Orca Network - News Releases

Orca Network News Release


March 10, 2011

CONTACT: Orca Network
Howard Garrett

Lolita has apparently recovered!

See Free Lolita Update for March 11.

After two weeks of cancelled shows, tight security and 24/7 activity inside the whale stadium, Lolita/Tokitae performed well as shows resumed today. We are greatly relieved that she seems to be doing well. However, there is still no medical report on which to base an opinion on her health.

Every phase of her retirement proposal is completely safe and logistically entirely feasible. It's would be a major project, but it's just a matter of arranging the details. Hopefully some of her present caretakers would agree to helping her by accompanying her and remaining by her side for weeks or months.

The single obstacle is the refusal of the owners of the Seaquarium to allow her to retire, even though it would be in the best long-term financial interest of the park to reap the enormous, long-term positive publicity for doing so, rather than be universally condemned for killing her. It appears to be a personal issue and not about what's best for Toki.

The most we can do at this point is to generate global support for her retirement plan until there's nobody left in America and the world who does not understand that she needs to return to her home waters to be close to her family. That's actually well underway. After a near-death episode in the past two weeks I don't think we want to go through that again.

The minute we have a green light from the owners in Miami we'll start serious fund-raising. Until then it's very hard to raise money for the actual transport.

Orca Network is a registered non-profit org. depending mainly on contributions to keep campaigning for Lolita. There is a contribution/membership button at the top of our home page at www.orcanetwork.org.



March 7, 2011

CONTACT: Orca Network
Howard Garrett

Captive Washington orca “Lolita” may be seriously ill

Lolita has been the star attraction at the Miami Seaquarium, a major tourist attraction in South Florida for over forty years, and is well known to generations of Floridians. She was captured August 8, 1970 at Penn Cove on Whidbey Island, Washington.

Orca Network has received some disturbing reports from Miami about Lolita’s health in the past few days. The whale stadium at the Miami Seaquarium, where the orca known as Lolita normally performs twice daily, has been closed for well over a week. Security around the stadium has been very tight, with lights on all night long and a dozen or so vehicles parked nearby. As of early on March 7, Lolita's blows could be heard from within the park, but even that much information is hard to come by now.

One report indicates that veterinarians are doing everything in their power to preserve an infected tooth. Technically speaking the tooth should be removed (according to the source) but at this stage the Seaquarium wishes to solve the problem through antibiotics only, as opposed to removing it. One of the leading causes of mortality in captive orcas results from infections stemming from dental issues.

Please see: The Hidden Cost Of Captivity- Oral Health of Killer Whales Exposed for confirmation and references.

There is photographic documentation of a helicopter landing at the Seaquarium March 6, with four men carrying backpacks emerging and heading toward the whale stadium. The front office has told callers and the media that Lolita has a "toothache" and that the tank is being repaired, so essentially no reliable information is forthcoming from management. A large demographic of followers are passionately interested in Lolita’s welfare.

The display tank Lolita has inhabited for over four decades does not meet the minimum standards of the Animal Welfare Act due to its inadequate size, the lack of company by the same species since 1980, and the lack of protection from direct sunlight.

Lolita was captured from the Southern Resident Community, listed as Endangered in 2005 largely due to the captures for marine parks during the 1960’s and 1970’s. About a third of this distinct and unique orca community was removed during the capture era.

Lolita is one of few captive orcas whose family is known and studied on a regular basis, making her a good candidate for retirement and eventual release. Orca Network, former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and the Center for Whale Research have proposed a plan for Lolita’s retirement in her native habitat, available at DRAFT PROPOSAL FOR RETIRING THE ORCA KNOWN AS LOLITA TO HER NATIVE HABITAT IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST.




CONTACT: Orca Network
Howard Garrett

The idea of "release" for Morgan has been thoroughly removed from consideration by the Dolphinarium's experts, because the prospect of finding Morgan's family in the No. Atlantic seems a formidable challenge.

