Now you see them, now you don’t. They’re there, and then they’re not.
The killer whales (orcas) off Oak Bay splash and dive, shooting upwards like torpedoes, flopping to one side like drunks in a slapstick comedy. Then they water-plough their way north or southwards and it may be weeks or a year before we get another glimpse. But for many people, even when out of sight the orca isn’t out of mind.
Play seems a major theme in their lives. They perform for each other and, when they know we’re watching, for us. We watch and follow them by boat and they watch and follow our boats in return – a pleasing mutual curiosity, but relations weren’t always so friendly.
There were once thousands of orcas (Orcinus orca) off our shores while today the southern resident population numbers only 81. Only decades ago people were still hunting orcas, and into the 1970s, capturing them for aquariums.
Two members of B.C. pods, Corky and Lolita, still languish in tiny concrete tanks after years of solitary confinement. Lolita, born to L pod in 1970 and captive for 45 long years, suffers in a shallow pool under the searing sun of Miami. Many people in B.C. and Washington State want to see her brought home.
Her relatives still swim here, and a sanctuary bay has been selected in the San Juan Islands for her rehabilitation and eventual release back to the wild, a cause which many local people support with letters and demonstrations, but the Miami Seaquarium refuses to give up Lolita, despite several court cases, petitions and protest marches on her behalf.
Even if Lolita is released back to our waters, her problems won’t be over. Orcas are threatened by marine pollution, starvation (dwindling salmon stocks), and crazy-making disorienting underwater sonar from naval and commercial shipping.
Whales, although so close, remain mysterious to us. Always moving, they sleep with one half their brain at a time. They navigate underwater hills and valleys and communicate over hundreds of miles by using sound waves absorbed through special membranes in their skulls which feed information to their huge, complex brains (and which are agonizingly ruptured by underwater sonar).
Air breathers, they both burst from sea into the sunshine in majestic leaps, and dive to black depths where they “see” in the dark by echo-location.
They live in tight matrilineal family groups, each generation of females helping raise the young of their children and grandchildren. Each pod and family with pods uses a complex local language.
Back in 2003, orcas were declared “endangered” (southern residents) and “threatened” (northern residents) under Canada’s Species At Risk Act, which stipulates that a recovery action plan is therefore legally required.
Twelve years later, no action has been developed, although in 2014 the local MP Randall Garrison tabled a motion in Parliament for a Killer Whale Recovery Plan. Orca supporters will now have to wait and see what action plans the next Parliament might be willing to adopt.
Barbara Julian is an Oak Bay writer and nature enthusiast whose monthly Suburban Wild column will explore some of the many fascinating wild creatures living in and around Oak Bay.