Suburban Wild: A Golden Oak for creatures black and white

Resident honoured for her work to preserve the Salish Sea and its resident whales

When we look at the sea from our beaches we see surfaces, but to the three pods of resident killer whales who live there, the Salish Sea is a deep underwater kingdom of hills and valleys, kelp forests and fish schools.

The whales use echolocation to make their way through this topography, sending and receiving sound waves via specialized membranes and air sacs in their heads and jaws. They create complex mental maps of their surroundings while keeping up constant communication with each other.

The membranes involved can be ruptured by the underwater sonar used in commercial and military shipping, which according to the Canadian Species At Risk Act registry, “may pose significant threat to cetaceans.” When we gaze across the ocean on a calm summer day we perceive it as peaceful, but under the surface, says Deborah Dickson, executive director of a society promoting a UNESCO Biosphere designation for the CRD, “the whales are screaming.”

They may be “screaming” in pain, since sonar pulses rupture their membranes, or they may be screaming in order to be heard by one another. Communication is everything in orca society, and each pod has its own language, each family a different conversational style.

Dickson recently received the grass-roots, peer-based “Golden Oak Award” for 2016 at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, because her campaign for a local UNESCO Biosphere Reserve  inspires many locals who fear for the health of the Salish Sea and the thousands of fish, bird, invertebrate and mammal species that live off it.

June 2016 was B.C.’s first Orca Awareness Month and supporters have requested that the lieutenant-governor proclaim it again for June 2017.

A big part of awareness involves knowing how the expansion of the Kinder Morgan tanker traffic will impact orcas, but that is not the only project which conservationists fear. Expanding coal, LNG and grain ports and large container ships for all goods are making underwater life impossible for our cetacean neighbours.

One remedy might be the creation of protected zones for wildlife away from commercial activity, and to that end some groups are asking for the “Particularly Sensitive Sea Area” designation for parts of the Salish Sea, a designation bestowed by the International Marine Organization.

Will these efforts do anything to limit the expected 43 per cent increase in commercial marine traffic?

“It might help,” was MP Elizabeth May’s cautious assessment at a recent Orca Month event.

Protected area designations might influence routes and create buffer zones of particular importance to orcas.

But it is hard not to be pessimistic, which is why folks admire the work of “golden oak-ers” like Dickson who just don’t give up.

Noise and ship collisions aren’t the only problem for the orcas. They travel through the concentrated contamination chamber called Puget Sound, ringed with industrial sites that decant pollutants, and they’re starving for lack of the Chinook salmon which no longer find their way back to spawning grounds past the human fisheries and the dams blocking key rivers.

Maybe the surprise is not that southern resident orcas have been allowed to dwindle to near-extinction, but that even 80 still survive. That gloomy thought does not deter conservationists however, and the Orca Awareness Month committee is always looking for more participants who want to help: see www.orcamonthbc.blogspot.ca and contact mailto:orcamonth@gmail.com.

Barbara Julian is a local writer and nature enthusiast who writes monthly about Oak Bay’s suburban wildlife.