Robert’s column

Robert’s column

Robert Barron column: More work needed to save killer whales

Killer whale populations are in crisis.

That mother orca pushing her dead calf around for weeks last month with her forehead and nose had to be one of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen.

If I ever had any doubt as to the intelligence of these sentient creatures and their capacity to feel human-like emotions, than watching J-35, the tag given to the mother by scientists, grieve for her offspring has dispelled it.

I’ve had many close encounters with killer whales all around Vancouver Island when I was an avid kayaker years ago, and found them to be among the most fascinating animals that I’ve ever come across.

I’ve watched them hunting seals and porpoises from my kayak, and while their attacks on their prey were typically vicious and final, I’ve never felt any personal danger from them, despite their large size and the fact that I was in their element.

They could have easily capsized my kayak and made a meal of me as well, but all they ever did was come close enough to check me out and then just turn and swim away.

Dr. John Ford, a distinguished marine biologist at Nanaimo’s Pacific Biological Station, once told me about an incident in Alaska in which a toddler of about four years old wearing a black wet suit was playing in about three feet of water.

The child’s parents were on the beach when they noticed a killer whale was charging ashore directly at their son.

The boy’s back was to the sea, so he couldn’t see the whale and the shocked parents were too far away to help in time.

But just as the whale was a mere few feet from the lad, it suddenly stopped the attack, watched the now terrified boy who was right in front of him for a few seconds, then casually swam away.

Ford suggested that, with the black wet suit on, the whale likely mistook the boy from a distance for a seal, one of the killer whale’s preferred delicacies.

It’s a fact that there has never been a confirmed attack of a killer whale in its natural habitat on a human anywhere in the world and I like to believe it’s because they are intelligent enough to recognize us as fellow sentient beings that shouldn’t be harmed.

That’s why I found it so sad to see that mother orca pushing her dead offspring around in the desperate hope that maybe the calf would come back to life.

Killer whale populations, particularly the pods that live in the Strait of Georgia full time, are in crisis.

The drop in salmon populations in the strait and the ever-increasing pollution from the urban centres that dot its shores have been instrumental in the ever-increasing mortality rates to the pods that live in those waters full time.

Industrial toxins such as PCBs and other pollutants that are entering their ecosystems, have accumulated in the whales to such high concentrations that some individual animals qualify for treatment as “hazardous material”.

The toxins build up in the whales’ fatty tissues and can dramatically impact their health when food supplies dwindle and the whale’s fat begins to break down to compensate.

If we don’t do something soon to help these magnificent creatures, future generations won’t experience the wonder that we do when we see them in their natural habitats.