Talking orcas, global and local, as Erich Hoyt returns to The Whale Trail

(Spyhopping orca in Elliott Bay, photographed by Eric Lemar)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

A day that began with orcas in view off West Seattle ended with a discussion about protecting them, locally and worldwide.

The Whale Trail presented author Erich Hoyt, as he launches a tour to promote a new edition of his seminal book Orca: The Whale Called Killer.”

And after he spoke to a rapt audience at The Hall at Fauntleroy, attendees got a bonus – some observations from local orca researcher Mark Sears, who spent three hours on Puget Sound this morning with the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The night began with an introduction from Donna Sandstrom, the West Seattleite who founded The Whale Trail in 2008, just three years after the SRKWs were declared endangered. Its purpose is to make it easier to watch them from shore and also – via TWT’s interpretive signs – to “tell their story when they’re not around.” It started with 16 signs, and now stretches from British Columbia to California: “Now you can follow The Whale Trail from San Juan Capistrano to Prince Rupert, BC.” (And soon, she disclosed later, Mexico, too!) “Shore-based whale watching is now more than ever “a strategic act of conservation.” That’s one of the hot topics addressed by the Governor’s Task Force, of which Sandstrom is a member.

She said reading Hoyt’s book was her initiation into fascination with the whales and a desire to help them.

When TWT launched its lecture series in 2013, Hoyt spoke in the same venue, his first US appearance in almost 40 years. His seminal book has a new edition out. “It’s rare when you meet a hero and they’re even better than you expect them to be.”

Hoyt opened by thanking the J and K Pods for arriving “shortly after I arrived last night.” He saw them again this morning while out jogging. “A very nice welcome.”

He said he is “obsessed” with habitat protection these days and took another look at his book through that prism. As an aside, he noted that the whale on his book’s front cover is J35, Tahlequah, who became heartbreakingly renowned last year for carrying her dead calf for 1,000 miles.

Hoyt told stories including “a journey up the BC coast in search of orcas” in the 1970s. He saw the Northern Residents in Robson Bight on eastern Vancouver Island, so far back that it was when Mike Bigg started studying them (transient whales’ official species name, Bigg’s, are in his honor). They observed and learned about the whales and their cultural behaviors including rubbing their backs on the rocks of certain beaches.

Then in the late ’70s, the untouched valleys nearby were in the sights of logging companies. Hoyt wrote news stories about what became “the first debate over whale habitat in Canada.” He spoke of a conversation with a logging executive who said “the blackfish” could go other places. Several years of debate ensued – whales or log booms (the companies’ preferred method of transporting cut trees out of the area(?

“The amazing thing was … the thought of killer whales trying to get a breath of air between all these logs … the orcas won.” But “the legislation was very weak,” involving a 7-square=mile land area, so he “learned over time that we didn’t ask for near enough.”

With that as a preface, he talked about Marine Protected Areas. But they are “just one tool in the toolbox.” There are 17,000 MPAs but only about 600 have “substantial marine mammal content” and most species have no coverage. The public “identifies with place-based conservation,” he observed.

To protect whale habitat and maintain healthy seas for them, Hoyt said, you need to take a variety of steps. What’s healthy habitat? Just their presence is a good sign. But also good: a thriving supply of food, uncontaminated waters, quiet waters, strict controls on boats, present and future management of potential human threats, strategies to address climate change, informed and engaged humans watching over.

He spoke of multiple case studies, starting in Northern Europe and going on to the U.S. East Coast, where they’ve “tried to address this problem” to some degree. Reviewing 40 years of whale-watching data led them to identify a shipping route where there was a “lot less risk of hitting whales.” The route adds only about 7 minutes to incoming ships’ trips.

As for our area – many around the world are watching to see what we do here on the Salish Sea, “living close to wild whales n an enclosed area.”

He then offered a closer look at the orcas of Far East Russia, which had not been studied. There was a threat of capture in 1999 by Japan and China. After 20 years of studies, he and other researchers have thousands of photos and lots more information. He told the stories of some of the groups in the population.

He also told some of the researchers’ stories like Olga Filatova, who studied the orcas’ dialects. He played audio of the squealing calls of Kamchatka orcas. 2,000 of these orcas have been photo-IDd in “three acoustic clans in southeast Kamchatka and many other clans passing though the commander islands.” He urged attendees to view the research for clues about rebuilding local orcas.

