Killer whales and canaries have a lot in common.
Canaries have been used since the early days of underground mining to detect toxic vapors for miners as they chipped away at bedrock in pursuit of valuable commodities from coal and diamonds to veins of precious gold.
The majestic orca that has become symbolic of the pristine waters of the Puget Sound has become the canary of the waters of what is known as the South Salish Sea. The health of the mammals has been used to indicate levels of oxygen and food available to sustain the creatures that that have shared the seas for centuries.
There are three pods of orca whales that make their home in the Puget Sound. All are endangered but none more so than the killer whales that roam the southern reaches of the Sound.
“The Southern killer whale is native to the Puget Sound,” explained Rachel Easton, educational director of the Gig Harbor-based Harbor WildWatch. “The resident orcas are exclusively fish eaters. In fact, they prefer king salmon.”
Easton said her organization is concerned with the loss of salmon in the Sound over the past several months caused by intrusions from humans and the aggressive feeding habits of transient orcas that enter the Sound from the ocean in search of easily accessible food. The transient pods, she explained, come into the Sound from the Pacific to feed on the salmon when larger prey such as seals are not available.
Humans are also a threat to the orcas.
“Whales communicate through a language of echoes that allows them to share source of food and warn other members of the pod about dangers,” said Easton. “Noise from the growing number of whale-watch excursions and pleasure boaters can confuse Orcas and pose a danger to their ability to find enough food.”
Harbor WildWatch is also monitoring the number of sharks in the Sound that have been impacted by pollutants that settle to the sea bed and contaminate food sources for the bottom feeders. Easton said there are seven species of sharks that are native to the Puget Sound. The most endangered are the six- and seven-gill sharks that live at depths of up to 900 feet below the surface.
“People, especially divers, are fascinated by these sharks and will gather around them in groups to watch them feed,” said Easton. “It seems that every diver in the Sound is looking for a way to capture their own YouTube moment.”
The resident sharks and the orcas of the Puget Sound will be the focus of two activities this summer that have been designed to raise money and awareness for the preservation of these ancient creatures.
On July 14, Harbor WildWatch will host its second Apex Predator Day in conjunction with the Fox Island Museum. An apex predator, also known as an alpha predator, earns it distinction as being at the top of the food chain. The health of apex predators plays a critical role in maintaining the health of an ecosystem.
The day will start with a beach walk at the Fox Island Boat Launch and continue at the Fox Island History Museum, where participants will be able to enjoy games, arts and crafts, interactive activities for all ages and a special exhibit about the environmental impact of trash that ends up in the Sound.
Three quarters of the pollutants that pose a danger to sea life in the Sound does not come from oil run-off, according to Easton.
“You’d never think about pouring a quart of oil into the waters of the Sound,” said Easton. “But that’s the equivalent of a car with an oil leak that forces the driver to add a quart of oil to the engine between oil changes.”
She said sharks are bottom feeders that often eat the decaying flesh of fish that have died and settled to the sandy bottom.
“The critical situation with sharks and orcas could correct itself if we could just leave the Sound five years to recuperate,” she explained. “Orcas are intelligent animals and will evolve to survive if left alone.”
The Sound would also benefit from a change in attitude by residents of Western Washington. Easton said picking up dog poop every day would help the whales and sharks in the Sound. She said the run-off from the poop from one medium-sized dog can contaminate 15 shellfish beds, which, in turn, limits the availability of krill and other nutrients in the water.
Her suggestion for people concerned about the health of the Puget Sound is to challenge restaurant operators to be part of the solution by reducing the amount of food wasted at dining establishments. The unused food could help feed the homeless if it does not end up in the Sound.
Easton went on to question the amount of plastic used, and disposed of, every day. She said it is hard for people to change their way of thinking.
“Think about the waste in one order of take-out food,” she said. “There is no reason why people cannot provide their own containers for food they want to bring home from a restaurant. We’ve expanded on the expression ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ by adding the word ‘Rethink.’”
On August 15, Harbor WildWatch will welcome noted neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino, the founder of the Whale Sanctuary Project on the East Coast to address an all-ages Cocktails and Fishtales presentation on the status of sea mammals at Ocean5.
The efforts to save orcas and sharks from the danger created by humans began this year on World Ocean Day in June when 144 dedicated individuals helped clean trash from beaches along the South Sound.
According to Easton, the one-day effort removed 400 pounds of debris from local shorelines.
Education is the main objective of the Harbor WildWatch organization. The nonprofit reaches out to local schools and maintains a presence at local farmers markets, as well as outdoor concerts in the area, to reach people who are empathetic to the cause.
The effort, she said, gives volunteers the opportunity to interact at 600 events with an average of 32,000 people every year. Adult response has been judged a response by the growing number of memberships to the nonprofit group.
The student program has been an unabashed success, Easton said with a smile, based on the waiting list of 5- to 12-year-olds who have enrolled in the 20 different programs for young people.
“Residents of this area love to frolic along the shoreline of the Puget Sound,” Easton concluded. “We all have to realize there’s a price to pay to be living with such beauty. People need to understand that we are the newcomers compared to the orcas and sharks that populate the Sound. We should think of ourselves as humble guests.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California and has received acclamation for his work in the areas of sustainable energy and the insurance industry. Aznoff is the author of two books that document colorful periods of history in Washington.