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Species at Risk: The Killer Whale

The year was 1993. There I was, little 7-year-old me who, after having seen the movie Free Willy more times than 26-year-old me would like to admit, was quite certain I was an expert on killer whales. I knew they were an endangered species in both the U.S. and in Canada, I knew how intelligent they were, I knew that they traveled in groups called pods, and I knew that (spoiler alert) if you were in the right place at the right time and Michael Jackson’s “Will you be there” was playing in the background, you could look really, really cool if a captured killer whale jumped over your head to his freedom.

Turns out I’m not actually an expert on killer whales, and that epic scene of Willy jumping to his freedom was really just a little bit of surprises there, I guess, but I’ll admit I was a little disappointed.

As it happens, killer whales are just as interesting to me now as they were twenty years ago. Most of Canada’s killer whale populations are listed under the federal Species at Risk Act as either threatened or endangered, and one population in particular – the southern resident population – is having a tough time recovering from the decline it’s been experiencing over the last fifty or so years.

When you look at a map of where the different resident populations of killer whales are found in Canada, it’s not entirely surprising that the southern resident population is struggling – they spend most of their time in the Georgia and Haro Straits in B.C., and Puget Sound in Washington, which are pretty high-traffic areas for ships and other large, noisy and imposing vessels. To get an idea of what it’s like for these whales, imagine living in the busiest, noisiest part of the downtown core in a major city, with busy streets, dangerous traffic and endless noise. The stress would be almost unbearable, and that's what these whales are constantly subjected to.

Because I like maps, here's one of the ranges of Northern and Southern residents

On top of that, these whales depend on a healthy and abundant supply of fish, which is significantly harder to come by now than it has been in the past. The decline in Chinook salmon populations in recent years has been tapped as a related factor in the continued decline of southern resident whales, as well as increased levels of toxic chemicals in the whales themselves – documented at three times higher than levels known to cause health problems in species like Harbour seals.

All things considered, I don’t envy the challenges these whales are faced with. I am, however, intrigued by them for a great deal more than their ability to put up a good fight against these challenges.

Did you know... (drumroll please)

Fun fact #1: Resident whales like Willy and his mother (and brother and sister, if you’ve seen the sequel...) are really intelligent creatures that are part of a complex, structured society. They’re the only known mammals that live with their mothers their entire lives – something I’m not so sure would translate well to human society...ahem.

Fun fact #2: Possibly the coolest thing I’ve learned about killer whales since my Free Willy days: different pods of resident killer whales actually have their own unique dialect of calls that are distinct from the dialects of other pods. Scientists have even noted family-specific calls that mothers use to communicate with their calves. Whale language? Heck yes.

That’s. Freaking. Awesome.

Fun fact #3: Killer whales do this really cool thing called spyhopping, which is basically the whale version of a human treading water. They hold the top part of their bodies out of the water, usually to get a steady view of something – boats, prey...pretty much anything. (Here’s a really short video clip on YouTube of killer whales spyhopping if you’re curious to know what it looks like.)

Fun fact #4: You can help these amazing creatures get the protection they need by supporting a strong federal Species at Risk Act. Okay, so maybe this isn’t really a “killer whales are impressive” fact, but it’s true nonetheless.

We want to make sure that any changes made to the federal Species at Risk Act build on its strengths and improve on its weaknesses so that species in decline like killer whales can recover and swim their way off of our endangered species list. Show your support for Canada’s species at risk by signing on now.

(And as an extra thank-you for signing on... here’s Michael Jackson’s music video for Will You Be There)