Help the whales, help the humans

Jackie Hildering is passionate about whales, and she wants to educate everyone on the importance of protecting the killer whales for both their sake and humanity’s.

Hildering, co-founder of Marine Education and Research Society, was the presenter for SeaDoc Society and Camp Orkila’s Marine Lecture Series talk on April 19.

“I think right from the start you should be questioning what my expertise is,” Hildering said. “I’m an escaped biology teacher from the Netherlands.”

Hailing from Port McNeill, British Columbia, Hildering explained that she was born and raised in Canada but had moved to be a teacher and school administrator in the Netherlands for more than a decade. On a visit home to Canada, her friends took her on a whale watching tour and changed her life forever.

“It was a slap upside the head that I think probably many people in this room have experienced,” Hildering said. “I realized I had drifted off course. I was talking about nature as if it were somewhere else.”

Hildering explained that she left her job overseas and came to work for the company that had taken her on that first tour. She ultimately started the Marine Education and Research Society. Though the nonprofit primarily researches humpback and minke whales, Hildering’s lecture that night was “Lessons Learned From Killer Whales.”

“Through orca, the whale that we call killer … not only are there common solutions to environmental problems, there are common solutions to social problems because how can you separate the two?” She asked. “They are indicators of the health of the ocean for which our lives also depend on. … This is all about how wrong we can be, how quickly we can change and how do we extrapolate that toward the future?”

Hildering said that First Nations peoples – or Native Americans, as they are called in the United States – had a good connection to nature. For the most part they honored the whales. However, when Dutch immigrants moved in, she explained, they feared the whales. They called the orcas they encountered “marine beasts” and said they spread terror and were intent on finding things to destroy and devour. Even as recently as the late 1960s, orcas were feared, and killed because of this fear. The name Orcinus orca, explained Hildering, even means “demon from hell.”

“The perception was because there were frequent sightings of killer whales, there must be thousands of them,” Hildering said. “But, of course, you could be seeing the same ones over and over again This started the gold rush on the capture of killer whales.”

A live orca was worth up to $25,000 to aquariums like Seaworld, she explained. There was no consideration about how many whales were being captured and how many died in the process. She said that the practice peaked in the 1970s with a total of 92 whales captured.

Everything came to a head in 1976, said Hildering, when, while attempting to capture whales near the shore of Olympia, researchers, advocates and a journalist saw the whole process and it was front page news. The state of Washington sued Seaworld but they dropped the charges under the condition the whales were released.

“Thank goodness we put them into captivity. I actually mean it,” Hildering said. “Where we are now is, indisputably, the one thing we know for sure is that they do not belong in captivity.”

The first person to really start researching the whales was Dr. Michael Bigg, said Hildering. He was originally sent to do a census on the whales, but soon his interest was piqued.

“As a biologist, I find it mind-blowing that in the 1970s there were very few animals being studied as individuals. … There were primates, giraffes, then Dr. Bigg started with killer whales,” Hildering said. “He could then prove that the sightings were of the same whales over and over again, and there were extremely limited numbers. Once you start studying animals as individuals, you find out so much more.”

Thanks to Bigg’s research, scientists now know that there are at least 10 different types of killer whale species in the world, and they each have their own cultures, Hildering said. The orcas have their own languages, diets and social communities.

Hildering said she has a problem with the names of the whales locally: the residents are not “residents” and the transients are not “transients.” However, she added, the offshores are properly named because they are indeed offshore orcas.

“The residents are not residents, they are salmon specialists,” Hildering said. “They are no fools; of all the kinds of salmon. They want Chinook — they’re Chinookoholics.”

Hildering said that there is a huge life expectancy difference between males and females — with males living until about 40 and females living into their 80s. She also added that the beloved orca Granny was likely not more than 100 years old.

According to Hildering, the orcas known as residents follow salmon as they migrate through the Sound. The Northern resident killer whales and the Southern resident killer whales fall into this category.

“They’re incredibly predictable at certain times of the year,” she explained, because they’re chasing the same runs of salmon they’ve gone after for generations. “We know where the salmon are going; these incredibly smart dolphin know where they’re going as well.”

Because the residents’ food is predictable, the residents themselves are more predictable, Hildering explained. This species of orca are louder than the mammal eaters because salmon are essentially deaf, she said. The residents also live in groups led by the mothers in the pod, a matriline.

The Southern resident killer whales don’t breed with the Northern resident killer whales nor the transient killer whales, explained Hildering, because they speak a different “language.” Each of the three subspecies of orca have their own vocalizations, food preferences and customs and they never inter-mate.

