Protecting B.C.’s Orca Whales

On a remote island near Alert Bay off the northern British Columbia coastline sits a one-room cedar-shake cabin barely big enough for two people. The dearth of creature comforts is balanced by a mellifluous soundtrack: squeaks, clicks, trills, and whistles from pods of orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, and porpoises cavorting in the Pacific Ocean just a stone’s throw away.

The cabin is the research base for conservation biologist Dr. Rob Williams, 39, whose cutting-edge study of the underwater habitat of Vancouver Island’s two at-risk resident orca populations (a southern family of 88 and a northern group of about 240) has revealed significant stressors. A constant thunder of marine traffic—cruise ships, ocean liners, whale-watching boats, tugboats, and fishing vessels—is interfering with orcas’ echolocation. The use of echolocation is part of orcas’ complex dialect of noises used to communicate with each other, navigate, find mates, and hunt their favoured Chinook salmon. But the cacophony is clouding their world like cataracts and may be linked to declining orca numbers, says Williams. To open British Columbians’ eyes to the problem, he and his partner, dolphin and whale researcher Erin Ashe, have launched the Quiet Ocean Campaign. The pair, who also founded the B.C.-based research group Oceans Initiative, is calling for the creation of tranquil underwater sanctuaries off the coast as well as a reduction in marine noise to improve the habitat of this charismatic cetacean.

What could arguably be called Williams’s obsession with whales began in early childhood in his hometown of Comox on Vancouver Island. One day in Grade 3, his science teacher brought in a National Geographic containing an LP of Roger Payne’s songs of the humpback whale, the first recording made of the leviathan’s ethereal discourse. The thought that “maybe dinosaurs aren’t the coolest, maybe whales are the coolest,” set his compass on the path to conservation.

Unbeknownst to the whale-besotted youngster, the southern resident orca population at the time was just beginning to recover from a decade of capture for live exhibit at aquariums; of 59 caught, only one, Lolita, a performing act at Miami Seaquarium, is still alive. Ironically, it was engaging with captive whales that convinced people they were not the bloodthirsty predators presented in cinematic dross like 1977’s cult film, Orca. Rather, they were “incredibly charismatic and intelligent,” with close-knit, matrilineal family structures that include grandmothers and great-grandmothers, Williams says.

The orcas’ slow recovery met a troubling decline after 2000, which caused both the northern and southern resident populations to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in the United States and the Species at Risk Act in Canada. Williams, an alumnus of UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, identified boat congestion, declining salmon stocks, and contaminants as key factors in the decline. But he needed proof.

Several years ago, Williams and Ashe began their pioneering work recording ambient underwater noise along the B.C. coastline. They dropped 120-kilogram glass bubble hydrophone microphones designed at Cornell University onto the sea floor to record manmade as well as natural noise. Currently a Marie Curie Fellow at St. Andrews University’s Sea Mammal Research Unit in Scotland, Williams takes the acoustic data from these devices and models how much of the whales’ habitat is damaged by shipping traffic. This can be extrapolated to determine how much further the animals have to travel to catch fish, and whether this leads to fewer calves and shortened life spans. Williams points out that one large container ship every hour of every day motors through critical resident orca habitat. The noise worsens at the southern narrowing of Haro Strait and Johnstone Strait in the north, areas that draw whales because the geography funnels and bottlenecks salmon, Williams says.

Such statistical information is complemented by the unglamorous job of skimming whale scat from the water during the spring and summer when Williams and Ashe track whales and dolphins in their boat. (Their dog Wishart is supposed to bark when he smells scat but tends to be distracted by dolphins.) Whale poop—malodorous green-white slime that floats briefly at the surface—is sent for analysis to the University of Washington to assess diet, stress hormone levels, and contamination levels. The energy expended to avoid boats and find Chinook salmon (also in decline) burns blubber stores, which frees up contaminates like polychlorinated diphenyl ethers that have accumulated in adipose tissue over the years, affecting fertility and calf health. (PCDEs are organic pollutants that bioaccumulate in the environment and are also found in human fat.)

Despite the orcas’ murky future, Williams no longer feels adrift on a sea of apathy. “There is urgency, but for the first time in my career I have a sense of hope—there is a recognition of the seriousness of the problem.” He makes several recommendations. Chinook spawning areas need to be restored, and catch quotas reduced, until populations revive. The speed limit for container ships travelling through Haro Strait and off San Juan Island to Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle should be reduced. The $8-billion contract awarded a year ago to Seaspan Marine Corp. is one opportunity for B.C. to create a centre of excellence, building state-of-the-art vessels that move quietly in water. Oil tankers should be banned in the waters off southern and northern Vancouver Island, as one spill could easily wipe out a resident orca group. Finally, key feeding habitats for whales should be set aside—havens where orcas can mate, feed, and raise their calves in quietude.

For Williams, the whale song that sparked a fire when he was in Grade 3 should remain the living, vibrant soundtrack of the B.C. wilderness for generations to come.