Workshop explores the wonders and fragility of our resident whales

Are you someone who is thrilled by the prospect of seeing whales and wants to know more about the amazing finned friends that frequent the waters near our shorelines? Then the Ways of the Whales Workshop is for you.

  • Saturday, January 6, 2007 9:00am
  • Life

Are you someone who is thrilled by the prospect of seeing whales and wants to know more about the amazing finned friends that frequent the waters near our shorelines? Then the Ways of the Whales Workshop is for you.

This annual workshop has become a favorite regional gathering of whale experts and those who want to learn about the wonders of Pacific Northwest whales – who they are and what they eat, and also what’s threatening their habitat and health.

The Ways of the Whales Workshop will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, in the Coupeville Middle School Performing Arts Center.

The event is sponsored by Orca Network, a Whidbey Island organization dedicated to raising awareness about the whales of the Pacific Northwest, and the importance of providing them healthy and safe habitats. The workshop was made possible through a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“Whether you are an educator, naturalist, or just someone who loves whales and wants to learn more about them, you will walk away from this workshop marveling at how much there is to know about what goes on under the surface of the waters surrounding our islands,” said Susan Berta, one of the founding members of Orca Network.

“I look forward each year to this workshop, as there is always brand-new information and discoveries made by the researchers working hard to understand these wonderful finned neighbors of ours. And it gives me hope we will continue learning and working to preserve them for future generations,” she added.

Resident and transient orcas inhabit the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, the Northwest Straits, the Gulf Islands and the Georgia Strait.

Four members of the Southern Resident orca community were reported missing and presumed dead since late summer, probably due to starvation compounded by PCB contamination. Gone are K28 (Raven, a 12-year-old mother, plus her 4-month-old calf), L43 (Jellyroll, a 34-year-old mother of three), and L71 (Hugo – a 20-year-old male).

In a population of less than a hundred, each mortality represents more than 1 percent of the community. After rebounding from a population of only 78 in 2001 to 90 earlier this summer, this loss of four individuals, at a time when food is usually plentiful, forecasts a potentially disastrous winter ahead for this endangered population.

Resident orcas will not eat seals or any other marine mammal (just as transient killer whales will eat only marine mammals). But there are lots of other fish in the sea and even other species of salmon may usually be found for the orcas to dine on.

Why are they so picky?

Experts say the answer, in a word, is culture. Orca communities develop preferences, habits and traditions much like human cultures, such as those that won’t eat pork or beef.

Among all animals known, only humans and orcas so far seem to have evolved the capacity for culture to this degree. That’s the only way to explain the seemingly disadvantageous patterns of food-sharing and prey selection among the Southern Resident orca community, experts say.

Southern Resident orcas depend primarily on Chinook salmon for survival. Historically, the ancestors of today’s J, K and L pods probably found plenty of Chinook year round in their travels from California to the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia.

But now most Chinook salmon runs in the major salmon producing rivers — from northern California to British Columbia — are threatened, endangered or already extinct.

At one time the Columbia and Snake River systems produced more salmon than any other rivers on earth. Today less than 10 percent of those Chinook still make it upriver to spawn, and their numbers are dwindling.

In addition to restoring year-round, abundant salmon runs, there is also the need to provide a clean and healthy habitat to help the orcas of Puget Sound. The waters these orcas call home are contaminated with toxins, which are passed up the food web and collect in the blubber of orcas, the ocean’s top predator.

The whales are then hit with a double whammy because when food is scarce, they must burn their blubber reserves, releasing these toxins into their bloodstream.

This ancient cultural community of orcas is precious and irreplaceable, and the Ways of the Whales Workshop is one way the community can be educated about solutions.

Several experts of marine life research will be on hand for a series of workshops.

Berta said it’s also a great way to meet people who have an interest in the Puget Sound and the creatures that inhabit it.

“Mike Etnier’s talk on orca bones is very interesting to many of us, as he is working with NOAA Fisheries and Orca Network on a project to reclaim the buried bones of some of the orcas killed during the 1970 Penn Cove orca capture,” Berta said.

“When I first became fascinated in whales, I couldn’t wait to learn all about them. What surprised me most is that many of the questions I had about whales didn’t have answers – there is so much we have yet to learn about most species of whales, even the orcas that surround us and have been studied closely for over 35 years,” she said.

The day will include an update on how the Southern Resident population has fared over the past year. Educational displays and materials will be available throughout the day as well.

If you are part of an environmental organization and would like to bring a display, please contact Orca Network to reserve a space.

To register for the workshops, go to Orca Network at www.orcanetwork.org or call 360-678-3451. Admission is $20.

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