Orca expert’s love for the whales goes back decades

Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network, is slated to give a free talk Feb. 23 in Everett.

He’s the resident expert of Southern Resident orcas on Whidbey Island.

Howard Garrett, of Freeland, has been in awe of orcas since becoming a killer whale researcher in 1980. He’s also invested in their future, specifically the Southern Residents, a clan of whales comprised of three pods — J, K and L — that frequent the Salish Sea.

He is the co-founder of the Orca Network, an all-volunteer organization on Whidbey that reports whale sightings and advocates for the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, including Tokitae, a member of the L pod captured in 1970.

Garrett will give a free presentation about the local orcas Saturday at the Everett Public Library.

Below, Garrett, 73, talks about his passion for orcas, why the Southern Resident whales are endangered and what is being done to save them.

How did you become so passionate about orcas?

A bend in my path in 1980 landed me on San Juan Island working as a field researcher with Orca Survey, which later became the Center for Whale Research. Almost every day from May to October, we idled along, parallel to the orcas, to shoot photos and record their behavior. So I saw the range of their activities, listened to their calls and took in their dynamic social bonding and coordinated movements. At about the same time, the outlines of their social structures began to emerge from U.S. and Canadian studies, showing how distinctly different communities were sharing the same habitat, as well as their long lifespans, their unique vocalizations and their everlasting family ties. I was hooked from the start.

Tell me how that interest lead to your activism for orcas.

In 1995, Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb, Secretary of State Ralph Munro and Gov. Mike Lowry announced the campaign to return Lolita to her L pod family that she was kidnapped from in 1970. I started a nonprofit group, the Orca Network, dedicated to building awareness that A) she deserves to come home and B) there were no practical or biological reasons she shouldn’t return. Over the next few years, the Southern Residents began losing members at an alarming rate, and it was clear then that the problem was lack of enough Chinook salmon to keep them well-fed and healthy. We broadened our scope around 2001 and started advocating for salmon habitat restoration to keep Southern Residents alive.

How has your perspective on killer whales changed over the years?

I’m still in awe that we are blessed to live alongside such advanced and complex beings everywhere in the Salish Sea, but more and more I’m seeing the devastating harm human activities have caused them. My appreciation for them has become tinged with nagging alarms that we aren’t doing enough to right the wrongs we’ve inflicted upon them.

Why is your work focused on Southern Resident whales?

They were my first love, I suppose. Southern Residents were my opening into the beauties and wonders of life on earth beyond our daily human concerns. They never cease to amaze me. I find such joy in seeing them, even in photos or videos or when I hear other people’s fond memories of their amazing encounters. They cleanse my mental and emotional palette and do the same for so many others. What’s not to like?

Tell me more about the plight of the Southern Residents.

Until the late 1990s, they seemed to be on a path to rebuilding their numbers. But then came the 20 percent drop in population in 2005, which led to their listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Now they have even less Chinook salmon than before, so they’re losing more members than they’re gaining, and that’s not sustainable. They’re smaller and thinner than they were 30 years ago. Most worrisome is their inability to reproduce in recent years. They need many more fish, mainly Chinook, and soon.

What is being done to help them?

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order to figure out what to do to help the Southern Residents survive. That launched the Orca Recovery Task Force, a group of about 48 representatives of state and federal agencies, related industries, governments at all levels and a few biologists tasked with devising means to help them recover and thrive. This level of societal mobilization on behalf of orcas is unprecedented, but effective action still seems elusive. That process is still under way, with some of it up to the state Legislature, but the key issues as many of us see it — habitat restoration, harvest restrictions and Snake River dam breaching — haven’t been made high priorities or been deliberated with reliable information.

Has living on Whidbey Island helped you keep close tabs on them?

Absolutely. Whidbey is well-situated alongside Admiralty Inlet, which is the way into and out of Puget Sound and Saratoga Passage for orcas, gray whales and especially humpbacks. Plus, our sighting network on the island gives everyone reports of them throughout the inland waters. There were 1,150 people who contributed to our whale sightings network last year, and three-fourths of those were people who’d never reported before. A lot of folks are keeping their eyes and ears out for whales all over the Salish Sea, and Whidbey is nicely located in the middle of it.

It seems like most of us really care about the lives of killer whales these days.

Seeing whales seems to have an uplifting effect on people and makes them want to share their experiences. A lot of the scientific work being done, whether it’s by governments or nonprofit groups or individuals, is motivated by that positivity and fascination they feel about whales. Orcas give us a window into the lives of a highly intelligent lifeform right in front of us in the Salish Sea, and almost nowhere else in the world. The more we learn intricate details and new ways to look at how they live, the more amazing they seem. For me that hasn’t let up since I first immersed myself in their lives decades ago, and I’m definitely not the only one who feels that way.

• Evan Thompson can be reached at ethompson@heraldnet.com

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