Save our neighbors, the orcas

Submitted by Janet Thomas

When I moved to San Juan Island, more than 25 years ago, it was to a house on Andrews Bay on the west side. It was a difficult time in my life and the solace of sea and silence meant everything. I wanted some local art, so I went to Sunshine Galleries and got a lovely charcoal drawing of a nude woman. It was done on newsprint and it was by a man named Howard Schonberger. It was much later when I discovered who Howard was and that I was living in his old house on Andrews Bay, and writing in Ottley’s studio. Ottley was Howard’s wife then, and, it turned out, she was Gary Smith’s mother. It was Gary who kept my old car going — until his death in 2012. This is the way the island works — we overlap like the tides, coming and going in each other’s lives.

For me, this overlapping has encompassed the orca whales. Living on the west side in those years, meant hearing their breathing as they went by, seeing them at play, watching them forage, witnessing their greeting. One early morning, along the Land Bank shores, I was riveted by two orca pods greeting one another in a display of exuberance only yards from shore. The whales owned the waters in which they swam, slept, foraged and played. They were at home. All this has changed. Their food is disappearing; the toxins in their bodies is increasingly threatening to their immune systems; the noise from marine commerce is becoming greater and greater. All these factors are contributing to their pending extinction. This is a tragedy of the commons. It is human greed, consumption and carelessness that is contributing to the demise of the Southern resident killer whales. And it’s here, on our shores. Pesticides and herbicides run off into the waters. Why are we not prohibiting their use? Boats continue to chase and harass the orcas, polluting their home waters and the air they breathe. The engine noise they generate is an assault on the sensitive echolocation abilities of the orca whales, dramatically interfering with their communication with one another and their ability to search and find their ever-diminishing food supplies.

At the San Juan County Fair this year, I sat at the orca relief booth and collected signatures in support of a protection zone for the Southern residents. More than 100 people signed, all expressing heartbreak at the ways in which these beloved animals are suffering. One fellow, a commercial fisherman, signed the petition, saying that he didn’t even care if it impeded his ability to fish. “I’m sick of seeing them harassed,” he said.

The booth was across from the carnival and for four days the noise was invasive and unrelenting. “Ironic,” said one visitor. “This is what the orcas experience.”

Yes, the dams need to come down and the salmon need to come back. In the meantime, the least we can do is give them sanctuary in their home waters. Contact: jthomas@rockisland.com /Petition Information: www.orcarelief.org.