Watching the Whales
One night, my dad and I were sitting at the dining room table, reading. It was late, but still hot out, and we had the patio door open. The silence was cut by a puff of air, we looked at each other and shot out of our chairs, running onto the deck. Everything was dark blue, but in the reflections of the moonlight on the water we could see dorsal fins. A pod of orcas was swimming by, their white patches glowing underwater, bodies making quiet sounds as they slid through the sea.
That moment captured me, not just because of the whales, but because we were so alone with them. It was really just us and the waves and J Pod.
In the summer between my first and second year of university, I lived with my dad in his house on the water on Saturna, one of the Gulf Islands, for three months and the orcas would come by at least a couple times a week. Some weeks we would spot them every day.
It was never boring to see them, it never felt routine. They would breach, spy-hop, and flip their tails, while the crowds of islanders on land cheered like spectators at SeaWorld. I fell in love with orcas that summer. I remember running along the smooth, eroded sandstone shore, in pace with their swimming. Because there's a steep drop off right offshore, the orcas swim close to the rocks. I could have reached out and touched them, their dorsal fins almost as tall as I am.
I felt fiercely about this relationship, me on the land and them in the sea, but it was bittersweet. Almost every time I saw the whales, they were flanked by ships and boats. It almost hurt me to watch them swim by on a Saturday afternoon because I knew there’d be at least 20 whale-watching boats stalking them, their hulls tipped to one side with the weight of the tourists. They would float too close to the whales, or drive hastily through them, maybe cutting a mother off from her calf. It wasn’t just the whale-watchers. Out further in the water, cargo ships passed, full of cars or timber or oil, their propeller’s “cold boiling” the ocean, creating bubbles which burst loudly underwater.
I understand wanting to watch whales, I understand better than anybody. But with the shore on one side and a wall of underwater noise on the other, orca’s abilities to hunt and communicate with each other are compromised. However, It’s hard to ask people not to go whale-watching when the orcas are dwindling so quickly.
The southern resident orcas are endangered, with a population of only 78 as of the beginning of this year. Since then, Granny, or J2, has been presumed dead. She was the matriarch and the oldest in the population at about 105 years old. J52, a two-and-a-half-year-old male also died of malnutrition this year. Late last year, J34 was hit by a vessel and washed up dead on the shore. There are many factors contributing to the decline of this population, from the lack of Chinook salmon, their only food source, to the noise from ships, and pollution. Scientists are worried about their survival.
To put stress on an already troubled population will only cause more harm, and so if you’re ever in the area, I urge you to visit one of the Gulf Islands and try to watch the whales from the shore, instead of from a boat. If you wait up at night you might hear the puff of their breath and the splash of their fins and you might get to have them all to yourself. I promise that it will be so much more special.