How do they avoid inbreeding? Hildering said that different families have different “accents” but they speak the same “language,” so you know you’re not mating with a member of your family because they vocalize differently. Unfortunately, she added, the Southern resident killer whales are running into inbreeding problems because there are so few of them remaining.

The whales known commonly as transients, or Bigg’s whales, which Hildering said are not actually transients, were named as such because they have a larger distance they travel, but they remain in relatively the same area.

“So the mammal-eating killer whales cannot be coming to the same place again and again and again,” Hildering explained. “So they do move around but not on the scale that the name transient suggests.”

Another trait the Bigg’s killer whales have is that they’ll do surplus killings, such as attacking seabirds, Hildering said.

“If you’re teaching your young how to kill a harbor porpoise it’s going to be a prolonged kill,” Hildering said.

Sightings of Bigg’s killer whales are becoming more frequent, Hildering explained, because the population of their prey source, the harbor seals, has increased due to their protected status.

The third type of orca that inhabit our region are the offshore orca. These killer whales have a population of about 300, ranging from the Alaskan panhandle down to California. Because they eat sharks, which have sandpaper-like scales, these orcas have very worn down teeth. Scientists believe that the offshore orcas used to feed on basking sharks, before humans decimated their population, explained Hildering.

“We know how incredibly wrong we can be, but, oh boy, can we change when knowledge replaces fear,” she said. “We don’t look back often enough to remember who we were.”

From 1977 until now, the public’s perception of killer whales has changed drastically, Hildering said. A horror movie released in ‘77, titled “Orca: The Killer Whale,” portrayed orcas as mindless killing machines. Then, in the 1990s, the movie series “Free Willy” revealed a loving side of orcas. And finally, the documentary “Blackfish” showed the dark side of killer whale captivity.

“Folks, this idea of how quickly we can change, that is a transition of only 38 years,” Hildering said. “Very clearly we haven’t changed enough … There wouldn’t be 76 Southern resident killer whales if we truly changed.”

But according to Hildering, her lecture wasn’t just about killer whales. Orcas are barometers for how humanity is doing and how humans will impact their own health.

“We have to realize that when species are in trouble, it’s most often death by a thousand cuts, so you have to stop the bleeding where you can and not be arguing back and forth,” Hildering said. “You’ve got to control what you can.”

She said that humans have “incredible ingenuity” but make the same mistakes repeatedly, valuing short-term economics over long-term impacts. Persistent organic pollutants, she explained, were once hailed for their successful termination of weeds and cleaning ability.

“They were used in incredible numbers then – ‘OOPS!’ – it was realized they never go away,” Hildering said. “They act like hormones, therefore impacting immunity and the ability to reproduce. Everything ends up in the ocean.”

These toxins impact an organism’s ability to fight disease, impact ability to reproduce, build up in fat and dilute in water so they spread easily.

“As long as you don’t have the proper attitude about precaution, you’re going to make the same mistakes over and over again,” Hildering said, adding that polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) are a big toxin plaguing marine wildlife. “They were amazing, they were used in so many things. They stop things from corroding, they’re a fire retardant. They make things more elastic. There was even a consideration of using them in chewing gum, folks.”

Humans become concerned when there are 2 parts per million (ppm) of PCBs in their food, however, male Northern resident killer whales have tested as high as 37.4 ppm, and calves up to 300 ppm.

“This has got to be one of the things that is impacting the health of these animals,” Hildering said. “How I wish everybody on our coast would realize that these are the most contaminated animals on earth.”

She said those numbers are likely higher in Puget Sound. There are 100,000 people for every Southern resident killer whale, and Puget Sound is a “toxic toilet.” She said that as many as 69 pregnancies in Southern resident killer whales did not lead to births.

“It’s great to have this information but really at some point ‘enough already.’ Do something! The killer whales are indicators of our value systems. Is there hope for them? Is there hope for us?” Hildering asked. “The killer whales are barometers of human value systems. I absolutely believe that if they’re doing well, we’re doing well, and if they’re not, then the opposite is true.”

Hildering explained that humans need to learn to use less, to understand their connectedness to the world and realize that their purchasing choices in one part of the planet impacts the environment and social reality of another.

“Killer whales taught us how wrong we can be but how quickly we can learn. Killer whales have shown us how quickly we can change when knowledge replaces fear,” Hildering said. “They also show us that there are common solutions to social-environmental problems. It has to be about common solutions. It shouldn’t be these competing interests … because ultimately the whales will be an indicator of what we’re doing to ourselves.”