February 15, 2020

Happy World Whale Day! From the smallest dwarf sperm whale measuring only nine feet to the largest blue whale, today is a day to celebrate these amazing marine mammals. Giant cetaceans may not seem like the most relatable animals, but female humpback whales are known to have best friends and many species are world travelers. Unfortunately, 2020 has already started with some sad news for whales in the United States. A southern resident orca male is missing, and a newborn North Atlantic right whale calf was grievously injured by a boat strike. Neither is expected to survive. These tales make it easy to despair, but some new births remind us that all hope is not lost if we continue to protect our oceans.

L's and K's headed northeast into the Strait of Georgia where they would meet up with most of the rest of the Southern Residents headed in the opposite direction creating a "superpod." Photo taken from the sandstone shores of East Point, Saturna Island, looking due east towards Patos Island and Mt. Baker.
Miles Ritter
Southern resident orcas looking due east towards Patos Island and Mt. Baker. © Miles Ritter

Family Matters

Mega (L41), one of the most prolific males in the southern resident orca pods, has fathered dozens of calves and is known as one of the most active breeding males in the Pacific Northwest. Although impressively massive, Mega had lost significant weight when he was last spotted over the summer. At the Center for Whale Research’s recent January check-in, he wasn’t seen, and many are worried that he has died. Mega’s death would be a huge blow to the southern resident orca community, reducing genetic diversity, making them more vulnerable to threats. 

Orca Mural in Seattle
Ian Glover
Orca mural in downtown Seattle

As a Seattlite, my sense of place and belonging is tied to the salmon and the orcas in the Salish Sea. The name “killer whale” was often used as a name to demonize the large black and white cetacean but in Seattle we always called them orcas. They are a part of the Native American stories that I heard as a child, their likeness decorates walls and storefronts and they can be found in nearly everyone’s pocket on their bus pass or ORCA card. Hearing about Mega’s disappearance doesn’t just devastate me but makes me feel a bit lost. I so closely associate the orcas with home that it feels like they should always be there, like rain or coffee. The loss reminds me that southern resident orcas are not the larger than life cultural icon that I grew up with; they are a fragile population that is disappearing. 

Despite the adoration, these local pods are severely threatened by boat noise, pollution and the decline of their main food source, salmon. As part of Defenders of Wildlife’s efforts to protect southern resident orcas, we are cleaning up the Salish Sea through our Orcas Love Raingardens Program, connecting students and community members to their place in the ecosystem and advocating for orcas as part of Governor Inslee’s task force. 

Stricken Hope

With only about 400 left, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered marine mammals to navigate the coasts of North America and each new calf is a little bit of a miracle. In winter months, mothers migrate down from Canada and New England waters and start to give birth, providing a little hope for the declining population. But this year, one calf was hit by a boat and suffered a nasty propeller gash within just a few days of being born. NOAA fisheries gave the calf antibiotics, but the mom and calf haven’t been seen since January 16th.

Right Whale #2360 “Derecha” with Injured Calf January 8, 2020
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01
Researchers spotted the 4th right whale calf of the 2019-2020 season about 8 nautical miles off off Altamaha Sound, GA on January 8, 2020, but the young whale was already injured. Right Whale #2360 “Derecha” with Injured Calf

Even with the whaling industry gone, right whales still are not safe from humans. Because right whales feed near the surface and near the shore, they are extremely vulnerable to boat strikes and to entanglement. Even if the encounter does not kill them outright, they may suffer slow, lingering deaths or significant injuries. Repeated entanglements stress the small number of breeding females, reducing their calving rates. Lower birth rates make it even more difficult for the population to survive, let alone grow.

Right whale mother and calf March 20, 2010
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759
Right whale mother and calf March 20, 2010

Defenders of Wildlife is working to protect right whales by building support in Congress to enact the SAVE Right Whales Act, to provide much-needed funding for develop technologies to protect the species from fishing entanglements and vessel strikes. We are urging all our members and supporters to contact their senators and representatives and ask them to support the bill and the North Atlantic right whale.
Orcas were an integral part of my childhood in Seattle and I imagine kids in Florida attending the annual Right Whale Festival having similar ties to their coastal neighbors. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing a right whale, but I continue to hold out hope that I’m not too late.

The Future

Separated by more than 2,000 miles of land, these whales appear to have little in common aside from their dire situations. Hopelessness can be paralyzing at a time when climate change and the extinction crisis dominate environmental news and our lifestyles are so at odds with nature. 

But these sad stories are not the end and the future of these species is not yet set in stone. 

Despite the recent tragedies, both the orcas and the right whales have some good news in the form of the next generation. One of Mega’s daughters, born last year and known as Lucky (L124), seems to be doing well. Because mortality is 50% in the first year, her chances of survival have increased considerably. The J pod’s recent calf, Tofino (J56), also seems to be doing well. And this year, there have already been ten new North Atlantic right whale calves spotted! 

Right Whale Catalog #3101- Harmonia with her Newborn Calf approx. 7 nautical miles off Cumberland Island, GA
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01
Right whale Catalog #3101 Harmonia sighted with her newborn calf approx. 7 nautical miles off Cumberland Island, GA on January 2, 2020.

Each calf reminds me that despite the odds, these species are not extinct yet and are still worth our time and effort. The southern resident orcas and the North Atlantic right whales are an important part of this beautiful world and we have the responsibility to protect their ocean habitats. This World Whale Day, don’t let the window of opportunity for saving them close

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