In the Spotlight, Seeking Sanctuary

In the Spotlight, Seeking Sanctuary

     Against the dusky backdrop of firs and redwoods, several dorsal fins pierced the inlet’s surface, creating silvery chevrons of water that broadened into oblivion. At the apex of each bright “V” a shiny black back emerged, water coursing off in sheets. The researcher, her binoculars trained on the killer whales, remarked: “That’s L-25 and her family. But I don’t see L-92.” The absence of even one whale from this group was cause for concern: this distinct population of killer whales, the Southern Residents of the Pacific Northwest, has declined to a mere 75 animals, fewer than half their historic numbers. Her concern was borne out: On June 16, 2018, whale L-92, “Crewser,” was declared missing, presumed dead.

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     ALL IN THE FAMILY: Southern Resident Killer Whales (species Orcinus orca), are an extended family, or clan, comprised of three matriarchal groups: J, K, and L pods. Traditionally denizens of the Salish Sea - the ancient name for Puget Sound - and outer coast waters off British Columbia and Washington State, these tight-knit groups survived on once-abundant chinook salmon and steelhead.

     But environmental stresses from human activities produced a host of impacts: first, salmon and steelhead numbers plummeted as their spawning rivers were dammed and degraded by siltation from logging, and pollutants. What salmon remained were heavily overfished. These killer whales suffered, not just from malnutrition and related diseases; but also from contaminants in the fish and the water, such as DDT, PCBs and PBDEs. (If one washes up dead, its handsome black-and-white body must be disposed of as toxic waste).

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     BLACK GOLD: Further disaster struck the Pacific Northwest killer whale populations when, in 1961, Marineland of the Pacific captured a killer whale and put it on display. Thus, a lucrative captive killer whale industry was born, triggering a “gold rush” of whale hunts. From 1962 to 1977, between 275 and 307 killer whales were captured in Washington and British Columbia. The mammal-eating transient-type killer whales were too elusive and fought too hard; but the more predictable fish-eating resident-type whales were easier to hunt. Among all the groups, the Southern Resident clan was most heavily hit, with 36 whales “collected,” and around 13 more killed in the process. Orca expert Ken Balcomb reported that some deaths were never made public. By 1974, only 71 Southern Residents remained.

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     Driven by hunger, the surviving killer whales ventured into California waters, into Greater Farallones and Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries. In 2000 researchers in Monterey Bay first documented members of the K and L pods. Subsequent years found them off Bodega Head, Point Arena, the Columbia River and other “new” feeding grounds. Here, at last, lay hope for them.

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     SAVE THE SALMON, SAVE THE WHALES: In 2005 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared Southern Residents an endangered species, and developed a  Recovery Plan, noting additional challenges to recovery: small population size, increased vessel presence and noise impacts, and vulnerability to oil spills. In 2015, declaring them “likely to go extinct in the near future without dramatic action,” NOAA included them in its Species in the Spotlight initiative to marshal additional resources to save them. Salmon restoration efforts will be key to their success. And since these whales now travel to our sanctuary nearly every winter to feed, NOAA has designated Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary as “critical habitat” for them. If you should see tall black dorsal fins off our coast, it might be them!

     It is clear that, to help this one species survive, we must also sustain other species in the marine food web.

     To see a video about our Southern Residents, visit:,AAAAmZfSubE~,RcH_vKEgcc8H4dTxFK_bcbVM8tx2ZgwW&bctid=3628172376001


For information on Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary:


SIDEBAR: Get Into Your Sanctuary this summer; stroll a beach, hop a boat, birdwatch, drop a hook, paddle, dive or just wet your toes! And enter the GIYS photo contest! 

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