least 100 meters away from orcas. It is also important to keep out of the path of orcas and approach them from the sides only, not from the front or back.
We can reduce our use of toxin filled cleaning products, personal care products and pesticides by buying biodegradable cleaners, shampoos with natural ingredients and keeping our properties pesticide free. It may mean a less manicured looking lawn, but it is worth it. The toxins that end up in nature and that are harmful to orcas are not good for us either, and are best kept out of our homes out of our showers and off the lawns our children play on.
Additionally we can choose to support sustainable fisheries, by eating OceanWise and SeaChoice seafood only.
Last but not least, we can pressure government to protect orcas by writing to members of parliament, and we can sign petitions against potentially detrimental projects like the Enbridge Pipeline.