Defenders Magazine

Spring 2016

Volume 90, Issue 2


Orca, © Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research/NMFS Permit 15569/DFO SARA 272

A big, green-and-white ferry veers, slows and then stops almost dead in the waters of Puget Sound, where, just around the point, the skyscrapers of downtown Seattle soar. To the west, the Olympic Mountains rise behind the low islands and fir-darkened shore, and to the south stands Mt. Rainier’s 14,000-foot snowy cone. But no one’s looking at the scenery. The captain has just announced that a pod of killer whales is heading north. Commuters, school kids and other passengers rush to the port-side windows. Black dorsal fins break the choppy water. Sleek black-and-white bodies curve up into daylight and back down below the waves. Some leap clear of the water, exciting all the passengers. Also called orcas—a shortened version of their Latin name—these marine mammals are icons in the Puget Sound area. Technically, this population is called southern resident killer whales. But they are not really whales. They are the largest members of the dolphin family. The name killer whales, twisted in translation, comes from Spanish whalers who saw them hunt whales and dubbed them whale killers. Orcas live in every ocean, traveling in close family groups known as pods. Many are doing fine, but the southern resident population—protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2005—is clearly in trouble with a population that numbers only in the 80s. Genetically distinct for 700,000 years, they do not breed with other populations and are culturally distinct as well. The southern residents communicate in their own dialect and dine almost exclusively on salmon. Other populations with overlapping ranges eat marine mammals, sharks, rays and more. The southern resident population got a push toward extinction in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Sea World and other marine parks realized that leaping, trainable, 20-foot sea mammals were crowd-pleasers. Whale hunters started rounding them up in Puget Sound, but public opinion quickly turned against the captures. In 1976, Sea World agreed to stop trapping in the sound, but lasting damage had been done. Sam Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology says that there’s still a hole in the population where females of breeding age should be and, by now, inbreeding problems likely exist.


Bison, © Jim Shane
Good news continues for Yellowstone’s bison
Fisher, © Konrad Wothe/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Creative
Defenders helps return this rare species to the Northwest
Eastern Bluebird, © Steve Byland/Adobe Stock
Your Own Piece of the Planet
Western Sandpiper, © David Shaw
Each spring, during high tide at Alaska’s Copper River Delta, thousands of western sandpipers cluster at the edge of the salt grass in mats as tight as the weave of a carpet.