Just completed my second day out on the water- apparently it’s rare to have two such full days as these past two have been, which might mean I have more time to update in the near future (forecast says rain, surprise surprise Washington…) but that I will have slightly less to say? Somehow, I doubt it. I always have something to say.
Anyways, basically this is the coolest internship ever. I’m on-site to jump in a boat and go hang out with, identify, and photograph amazing apex predators in their natural environment with (extremely patient) experts willing to answer all of my (millions of) questions about whales, their food, their habits, their moods, their habitat, and their future.
Basically, we’re out to find, identify, census, and hopefully determine the sizes of the Southern Resident population of killer whales. But let’s back up a step here:
Killer whales are widespread, from Antarctica all the way to the Aleutian islands and possibly even farther north when there’s no ice. But that’s only if you consider every killer whale (Orcinus orca) to be part of a single species. You’ll notice I call them “killer whales”- I’m mimicking the scientists here, who are of the (undoubtedly correct) opinion that killer whales are not all one species, so it’s inaccurate to refer to them all as “orca.” The Antarctic/southern hemisphere whales probably haven’t had contact with their northern relatives for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. Additionally, killer whales are further divided by their locations- northern and southern populations, close to shore or away from shore, Atlantic, Pacific, Aleutian, etc. and even further within those groups by their diet and group-specific culture. Yes, that’s right. Killer whales can be distinguished very clearly by their proprietary languages and cultures. They don’t interbreed between cultures (they’ve been described to me as “xenophobic”), look significantly different to those who know what to look for (eventually I will…) and haven’t traded genetic information in hundreds of thousands of years. In the wild, they are completely separate entities, and ought to be considered as multiple species across the globe.
In the area we’re studying, three groups of killer whales can be found: residents, transients, and offshores. Offshores are the most rarely seen and least well-known, but it’s hypothesized from the state of their worn-down teeth that they eat sharks and live mostly off of the continental shelf. (WHAT.) Transients are the big mammal-eaters, taking down harbor seals and other kinds of whales with sneaky silent group efforts, and share nearly all the same spaces as residents. Residents and transients don’t compete for space (it’s a big ocean) or food, however, because residents eat nearly exclusively large Chinook salmon.
Chinook salmon is the big stuff- the real deal, cherished by humans and whales alike. Complicating the already-sensitive reliance of the Southern Residents on these fish is the international border and fractured nature of interest groups in this area: whale-watchers want to conserve the whales, obviously, but also want close access to them; meanwhile, the US and Canada have to negotiate shares of ocean-caught salmon for their commercial and recreational fishermen; on top of this, native groups in both countries have ancestral claims to subsistence on the fish; and upstream pollution and dams and water loss are making it harder and harder for these sought-after snacks to breed every year. (In case you have never heard of salmon, they are born in high freshwater streams, make their way to the oceans to grow, then return up rapids and falls and long distances to their place of birth to generate their own offspring. Already a hard life for the lil’ guys. Or, you know, big guys…)
More on the whales themselves (their culture and language, especially) probably tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this at the end of your day:
Goodnight whales. Goodnight internet. Goodnight little trailer and goodnight to you too.