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In memoriam: Tribute to Speiden | Guest Column
By Libby Baldwin
You could always hear her coming.
When orca whales surface for a breath, they emit a highly audible “pfft” sound. These exhalations are powerful, traveling at speeds of up to 100 mph in some cases, and can be heard from miles away on a calm day.
Orca enthusiasts always jump at the sound, sometimes the first indication that orcas are present. All orcas’ breaths sounds pretty much the same – except for one very special female, Speiden.
Hobbes Buchanan has worked on the water as a captain and naturalist for 10 years, three of those running his own operation, San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours. He has fond memories of J-8, Speiden, missing since the latter part of last year and now presumed dead.
“She was the old girl, the one we called the ‘old wheezer’,” Buchanan said. “She was so friendly and curious, and easy for people who have trouble with ID’ing whales, because you could hear her.”
Speiden was the second-oldest whale in the southern resident killer whale community, trailing only J-2, or Granny. Researchers estimate she was born in 1933. Whale-watchers in the San Juans have always felt great affection for the venerable orca, whose exhalation was always accented by that distinctive wheeze.
It will be notably absent from the Salish Sea this coming summer, when J, K, and L pods hopefully return to our area to feast on Chinook salmon and delight visitors and residents alike.
Unfortunately, the most significant word in that sentence is “hopefully.”
There is a tall tale propagated by some of the eldest fishermen of the Pacific Northwest. They say once upon a time there were so many salmon in the inland waters of what is now the Salish Sea that one could walk across their backs. This abundance of food brought great numbers of orcas here, too.
That vision certainly doesn’t match up with reality.
The summer of 2013 held the lowest number of orca sightings since tracking began over three decades ago. The southern resident community of killer whales was at an all-time peak of 98 individuals in 1995, and then abruptly suffered a significant drop of 20 percent from 1996-2001, which prompted their listing as an endangered species.
During the last few years, the population has steadily declined. 2013 ended with a just 80 orcas, a dangerously low number. Only 16 of those are breeding-age females, making it almost impossible for the orcas to reproduce fast enough to keep the population stable. To make matters worse, 2013 brought four deaths and zero births.
The folks who run the whale-watching boats here – the captains and naturalists who have watched the population sink closer and closer to extinction – have only become more concerned and stewardship-minded over the years.
“I’ve seen the industry do a total 360 in the ten years I’ve been doing this,” Buchanan said. “Everybody’s on their best behavior now, and working hard to ensure that these whales continue to be protected.”
If you want to help the orcas, there are several ways to start. Choose wild-caught salmon over farm-raised. The chemicals and antibiotics used to regulate production in fish farms are toxic to the surrounding wild ecosystem; not enough Chinook salmon are spawning, which is leading to a total collapse of the orcas’ primary source of food.
When you go whale-watching, be sure to choose a company that is a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. These operators have all agreed to follow a strict set of “whale-wise” guidelines, including staying 200 yards away from the whales at all times, watching them from a parallel angle rather than blocking their path, and not staying with any one group of whales for more than an hour at a time.
Even the choices you make in household products can affect the whales. By choosing “green” cleaning products such as dish soap, laundry detergent, and household cleaners, you can ensure that the products going down your sink won’t end up in the orcas’ systems.
There is nothing quite like the magnificent sight of those sleek black fins sluicing through the surface of the water, in perfect harmony with one another. When visitors witness their beauty and complex social behaviors and leave with a new awareness of the natural world, it’s easy to see the importance of preserving our orcas. The start of 2014 is the perfect time to start making sure that we keep them there.