Tuesday, October 28, 2008

J, K, L

I spent almost a work-week on the water this summer in an inflatable boat fighting seasickness and trying to keep track of the number and actions of the local whale-watching boats pursuing the local pods of orcas.
Paula got me involved with a group called Straitwatch (www.straitwatch.org) which watches whale watchers (and, for some reason, whenever I try to describe what they do, Elvis Costello's “Watching The Detectives” plays in my head). Straitwatch doesn't watch whales, instead they try and educate the public on the legal requirements around whale watching, and they track the activities of the whale watching businesses on the west coast, making sure that everyone is playing by the (same) rules. The rules are pretty simple; no closer than 400 metres front and back to the pod, no closer than 100 metres at the sides. If you're getting close, slow your engines. If you're caught within the minimum distance, cut your engines until the whales move away.
Now I read a report in The West Australian that apparently there are seven orcas missing from the local waters.
Seven gone this year, and that after reports of emaciation in J, K, and L pod's whales.One was the 98 (estimated)-year-old matriarch K-7, another L-101,the six-year-old brother of Luna (the (in)famous Nootka Sound whale). What makes it even worse is that L-67 (mother of L-101 and Luna), and another breeding-age female are both also missing and presumed dead. This makes the third year of a downhill trend for the population of local orca, after topping out at 90 whales in 2005.
To quote from the article; "[p]ollution and a decline in prey are believed to be the whales’ biggest threats, although stress from whale-watching tour boats and underwater sonar tests by the navy also have been concerns." I can speak to the stress from the industry; the busiest day I saw on the water this summer, there were over 40 boats around the whales. There were over 50 boats on the busiest day in August.
It makes economic sense. That day in August there were over forty boats surrounding the whales; ranging from our Zodiac with three people in it, up to large boats carrying fifty plus people that had come over from Vancouver. Which seems crazy to me, but once you multiply fifty people by $75/head, well, $3,750 a trip buys a lot of gas and a pretty extravagant boat. Heck, even ten people in a Zodiac isn't bad—especially if you can do it three times a day.
So there is a strong economic factor in whale watching. But, watching the whales for a moment during a break in data collection, all I could think was here is a group of mammals doing what they've always done—at a minimum, since the ice last receded,—and here we are driving boats over them for the last twenty five or thirty years. To read that K-7 was almost a hundred years old,well, the change from hunted to harassed had occurred in her lifetime. How tired of people had she become? Hell, I'm half her age and I'm tired enough of people that I stay in the house for weeks on end. Bears at least kill the occasional tourist to keep us on our toes, but the local orcas didn't even nibble on the idiot who put on his wetsuit and went swimming amongst them this August. And that is the Disneyfication of the natural world; a disrespect so deep that I can only hope that the swimmer tries it again among the transient whale population. They eat animals that look like seals....

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