Candles quivered and noses sniffled in Langley last Tuesday night during a candlelight vigil for a recently deceased orca.
Around 70 people gathered at Whale Bell Park to remember 18-year-old J34, also known as Doublestuf, who was found dead near Sechelt, British Columbia on Dec. 20. Five other killer whales and three unnamed calves that died in 2016 were also recalled.
“It was very comforting to see so many people who shared our feelings of loss,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder of South Whidbey-based Orca Network.
J34 was a member of the endangered Southern Resident J pod. The total population for the Southern Resident Killer Whales is now 79, which includes members of the J, K and L pods. There were 88 Southern Residents when they were listed as endangered in 2005.
“That’s the wrong direction,” said Garrett, referring to the Southern Residents’ population decline.
A necropsy of J34 found that the killer whale suffered blunt force trauma to his dorsal side, though the official cause of death is still unknown. Garrett said he was most likely struck by a hard object such as a ship or killed by a percussive blast caused by a detonation. The latter would implicate either the Canadian or U.S. military, Garrett said.
“We know only a few details,” Garrett said.
Evan Koronewski, spokesman for the Canadian Department of National Defence, said most of the Canadian military have been on “blocked military leave” since Dec. 16 and have conducted only a few army exercises, but nothing navy related.
“To the best of our knowledge, there were no navy exercises or detonations in that area,” Koronewski said.
The candlelight vigil began with a walk from the Langley Whale Center to Whale Bell Park. It was there where Garrett, Orca Network co-founder Susan Berta and others read short descriptions of the fallen whales’ lives. Garrett rang the “Whale Bell” at the end of each of the descriptions.
Attendees then made the short walk down the hill to the waterfront at Seawall Park and gathered in a semicircle around Garrett to discuss J34’s death, its cause and what could be done to prevent future deaths to killer whales.
Clinton resident Debbie Stewart said J34’s death was the equivalent of losing a family member and shed a few tears. Stewart, who is also a volunteer at the Langley Whale Center, said the whales are intelligent, deeply empathetic and have personality. Because J34’s death was likely caused by human activity, it made the loss all the more painful.
“Their suffering is from us and I think we owe it to them to do a better job to ensure their continued presence in our waters,” Stewart said. “It’s hard to put into words, but when you’re in the presence of one in the wild, it’s just a very moving experience. When you’re out with them repeatedly, they have personalities and very distinct traits in each one of them.”
Kathy Manske, Jamie Manske and Diane Edwards made the trip down from Anacortes to pay their respects. They were also moved to tears on Tuesday night.
“The sad part about it is that he died at a young age,” Kathy Manske said. “We need to do something. We need to help these whales.”
The attendees were not alone in mourning; similar candlelight vigils were held on Tuesday night at Alki Beach in Seattle and Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island.