Navigating a changing sea
Monday, October 9, 2006

The water suddenly humps up, a liquid green mountain. The old one explodes from inside it, five tons of black-and-white muscle parting the sea.

For a second, she twists in the air, then splashes back down on her side, a signal to the tribe swimming south off San Juan Island.

Her relatives hear the crash from a half-mile off. They dive down, turn and quickly arc after the old female, cutting white wakes, breathing hard. Puh-whew. Puh-whew. Vaporous 6-foot plumes erupt from their blowholes before they suck in each new breath.

She leads, they follow. She is their tribal elder, keeper of family knowledge. She holds the maps for survival. She knows when salmon return to the rivers' mouths, knows the kelp forests where they hide, knows the ancient underwater canyons and crevasses that once held great schools of fat chinook.

She has lived long, seen much, some of it best forgotten: Bullets, bombs, nets, babies born dead. She understands the world of orcas. It's always about survival, always about community.

Her family travels together, porpoising in easy rhythm, their black fins slicing the surface like so many windmills. They hunt together, spread out in lines that stretch for miles. They talk, using chirps and whistles, squawks and squeals that sound like metal files on a saw blade. Scree-eeeeeee, scree-eeeeee.

They play, surf boat wakes, toss jellyfish, sensuously rub and roll atop one another in sexual romps.

Their bonds are strong and formal. They travel with their mothers for life. They are family.

It's the world of humans that remains a mystery.

Decades ago, the small land mammals shot at Granny. They chased and corralled her in pens.

Now they surround her in noisy boats, shout and clap and laugh when she surfaces to breathe.

Humans have a number and name for her: J2, Granny. Researchers identify her by the nick in her fin, the white patch on her back and the scratches on her side. The littlest ones, flopping and plopping out of rhythm with the adults, mouth Granny's fins and rake her side with their sharp new teeth.

Some researchers put her age at more than 90. Those are people years and people names, land concepts.

Whatever time is, and however it is marked, she is a respected leader in her tribe, matriarch of J-Pod, the close-knit group of killer whales that fish the Salish Sea, native name for the inland waters that stretch from lower Puget Sound to British Columbia.

Her family has fished this territory for thousands of years.

But in her life span, the seas have changed. The fish have changed. She has changed.

Does Granny sense something is wrong?

Does the old female know her tribe is in trouble?

Conquering nature
Only a few humans have witnessed the birth of an orca in the wild. This event, too, is a group effort.

The mothers give birth underwater after about 17 months of gestation. Several family members swim below to bring the newborn to the surface. They help the infant draw breath through its blowhole, then family festivities begin: orcas slap the water with pectoral fins, zip about in high-speed antics, lift the newest family member onto their noses and backs, again and again.

Granny's successful birth must have been cause for great celebration in J-Pod. Some scientists estimate up to 50 percent of orca calves are stillborn or don't make it past their first six months of life.

Granny was tough from the get-go.

Like other orca babies, she was born folded in half, then flopped out to her full 7 or 8 feet and began nursing from her mother's milk. Back then, in those first decades of the century, the milk was not a poisoned cocktail.

Though scientists debate the ages of older orcas, the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island estimates Granny's birth date as 1911. Center researchers say Granny was likely mother, grandmother, sister and aunt to her extended J-Pod family, which numbers 24 members.

On land, the 1910s were a time of great excitement. America was swept up in the controversial theories of Sigmund Freud, the adventures of South Pole explorers, the new pleasures of talking movies and a provocative South American dance called the tango.

A clever inventor had figured out a way to start a car without a crank. More than 450,000 were on the road in 1910, a few years after the Model T hit the American market.

By 1920, there would be 8,131,522 automobiles mucking up the air, spewing out the lead from additives in gasoline. Early researchers would discover the lead was linked to IQ deficits in American children.

Who considered what it did to orca development as it fell from air to sea?

Lead was only one player in the fouling of young Granny's home. Particles of the coal used to heat homes, power steamships and provide fuel for industries were already accumulating in the Sound by the 1910s. Between 1900 and 1940, the particulates would increase hydrocarbon pollution an estimated 20 times over.

Puget Sound's bully, booming settlements belched black with the stuff in the first decades of the century. All around the Sound, industrious men set about conquering nature. They felled forests with handsaws, replaced tall firs with wheezing smokestacks.

In Seattle, with a population creeping from 200,000 to 300,000, entrepreneurs dredged up streams to create grand canals. They hosed down hills and filled in tidal flats with the dirt and debris, muddying the Sound.

Its citizenry thought nothing of dumping sewage and garbage right on the seashores for the tides to wash away.

The sea was Mother Nature's toilet. One tidal flush, and everything disappeared from human view, into the sea where Granny swam.

'Smell of progress'
With the start of World War I, industry boomed in Seattle. Boeing began building aircraft, and shipbuilders and timber mills worked super-speed to supply military needs. By 1918, Seattle would be one of the leading ports in the country.

So what if Puget Sound skies hung dark with pollutants and the air stank of sulfur? It was "the smell of progress."

Why would anyone think twice about dumping wood waste or barrels of chemicals into Puget Sound? No regulations controlled industrial runoff.

In 1912, Asarco began using its lead smelter property near Tacoma to refine copper. Byproducts included arsenic, sulfuric acid, liquid sulfur dioxide. They poured into Commencement Bay for the next seven decades, as Granny developed from infant to calf to mature female.

At the same time, pulp and paper mills were using chemicals to bleach their products. The chlorine and dark pulp liquor ended up in the waters, poisoning shellfish and other marine life.

Around Everett's sulfite-spewing mills, fishermen told compatriots not to bother putting protective paint on their boats to kill harmful organisms. The pollution would do it anyway.

Sediment studies show another harmful industrial pollutant was building up in Puget Sound in the first half of the century: PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, fire-resistant chemicals used to insulate industrial equipment. The long-lived PCBs, linked to cancer, build up in an animal's body over a lifetime.

The industrial pollutants, the airborne particulates, the human waste and the wood waste settled into the sea that was Granny's home. By 1951, a federal report would rate Puget Sound as the sixth-most-polluted area in the United States.

Granny fished and played in the dirtied waters, draping kelp strands over her back, sliding them through the notches in her tail, lifting them 4 feet in the air, then ... Slap! Splash! shattering the water's surface with her decorated fluke.

How could she fathom the changing chemistry of her emerald sea?

Part 2: Ignorance, fear lead to a death by art - Tuesday, October 10, 2006