One of our dream trips here at Gallery Drinkware has been to go whale watching, specifically orca watching, from a boat in the Pacific Northwest. We are seriously re-thinking this trip as we read more and more about how human encroachment is causing the starvation, habitat-disruption, and ultimate disappearance of the orcas in this region.
The "uniquely urban" population of orcas off of the coast of cities like Seattle and Vancouver normally has four to five new calves in any given year. But over the past three years, not a single calf has been born. Numbering at just 75, the number of orcas in the three pods that have been monitored for decades in the Pacific Northwest has hit an all-time low.
Although the exact cause has puzzled scientists, one of the biggest contributors is the dwindling population of the orcas' primary food source, the Chinook (or king) salmon. The orcas, which have been on the endangered list since 2005, are essentially starving. Overfishing, pollution, plastic rubbish, and warming seas all lead to both the salmon and orcas' demise. Scientists and environmentalists worry that the entire marine ecosystem is in danger of a total breakdown.
Along with the starvation issue, the orcas are facing a new challenge: the Trans Mountain Pipeline is going to increase its oil tanker traffic in the area by seven times, upping the chances of spills and pollution that directly threaten the whales (not to mention the salmon) by a huge margin. Construction is due to start in August of 2018 despite opposition from environmental groups.
Another issue facing the orcas that I've never even known of until now is underwater noise pollution. Commercial vessel operations, namely whale watching boats, cause so much noise in the areas in which the orcas forage in the summer months, that the orcas' echolocation, crucial to hunting their prey, is profoundly disrupted.
Chemicals and pesticides that linger from the area's industrial past as well as current pollution issues effect orcas' survival. It's possible that the chemicals are even affecting their fertility, which could explain the lack of calves. Additionally, human and animal diseases that make their way into the orca population, which is immuno-compromised by all these threats, are likely a major cause of the disappearance of these incredible mammals.
Orcas are some of the most intelligent, majestic, and beautiful creatures in the animal kingdom and their very existence is being threatened more and more as the years go by. The devastation we feel reading about this is palpable. We will continue to do the best we can to eliminate single-use plastic from our everyday lives, participate in beach clean-ups, support companies who care about the environment, and, sadly, most likely avoid that Pacific Northwest whale watching boat trip that we've long dreamed of. Just not worth it-- the cost to the orcas is too great.