The Future Of Orcas Threatened In Changing Waters

16:19 minutes

a woman in a beanie and red coat in a boat looks out at orcas swimming in the water
Lynda Mapes observing orcas, under NOAA permit. Credit: Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

When Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes heard of a mother killer whale in the Salish Sea whose baby died shortly after it was born, she was captivated.

The grieving mother carried her baby for 1,000 miles, and Mapes chronicled her story for millions of readers who followed along. She said the story resonated because it “wasn’t an animal story, but a story about a mother who happened to be a whale.”

Now, she’s chronicled the plight of the Southern Resident orcas in a new book, Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home.

a group of people surround and carry a colorful painted totem pole of an orca
At a May 2018 interfaith gathering in Bellingham, supporters lay hands on an orca totem pole carved at Lummi Nation to raise awareness of the killer whales’ plight in Puget Sound and to press for Tokitae’s release. Credit: Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

Orcas are known as fast and ferocious predators, sometimes called the “Tyrannosaurus Rex of the sea.” They’ve been swimming the oceans for millions of years. But it’s not these facts that drew Mapes to chronicle their story. It’s that these animals live in ancient societies, with long lineages and strong cultural ties. Their communities are well-known to the native people of the Pacific Northwest, where these orcas swim in the inland waters known as the Salish Sea.

an orca's fin can be seen on the surface of a bay that is surrounded by industry and smoke stacks
Orcas in urban waters. Credit: Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

But in recent years, human pressures have forced orcas away from their long-time fishing habitat. They face multiple threats, including climate change, boat traffic, development, noise, and the dwindling numbers of Chinook salmon they rely on for food. 

Guest host John Dankosky talks with Mapes about her new book, and ongoing efforts to help save these majestic mammals. Read an excerpt from Mapes’ new book.

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Segment Guests

Lynda Mapes

Lynda Mapes is a reporter for the Seattle Times and author of Orca: Shared Home, Shared Waters. She’s based in Seattle, Washington.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday, I’m John Dankosky. We talk a lot about charismatic creatures on our program. In fact, you’ve been sharing many of your submissions with us about animals that might not seem that interesting at first, but could be considered charismatic. Well there is no such debate with the orca. The animal known as a killer whale is a fast and ferocious predator. It’s been called the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the sea. And it’s been swimming the oceans for millions of years.

But it’s not these facts that make the orca so charismatic, it’s that these animals live in ancient societies with long lineages and strong cultural ties. Their communities are well known to the people of the Pacific Northwest where southern resident orcas swim in the inland waters known as the Salish Sea. But human pressures have forced orcas away from their long time fishing habitats in recent years. It’s a story about the whales and the Chinook salmon that they rely on for food. Seattle Times reporter, Lynda Mapes, has been chronicling the orca story for years. And her new book, Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home, looks at this majestic animal and considers what we can do to help save it. Lynda Mapes, welcome to Science Friday. Thanks so much for joining us.

LYNDA MAPES: Hi John, thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You start your book where your reporting started, with the story of a mother orca and her dead calf. And for those who don’t remember the story, can you tell us a bit about what happened?

LYNDA MAPES: So mother orca, Talequah, is the whale who changed the conversation, not only in the Pacific Northwest, but around the world. She gave birth to a calf. And it was the first calf for this family of whales in five years– that’s a long drought. And everyone was so overjoyed, especially because it was a female. But the calf lived only for one half hour. And then mother orca, Talequah, started to do something that scientists know very intelligent socially bonded animals will do, including giraffes and elephants, which is grief. She began to carry that calf. And that in and of itself was not shocking, we know orcas do this, but usually it’s for a day or maybe a day and a half. But mother orca, Talequah, carried that calf for 1,000 miles and 17 days. And John, I don’t think she ever dropped it. I think it finally just fell apart.

And this– her distress, her evident grief, touched people around the world. And at the Seattle Times we made a decision to follow her in her journey. And so I stayed with her day after day and wrote about her day after day. And John, by the time she dropped that calf, or it fell apart, one or the other, there were six million people reading that story around the world. And I think I know why. This wasn’t just an animal story, this was a story about a mother who happened to be a whale. And anyone who’d ever lost anything knew what she was going through.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Maybe for us to understand, you can explain a bit more about the culture and family lineage of these whales. It’s a society that as you write about it, it looks pretty recognizable to humans.

LYNDA MAPES: And even better. I mean, one of the things that people very often say about the orcas is, oh they’re just like us. To which I always think instantly, don’t flatter yourself. I mean, you look at them, these are really ancient societies. These are not random black and white wildlife. They live in very close knit family groups. The young never leave their mother– they stick together as families for life.

And they also have language. And the J, K, and L pods of the southern residents each have calls specific just to their pod. They pass this language on intergenerationally. They pass on culture intergenerationally. These are among the most sophisticated animal societies on Earth. And not only that, the females, they lead the pods– these are matriarchal societies.

