Monday, December 16, 2013

Becoming Blackfish

As I am becoming acquainted with this region I now call home, I'm learning about unique communities of mammals other than humans, in particular Orcas, also known as killer whales.

I had seen them twice whale watching off the San Juan Islands, once in the late 1990s with my young daughters, and again in 2007 on a weekend cruise with my husband aboard the David B (see his photos on YouTube), and those experiences were breathtaking, even though I knew little to nothing about the orcas. Watching these majestic creatures swim and hearing them breathe moves something in me––and thousands of others who venture to the seas and shores to look for whales––connecting us to our animal nature, instilling wonder and awe, gratitude and recognition.

Three orcas came to me in a dream just weeks after we moved to our new home with it's peek-a-boo view of the water. In my dream, they swam in the bay near my house (too shallow for them to come in waking life), they breached and waved their pectoral fins, welcoming me to their home, and beckoned me to join them.

A year ago my husband and I saw them on a ferry crossing from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, and I recalled the dream and began to learn about the whales in earnest. This is some of what I now know:

The Salish Sea extends from the Puget Sound into Canada and is home to two distinct communities of Orcas. The Northern whales' home is in Canada, while Puget Sound is home to the Southern Resident killer whales. The Northern whales are threatened, the Southern whales are endangered, due to pollution and overfishing and other human created troubles. There are fewer than 200 total resident orcas in the Salish Sea. Both communities of whales leave their residence and swim great distances to locate chinook salmon, their sole food source.

Within the larger communities, there are smaller families called pods, and even smaller family groups, with unique dialects that have been studied and recorded using underwater hydrophones. The families live together their entire lives. "Granny," the matriarch of the Southern Residents is believed to be 102 years old. Many whales live into their 80s, but no babies were born into the pods this year.

The area is also regularly visited by Transient killer whales also known as Bigg's whales, that eat mammals like seals and sea lions. My dear friend had the privilege of watching them two days ago for hours just yards from shore. Here is her photo:

Male transient orca off President Point, Kingston WA Dec. 13.

I learned all of this from The Orca Network  a nonprofit based on Whidbey Island that is devoted to education about and preservation of the whales. The Orca Network posts whale sightings from people all over the region, who spot them from parks, ferries, public roads, and private boats. I've been able to drop what I was doing and head to viewing spots on Bainbridge island, once to watch dozens of resident whales swim by at a fast pace and a great distance, the other to watch transients feed and play within half a mile of shore.

Through the Orca Network I also discovered the nonfiction book Death at Seaworld by David Kirby published last summer and the documentary Blackfish which came out this summer and has also aired on CNN. To borrow a biblical cliche, the scales have fallen from my eyes. Like millions of people, I have seen whales perform at MarineWorld (in Palos Verdes, Redwood City, and Vallejo) and SeaWorld (in San Diego and Orlando). I believed what I was told: that "fin flop" was normal, that the whales were happy and healthy, like trained dogs.

Even with well-intentioned trainers, they truly are prisoners, ripped from their families in the wild (in sad fact, the Russians have just captured wild whales to put on display for the winter Olympics), or bred and raised in unnatural and unhealthy circumstances in captivity. No wild whale spends most of its life at the surface of a tiny concrete pool. No wild whale mother refuses to nurse her baby, or attacks her offspring. No wild whale's fin rests on it's back, it slices out of the water erect.

It is heartbreaking to read and watch what humans have done physically and spiritually to these intelligent, social, apex animals.

I feel called to repent: I will not patronize any marine facility that keeps captive orcas. And I also must help, somehow.

Right now, I'm short on cash, but long on good will. What I can give are my words and my intentions: this blog post, a poem–Becoming Blackfish–that you can read here and download and listen to on my website.  I also pledge 10% of my author royalties from my forthcoming book Burnt Offerings to the Orca Network.

Perhaps this is what the whales meant when they invited me to join them.

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