Another similarity: They found resident (fish-eating) and transient (mammal-eating) orcas in that area, like in ours. The food needs help define the habitat. These orcas have prey problems too, though “not nearly as pronounced” as here. Mackerel, for example, were overfished. Also, a problem: Fishers shooting at orcas to chase them away from the Greenland halibut fishery. And: More than 20 have been captured since 2012. There are 130 aquariums in China, Japan, and Russia exhibiting cetaceans (not just orcas), Hoyt said. Last year alone, 90 belugas and 11 orcas were captured in th Sea of Okhotsk – after almost a year in captivity, the orcas were ordered to be released, and starting about a month ago, that’s happening, Hoyt said. One orca and three belugas died, however. As a result of all this work, the first step has been taken toward a orotected area for Kamchatka orcas.

The big picture: Only about 8 percent of the ocean is protected. While there are scientific criteria that play into protected areas, human stakeholder involvement is vital too, “so important in making these things work.” Bottom line, “We need to know which habitats are the most important for whales and other marine mammals” and take steps to protect them.

Working on this is an IUCN task force. Hoyt explained Important Marine Mammal Areas – a place-based conservation tool identifying “discrete portions of habitat …” though an IMMA isn’t a protected area. He also explained how they are identified, starting as an Area of Interest, which is considered by reviewers who turn down up to a third of proposed IMMAs. The task force has only been operating since 2016. It’s close to finishing Indian Ocean and Australia/NZ, finishing the Pacific by the end o next year. Germany’s climate initiative funded a lot of it. They added 44 more IMMAs yesterday, Hoyt added, and now there are 121, with 87 areas of interest under consideration. (Find out more via this website.)

What’s next? They’re looking at an Arctic IMMA workshop in 2022 and are working to close data gaps in the high seas. The big question: How can they show the value of whales, MPAs, and IMMAs to society? You can be part of the answer – telling stories about whales, share your joy, caring about individual whales (“poster whales” like Tahlequah help show the value). But ultimately, Hoyt contends,”it’s not just saving the whales, it’s saving their habitat.”

Q&A followed. One person asked why we don’t have protected areas here; Sandstrom handled that one. She said it’s “tough” because some stakeholders get stuck on their part of the big picture and refuse to “budge… to do what’s right for the whales.” She added, “We really support the idea of a floating protection zone around the whales,” and extolled a 3- to 5-year moratorium on water-based whale watching around the SRKWs: “They’re losing 5 1/2 hours of foraging time per day … the only sure thing we can do now is turn down the volume … it breaks my heart thinking how hard it is for them to hear each other in the Salish Sea.” Their time is running out: “There’s 12 reproductive females, 2 new calves … can we turn this around?”

But there’s some progress: Sandstrom had NOAA Fisheries’ Lynne Barre speak for a moment about the just-announced proposal to designate more of the West Coast as “critical habitat” for the orcas. She said, “We want to hear what you think of it.” Read more about it on NOAA’s website and comment via this page on

In the short run, the resident orcas seen here today might be visible again tomorrow, Sandstrom said. With that, she brought up locally based researcher Mark Sears, who had spent three hours out with the orcas this morning. Their return to central Puget Sound, chasing coho, is a little earlier than recent years, he agreed. He said they seemed “happy” today, “fat and sassy … alternating resting and socializing … every so often some fishing,” and “talking” a lot, to the point where they could be heard from above the surface. He collected some good samples of their waste and what was left of their prey, too, all to help in learning how they’re doing. In all, Sears said, the “whales were doing very good today.”

SIDE NOTE: This also comes two days before the Whale Trail-benefiting Orca Half half-marathon on Sunday passes four Whale Trail sites in West Seattle; each runner is running for an individual orca, whose history is on the runner’s bib. Inflatable J26 will be there – the real J26, Mike, was in the area today. … Tonight’s event also featured TWT’s nonprofit partners included SR3, MAST, NW Aquatic & Marine Education, MidSound Fisheries Enhancement Group.

Watch for the group’s future events.

1 Reply to "Talking orcas, global and local, as Erich Hoyt returns to The Whale Trail"

  • Steve September 20, 2019 (9:16 am)

    Tracy, thanks for the great recap on the fascinating lecture. My jaw dropped last night when Mr. Hoyt said that the new cover featured J35, Tahlequah, but I was also heartened when he spoke about the import of naming whales to foster public awareness / connection. And I have to say that WSB’s whale sighting posts are one of my favorite things in the world (even when I’m not able to drop everything to go take a gander).

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