And there’s something else very unusual about the southern residents, they have very, very long postmenopausal life stages. And there are only six mammals on Earth, including humans, in which the females, even past reproductive years, continue to live for decades. And scientists puzzled that, why? What’s the evolutionary benefit? And what they determined was that, especially when times are tough, when the fish runs are scarce, it’s the females, those matriarchs, that lead the pods to fish.

And there’s one killer whale in the southern resident family groups whose, she’s my totem animal, she’s L25, she’s been out there since 1928. She’s been leading her families to fish since before any of the dams were built on the Columbia River. Since there were only about a million and a half people in Washington state. And she’s been persisting through vast ecological change.

And that’s the thing that I find so poignant about these whales, you know? I so often hear from people saying, oh you know, I used to come here or there in the Salish Sea with my grandmother or my grandfather and there used to be so many fish, what happened? I often think if we could understand what these families are saying to one another and the older whales, they’d be saying the same thing, I used to come here with my grandmother and there were so many fish, what happened?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Wow. So that we have a better understanding of the southern residents here, maybe you can put it in some context for us, how many orcas live in this grouping? And how does that relate to other orcas who live in the ocean nearby?

LYNDA MAPES: Right, so orcas live in every ocean of the world, never in very large numbers. But everywhere they live, they are the top predator. Orcas eat whatever they choose to eat, but nothing eats an orca. Here, in the North Eastern Pacific, there are three ecotypes, or varieties, of orcas– they’re all the same species, they’re just different types. You’ve got the southern residents and there are only 75 of them. Only 74 actually because one just died a few days ago. Then you also have the transient killer whales, also called bigs. They eat marine mammals, seals, sea lions, gray whale baby calves. And then you have the offshores. These are rarely seen, they actually eat sharks.

Now the southern residents have relations to the north called, yes, northern residents. And like the southern residents, they are obligate fish eaters. That’s what they choose to eat, specifically Chinook. Why not? It’s the biggest, fattiest salmon in the sea. And they co-evolved to eat that fish. Which makes a lot of sense, they’re present in every season of the year unlike sockeye, for instance. And as I mentioned, they are the most calories for the hunting effort. So it made a lot of sense back when Chinook were abundant. That is the problem today, Chinook, almost everywhere they swim, are greatly reduced in their numbers and even in their size. So this means, for the Southern residents, they have to work harder to get enough to eat and they are food limited.

And it’s very interesting to us at the Seattle Times, when we wanted to penetrate to the roots of this extinction crisis they’re facing, we decided to go everywhere that the southern residents go in their vast migratory range, which is basically all the way from Southeast Alaska down to San Francisco. And so we travel their migratory range and here’s what we learned. The northern residents, who are primarily up in the Broughton Archipelago, BC, Vancouver Island, they’re doing great. They’re multiplying like mad– babies every year. Remember, they also eat primarily Chinook.

So what’s the difference? Why are they doing so well? Cleaner water, quieter water, more fish, a greater variety of fish. In other words, they live in a place a lot more like the Salish Sea and Puget Sound used to be. The southern residents, they’re stuck with us. They live among millions and millions and millions of people on the coastlines from Vancouver, BC to Seattle, all the way down to of course central California. And everywhere they swim, the places they specialize in their fishing spots, Chinook are greatly under threat.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this isn’t just, like with so many ocean creatures, a climate change story?

LYNDA MAPES: You got it, John. I mean really, it’s three primary threats to the southern residents. There is the limitation of food– there’s not enough Chinook readily available for them. And that’s directly related to climate change, which is increasing sea surface temperatures, which is messing up the food, and warm rivers. And Chinook salmon like 56 degree water. That’s sure not what they have this summer in some of their major tributaries.

But in addition to the problem of food, they also are bothered by noise. There’s too much noise in the ocean. These animals hunt by sound– remember it’s dark in the sea. The way they find their fish is with this miraculous ability called echolocation. It’s even more sophisticated than sonar. They actually see inside the fish they’re targeting to see the size of the swim bladder. That’s how they know a Chinook from a Sockeye in the dark. But the thing is, they have to be able to hear this tiny little ping back from the fish they’re targeting. And if there’s too much racket, they can’t hear to quote unquote see their meal.

So noise is a problem. Noise is a problem because Chinook are a problem. They need to find and get every fish they can. And the noisier it is, the harder we’re making that for them. So it’s also noise and pollution. If they don’t eat every day, like us, they burn their fat. They’re not fasting adapted like us. They have to be– to be in top condition they need to eat every day. And if they don’t have enough to eat they burn their fat, which increases the amount of toxins circulating in their blood. So three main threats and they are interrelated.

JOHN DANKOSKY: How much do they have to eat? You say they have to eat every day. Give us a sense of just how much Chinook an orca needs to take in.

