Many incredible things happened at Superpod 3. Seeing orcas every day, the close encounters many human pod members had with curious whales swimming right up to their boat, the other wildlife (bald eagles, minke whales, humpbacks, harbor seals), the incredible presentations and resulting conversations, and the inspiration that comes from being in a room full of people who are all passionate about the same thing. But my favorite thing was the people – getting to meet a vast array of individuals from all walks of life that have been brought together by their desire to end captivity for orcas and protect the ones that remain in the wild.
Presentations ranged from the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji to the current legal battles over Lolita; the potential effects of the Northern Gateway pipeline to the state of salmon recovery in the Northwest – all things that have implications for wild orca conservation. The Russian population of orcas is still subjected to capture for the burgeoning captivity industry in Asia, which is supplied by these orcas and dolphins from the drive hunts; the Northern Gateway pipeline could spell disaster for the Northern Resident and west coast transient populations; and everything in the Northwest seems to come back to salmon.
The Southern Resident orcas, who graced us with their company through the entire duration of Superpod, face a complex web of threats, and each can intensify or be intensified by the others. When food is scarce, stress levels in the whales increase, compromising their immune systems, which already struggle against the effects of pollutants and toxins in the water. When food is plentiful, they stay near it, usually in heavily populated and trafficked areas, subjecting them to noise and harassment from large numbers of vessels. There is no easy answer to protecting orcas in the wild, and it is a long-term process to turn the tide towards a recovering population. We must address each threat on an individual level as well as its connection to the other issues.
Dr. Naomi Rose made a comment during last Tuesday’s Blackfish Q&A that truly reflected the attitude and position of many of the people in attendance. She mentioned that while she is lucky enough to spend her career fighting against captivity and for conservation in the wild, the vast majority of people in the room, including the ex-SeaWorld trainers that make up Voice of the Orcas, do not do this for a living. They are advocates, volunteers, and Superpod members in their free time – they aren’t paid to hold protests, or write letters, or have tweetstorms on social media. They fight for the orcas because they care so much about them, and they want to stand up against the atrocities of captivity. These caring and compassionate people can’t stand to see what is happening to the whales still held in tanks. Their passion, dedication, and willingness to fight for the cause was truly the most inspirational part of the Superpod gathering, and gave me high hopes for the future.
Public sentiment is truly turning against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, and increasing interest in the Superpod event is evidence that we are in it for the long haul. There was a lot of discussion about how to continue the momentum of Blackfish, spread knowledge about the realities of captivity, and continue to be active, even as we all returned to our individual homes and daily lives. We can continue to promote Blackfish and show it to friends and family who have not seen it, follow advocacy groups on social media and share their updates, arrange or support protests and demonstrations such as Empty the Tanks Worldwide. Be “smart shoppers” and spend our money with intention – support businesses that are conservation-oriented and avoid those that are affiliated with SeaWorld or other captive facilities. We can write to our representatives and stay involved with policy updates and initiatives; let them know that we don’t support keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, and that we want them to support ocean-friendly and conservation-oriented policies. We must keep in mind our own daily impact on the environment and the ocean – reduce, reuse, recycle! – so that when the day comes that captive whales and dolphins are released, they have a healthy ocean to return to.
While discussing the orcas with other (human) pod members in a coffee shop, I overheard one barista remark to another, “I didn’t know the whales were such a big deal.” He was surprised that such a large group of people would travel from all over the world not just to see the orcas, but to talk about how to protect them. The orcas are an essential and historical part of everyday life and community in the Northwest, as well as vital members of the Salish Sea ecosystem. They are certainly a large draw for tourists, but we had come not just to enjoy the whales. We were there to make sure they will be around for future generations to enjoy and love.
Seeing orcas in the wild – breaching & spyhopping, playing with kelp, socializing with pod members, chasing down salmon, hanging out with family groups and free to come and go as they please – creates a sense of awe and wonder that can never be duplicated in a show put on purely for entertainment. On San Juan Island, we are in their world as visitors, and time is decided by the orcas – and what a wonderful time it was.