Orca Rescue: Uniting for Conservation and Change

By Rebekah Denn

orca from the Center for Whale Research
Photo courtesy of the Center for Whale Research

 

Lodie Gilbert Budwill saw her first orca whale 30 years ago from a ferry boat heading to San Juan Island.

“I remember running to the back of the ferry, just to stay as close to the whale as I possibly could while the ferry moved forward. That was my first orca whale experience and I fell madly in love with them,” she said.

Budwill has supported the endangered local orca community, the Southern Resident killer whales, ever since. She’s volunteered for 12 years with the Center for Whale Research (CWR) on San Juan Island, and all profits from her line of greetings cards featuring the whales are donated to the center. PCC provides shelf space for Budwill’s cards and directs money from all sales to the center, in a philanthropic effort that’s raised more than $182,000 for the nonprofit since 2019.

It’s one step among many endeavors needed to support the iconic Northwest marine mammals.

To mark Orca Action Month in June, PCC is hosting an “Eat With Purpose” class on June 25 in Edmonds featuring Darren Croft, the executive director of the research center. A new art exhibit at the Burien PCC will also showcase the center’s work. But for the beloved animals to survive, let alone thrive, every month has to be the equivalent of Orca Month.

“The problem that we’re addressing is that we’ve got this critically endangered population of killer whales, and they’re struggling because of how we’ve interacted with the environment…” Croft said.

“If we don’t change things, this population most likely is going to go into further decline and, eventually, extinct.”

The Center’s most recent census shows just 75 animals remain in the Southern Resident population, split into three pods designated as J, K and L.

The population had dropped in the 1960s and early 1970s, when many animals were captured and moved to marine parks, at least 13 dying in the process. It rebounded somewhat when those captures ceased, then dropped precipitously as Chinook salmon populations, the Southern Residents’ chief food supply, plummeted, and other natural resources have been depleted. Too few calves are born, and their mortality rate is too high.

Extinction isn’t inevitable. Croft said he has great hope for the future. But it will take “bold action” – and steps that are both large and small.

Lodie Greeting Cards

Artist Aimee Dieterle’s images for Cards by Lodie

Why we love the whales

Budwill has thought plenty about why humans connect so deeply with the Southern Residents, and sometimes it’s impossible to put into words.

Visually, of course, they are stunning – beautiful, majestic and acrobatic.

“They can kind of steal your heart just from their appearance,” she said.

Spending time around them, though, the connection becomes something more.

“They are so caring and understanding of the family unit and nurturing that family unit,” she said.

Budwill witnessed a famous and striking example firsthand in 2018, when Southern Resident J35, known as Tahlequah, gave birth. The calf, the first born to the pod since 2015, died less than an hour later. The whale carried the dead calf’s body through the water for 17 days in an apparent ordeal of grief. From her home, Budwill saw the mother pushing her calf toward a cove, her podmates joining her for hours there in what felt like a ceremony of mourning.

The whales “are very soulful, charismatic individuals that seem to be much wiser in my opinion than a lot of humans,” she said.

Center for Whale Research

The Center’s work has been key in supporting and understanding the resident whales.

“There’s nothing like that population of killer whales. Their culture is something that is unique,” Croft said.

“They have a matrilineal society where neither sons or daughters disperse from the family group … You’ve got a 60-year-old mom living with her 30-year-old son and her 40-year-old daughter, and this family unit just stays together…that’s really, really, really unusual.”

Ken Balcomb, the Center’s late founder, began a study of the population in 1976 – when current director Croft was a baby. It’s become the longest-ever scientific study of orcas, an invaluable and unbroken record.

“What the Center is doing is monitoring and tracking the change in this population through time. It’s monitoring its health, but it’s also doing research off the back of that data to try and understand some of the risks to that population and what’s affecting its survival and reproduction – and what’s constraining its recovery,” Croft said.

News reports from the study’s early years show how little solid knowledge existed about the animals a half-century ago, when some of today’s mature whales were juveniles.

A 1976 account from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer makes it clear the scientists, then organized as the Moclips Cetological Society, were only theorizing that the population was matriarchal, and only suspected that whales were following the salmon runs through local waters. The National Marine Fisheries Service had contracted the group to determine the orca population in Puget Sound, according to the Center, and early results showed “there were far fewer than previously thought, leading the U.S. government to stop all captures for marine parks.”

Federal funding for that investigation was soon exhausted, but the scientists kept going. The following year, in 1977, they sold orca T shirts, buttons and photos to buy gas for their boats to continue the work.

In 1979, P-I columnist Shelby Scates accompanied the researchers on the water, noting that they planned to continue the study “as long as there is human interest.” That scope, he concluded, seemed unlimited.

