Whidbey's voices for orcas
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:37 PM
"The fate of the Orca whales that swim the waters around Whidbey may ultimately lie in the efforts of those seeking to designate Orcas as an endangered species.Hundreds of caring eyes will be watching out for the black and white giants, thanks to the Greenbank-based Orca Conservancy - regardless of congressional action or lobbying efforts to save the whales.We want to be seen as responsible advocates for the whales ... as having the ability to help the whales, said Howard Garrett, a Coupeville postal worker who founded the Orca Conservancy in the late 1990s with brother and pioneering whale researcher, Ken Balcomb, and former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro. It is our goal to speak for the Orcas - the Orcas are vulnerable, too.The Orca Conservancy grew out of the ongoing movement to free Lolita, the last surviving Orca caught in Puget Sound. Lolita has been held for more than three decades at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida. The whale was about 6 years old when captured in Penn Cove.Orca Conservancy organizer Susan Berta said the group, which began with just a handful of members, focused almost exclusively on efforts to free Lolita during its first two years. Balcomb and Garrett took on an intensive public campaign that often took them to Miami. Munro teamed up withthen-Gov. Mike Lowry in attempts to persuade Seaquarium officials to free Lolita.Back then, said Berta, the group was bolstered by the public interest in whale rights prompted by the movie Free Willy, and the resulting successful effort to free Keiko, the male orca featured in the movie.Berta explained that Lolita belongs to J-Pod, one of the three orca groups, or families, known to frequent the Whidbey area. She said J-pod and K-pod each have about 20 members, while the last group, L-pod, holds about 44 whales. During the 1960s and early '70s, several expeditions trolled the Puget Sound, in hopes of capturing live orcas. Instead, scores of whales were killed during those trips. In 1976, Munro recalls, he and his wife, Karen, inadvertently came across one of those capture attempts and were extremely upset by what they saw.As a result, Munro, who admits he never thought much about orcas before, became deeply involved in the effort to save the orca population. Later that same year, he led the charge to ban orca captures in the Puget Sound area. He, along with all other state agencies, filed a lawsuit against myriad federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Commerce, federal Wildlife Department and National Marine Fisheries, as well as several other defendants and Sea World, which funded many of the whale hunts. We filed against damn near everybody, Munro said.Ultimately, Munro said, although the suit never led to a formal ban against whale captures in the region, he culled so much support through his efforts, there haven't been any captures here since. Researchers contend there's no credible way of determining the total orca population throughout the world.However, says Berta, overwhelming evidence suggests that the orca population is at serious risk - and is dying off. Based on scientific research and observations of Orca Conservancy volunteers, who include several hundred, it's believed about 15 percent of the local orca population has died over the past eight years. The decline of the region's salmon populations, the orcas' main source of food, and the rise of toxins like PCBs in Puget Sound have hurt the whales, said Berta. So has the ongoing destruction of the natural marine ecosystem, caused by human development.Meanwhile, Berta said, the public understanding of the challenges facing orcas in greater than it was five years ago, it's still not a great as it needs to be.That's why the group about two years ago shifted gears.And instead of concentrating all of their time and resources on Lolita, Orca Conservancy members increased their attention on public outreach and education.From its five original members, the group has grown to seven board members, including Munro, the aforementioned 300-plus whale-watching volunteers and about 1,500 globally who are part of a Free Lolita network.Each month, the Orca Conservancy offers a handful of community education programs. Perhaps most importantly, Berta and the others keep in constant contact, and diligently keep tabs on the whales, through a constant tide of email messages that announce orca pod sightings from Victoria to the San Juan Islands to Whidbey and Camano islands and further south into the Sound.After a recent group planning session, Munro, who is now working as a consultant for a company that's engineering a new way to count election ballots, said he felt the Orca Conservancy and activists like them have made considerable inroads.He said he's heartened that so many hundreds of people have joined the whale-watching effort. Munro likened the need to save the orcas to the preservation of the California condor or great redwood trees.It was nothing you really thought about before, but if somebody's hacking the redwoods down, we want to work on it, he said. The orca species is a special gift and there are very few places in this great land of ours you can see these whales in the wild.It's a matter of sharing the beauty, the fact that there are so few left, Munro said. We have to recognize we are the protectors.We are just beginning to realize our potential as a team, said Garrett.Both Garrett and Berta, a former social worker from Wyoming, say they are most inspired by the closeness, the genuine caring displayed in orca pods.What they mean to me is - I think we humans have a lot to learn from them, said Berta. (Orcas) are living in harmony, in their environment, in asustainable way.When you watch a pod of orcas and see how joyful they are, the bonds they have with each other ... if humans could live together and be as peaceful and harmonious as the orcas are, the world would be a lot better place.From orcas, Garrett said, we can learn a deeper empathy than we know in our daily lives. "