LYNDA MAPES: Oh my gosh, so much. And it depends on the orca– is it an adult? Is it a lactating female? But we’re talking hundreds of pounds. And I mean every day. So it’s a tall order. You know, they are what they eat. And it’s survival of the fattest. If they’re eating enough and getting enough they do fine. This is not some crybaby species. I mean, they are the top predator in the sea. Chinook are an incredibly durable, adaptable species, as well. They radiated it to every possible, usable habitat since the Pleistocene. But you know, you’ve got to provide these animals with the things they need to survive– cold, clean water, enough to eat. And if they have what they need they can do it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But that’s what’s so interesting about this group of southern residents that you’re tracking– they have adapted over time to eat this fish that is now not plentiful. And the location really matters– it’s important that this is their home. In the reporting that we’ve been reading from you and others this year, is that they’re increasingly leaving this home in search of fish. This has, I’m sure, been noted by the people of the Pacific Northwest, that these orcas that they’ve been watching feed just offshore for such a long time aren’t here as much anymore.

LYNDA MAPES: Right, I’m really glad you brought this up because we’ve become very used to seeing the southern residents at certain times of years in certain places because we know that that’s when they’re targeting Chinook going to the Fraser River. So we know that all summer long we’ll get to see in the San Juan Islands. Well not anymore. And that has distressed a lot of people here because you just can’t overlook the fact of the size of the change and what we’ve come to expect and love in the summertime in the San Juan Islands.

Now down here in the city, where I live in Seattle, they still swing by. We see them actually quite a lot in the fall and even into the winter because they’re chasing winter chum. And I’ve got to tell you, John, one of the things that’s so cool, just to straight up wonderful about the southern residents– I mean these are downtown orcas. Who else has got that? And when they come into town in Seattle, everything stops– the ferries stop on their routes, people pour out of their houses and onto the beaches. And it’s because they’re just so magnificent. I mean, downtown orcas, who’s got that?

JOHN DANKOSKY: And you write in your book too about the long relationship the Native American tribes have with orcas. You write about them being called the people that live under the sea.

LYNDA MAPES: I thought that was so beautiful. One of the great privileges of being a writer and a reporter is you get to, if you’re very fortunate, spend time with people that share their cultures and their knowledge with you. And that includes the native people of the Pacific Northwest. And I spent a lot of time with the Lummi Nation and other tribal members in writing this book. And I dedicated it to the late chief of the Lummi Nation, Bill James, who tells the story in the book of why they’re called the people who live under the sea. And how it is that their families are actually related to the southern residents. And it’s very beautiful. You talk to the fishermen there, some of whom are fishermen going back 15 generations, and they speak of how when their people first came here the orcas were here to greet them and they know their songs.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky and I’m talking with Lynda Mapes. She’s a reporter for the Seattle Times and she’s been chronicling the story of southern resident orcas who live in the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest. They’re increasingly forced to leave this area in search of food and because of environmental pressures. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

So what’s being done to reverse this trend? You say that is not too late to help the southern resident orcas to, in some ways, save them. But it is a bit of a dire situation that they’re in at the moment.

LYNDA MAPES: I won’t sugarcoat it, we’re down to 74 animals. So yeah, that’s a small number, no question. But look, I mean, unlike a lot of really big problems that we face in this country and in this world, we actually know what to do. As I said earlier, if you provide the right environmental conditions for salmon, they come back. Nature comes back if you make space for nature. Life finds a way.

And here, just one tiny example, we took down two dams in the Elwha River– this is the largest dam removal ever, anywhere in the world. And they’re already 8,000 Chinook barnstorming back to the Elwha River, a place that was almost bereft of its Chinook salmon because two dams blocked passage for 100 years. Well, we took them out and the fish are back. And you know what, guess who’s fishing off the mouth of the Elwha River? The southern residents.

So dam removal, taking out dikes, and rebuilding estuaries– this is a lot of work that needs to be done and should be done. I mean, a lot of this infrastructure doesn’t even do what it was built to do 100 years ago and no one’s even using it. Also, major dams that are still in use, that have insufficient fish passage or none at all, such as the Howard Hanson Dam in the Green River. So there’s a lot out here we can do, and should do, and we know how to do. And you know what? It works. And it works every time. So I want people to feel empowered and encouraged about this. We can do this. And the more we do, the better it will get.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What about those bigger pressures? I mean, obviously your part of America has grown very rapidly over the course of the last couple of decades. Are people increasingly thinking about the pressures of development on species like the orca? And what to do about it?

LYNDA MAPES: Yes– the good news is, yes. I think one of the best things we’ve got going for us out here, is awareness that every river is a salmon river, every stream is a salmon stream. If you lose that, then it’s really over. It’s about awareness, it’s about caring, and it’s about working on this problem to solve it. And we can do that and we are doing it, we just need to do more.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Seattle Times reporter, Lynda Mapes. Her new book is Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home. Lynda, thanks so much for sharing this story with us. I really appreciate it.

LYNDA MAPES: It’s a pleasure, John. Thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: If you’d like to read an excerpt of Lynda’s book, you can go to ScienceFriday.com/Orca.

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About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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