Decades later, while the population is “on a knife’s edge,” as Croft put it, the commitment continues.

Lodie Greeting Card

Artist Taylor Redmond’s images for Cards by Lodie

Saving the whales

For researchers on the water, even a peek at a dorsal fin can help identify which whale they’ve spotted. All have unique markings – the shape of the saddle patch or eye patch, the nicks in a fin, or other features they’ve catalogued over time in a cetacean Who’s Who.

“All of those things are unique to individuals, just like our fingerprints,” Croft said.

Encounters are logged carefully, as with this excerpted observation from March 24 (the full encounter is online):

“The team approached slowly and identified the bull as 31-year old L88. As they observed L88’s movements, another fin caught (staff member Mark Malleson’s) attention off the port quarter. (Observer Brendon Bissonnette) recognized the whale as L90, actively in pursuit of a salmon. For several minutes, she gave chase, twisting and turning in pursuit, until another whale, L125, joined in. While L90 continued to remain nearby, she relinquished her pursuit of the salmon to give way to L125, indicating a potential training opportunity for the 3-year-old whale.”

The Center has different but complementary arms. Its survey observations such as the one above and other scientific research studies are crucial.

Sharing knowledge with the public is another key, including the education center in Friday Harbor, offering virtual reality experiences among other opportunities.

Active conservation is a newer goal: “There are many pressures the population faces, but above all this population of whales is struggling because they don’t have enough food, that salmon is in short supply, especially large salmon,” Croft said.

Shortly before Balcomb’s death the Center secured a 45-acre property on the Elwha River where dams had been removed, now named Balcomb Big Salmon Ranch, a conservation property in the heart of the Chinook salmon spawning grounds.

“We’re rewilding that property to allow nature and wildlife back in… It’s now secured against any kind of human degradation of the riverbanks or forest to help contribute to the wider recovery of the ecosystem and ensure that Chinook salmon continue to spawn in the river for generations to come.”

How to help the orca whales

Individuals can help the intertwined Northwest icons, salmon and orcas, with daily decisions like recycling, avoiding single-use products, paying attention to what they’re buying and where it’s coming from, not dumping pollutants in drains.

Cards by Lodie, one of those steady supports, began because “there is so much beauty here I wanted to share it with everybody,” she said. Her connection with the whales made it something much more. She drew on other artists and photographers to expand the card line, including photographs from the Center. She connected with PCC after Tahlequah’s ordeal in 2018, which led PCC to an initial moratorium on Chinook sales and then developing a new standard for selling the fish.

A big part of the work, Budwill said, is increasing awareness around the Southern Residents, so everyone realizes how endangered they are — and what individuals can do to help.

Bigger steps, Croft said, require political will.

Removing the dams on the Snake River (would be) a big one…” he said. “In terms of things that can have a large impact quickly, taking down dams is an obvious one, and I hope it will happen. I believe it can.”

The Elwha River, where final dams were removed in 2014, “is a great example of where these barriers are taken down and the fish will return,” he said.

The severity of the crisis is somewhat obscured, Croft said, because we’re watching the decline of the Southern Residents in slow motion. Whales are long-lived and the J, K and L pods regularly visit our waters.

“The question is, what is their reproductive capacity and how many offspring are they having?” Croft said. Populations of killer whales exist in other areas where none reproduce. When the last individual dies, that population will be gone.

The mission of founder Balcomb, continuing even after his death, is to reverse that slide instead of just documenting it. As Balcomb would often say,  “I’m not going to count them to zero — at least not quietly.”

 

Orca pod from Center for Whale Research

Photo courtesy of the Center for Whale Research

Learn more about Southern Resident killer whales

Join Dr. Darren Croft for an “Eat With Purpose” class on June 25 at the Edmonds PCC (information and registration here). A light meal will be served and Croft will discuss the fascinating behavior, ecology, foraging patterns, and complex social lives of the Southern Residents.

Visit the Community Art Wall at the Burien PCC featuring the Center for Whale Research.

Support the Center for Whale Research by purchasing Cards by Lodie at PCC stores.

See here for more information on the center and its work.

Take action from the center’s recommendations.

Also in this issue

Celebrating 30 years of the fun, funky Fremont PCC

Learn the fun, funky history of PCC’s “Center of the Universe” store, Fremont PCC.

Get iconic recipes from PCC’s deli

There are stories behind some of your favorite PCC deli recipes – and you can make them at home.

June 2024 Letters to the Editor

Compostable packaging • PCC elections • Chick culling • Molly Moon Ice Cream