However, none of the experts except Fernando Ugarte thought about the possibility of a sea pen. He wrote:
"If the welfare of the animal is the main priority, the focus should be on finding the best solution for a healthy and active life under human care. A large sea-pen is probably the best option, especially given the large size of adult killer whales. A perfect sea-pen in the shallow and exposed North Sea would probably require some design involving digging and building structures. There must be plenty of naturally suitable bays and fjords in places such as Scotland, Ireland or Norway."
This sea-pen idea is in our plan on freemorgan.nl, and it should be brought to the attention of the Dutch government that it could be done within a small budget and would be the best possible prospect to give Morgan a healthy life.

As recommended by Fernando Ugarte, a care station in a sea-pen in Norway could be found and used, requiring only a small dock, housing and a small budget for care-takers and fish if needed. Long-term companionship and provisioning, if needed, would probably keep Morgan alert and healthy for many years, if needed. When conditions allow, Morgan could be led out to open seas following a large boat with her caretakers to seek out her social group. If they are not found she could be led back to her care station to try again another day.

This is a bold proposal, especially the part about the long-term companionship, although the reaction to proposing a sea-pen will be to say "Keiko died in bay in Norway," and the best answer to that is that we propose giving Morgan reliable, daily companionship. Orcas live on trusted relationships, and in the absence of their matrilines, they seem to happily build trusting relationships with humans. The scientific consensus to date has been (and is found in the comments of some of the Dolphinarium's experts) that caretakers must specifically avoid having such a relationship to force the orca to go out and find its own family. I'm proposing that Morgan be given human companionship until such time as she may be led out and is able to find her family. Then it would be her choice to go with the whales or the humans.

This is what we have proposed for Lolita for many years.


For more about Morgan see freemorgan.nl and freemorgan.com

Press release by the advisory group listed below:


The Free Morgan Group is very disappointed to learn today of the Dolfinarium Harderwij's decision that the young female orca Morgan, who has been in their facility since her rescue from the Wadden Sea in June, is not considered, by them, as a suitable candidate for return to her ocean habitat.

The Free Morgan Group is comprised of a wide range of experts who have not only extensive experience with wild orca but also, to varying degrees, experience with the release of captive cetaceans. Last month, the Free Morgan Group produced a detailed, multi-stage release plan. This Release Plan includes options for a "half-way-house" scenario as well as full-release feasibility phases.

The Free Morgan Plan was submitted to the Dolfinarium Harderwijk and made available to the public, with the aim of providing legitimate and accurate information as well as well balanced and informed Release Plan options. Additionally it was hoped that such a document would help the Dolfinarium Harderwijk in its decision-making process. Unfortunately, no mention of the plan is made in the report regarding Morgan, prepared by the Dolfinarium Harderwijk, nor is it referred to by any members of their advisory board. The Free Morgan Group considers this to be an important oversight that is detrimental to Morgan's future health and welfare.

The Free Morgan Group respectfully acknowledges the concerns of the "Seven Experts" who were called upon by the Dolfinarium Harderwijk and the Netherlands Government to provide their opinions as to the feasibility of the release of Morgan. However, we feel that they may not have been provided with all the necessary and relevant information, much of which is identified in our Free Morgan Release Plan.

The Free Morgan Group continues to call for Morgan to be released from the concrete tank and be given the chance to undergo rehabilitation with the possibility of a return to the wild. A semi-natural site has been identified at Delta Park Neeltje Jans in the Netherlands, that would offer Morgan a much larger enclosure in a sea-water environment with a natural benthos. This site would also provide Morgan with a better chance to recover her health and a return to natural behavior that would prepare her for a possible return to the wild. Without this opportunity, the historical records show that Morgan's confinement in captivity will be detrimental to her long-term health and survival. Orca life expectancy in captivity is much lower than for their wild counterparts. In the wild, female orcas such as Morgan survive an average 50 years and up to 80 or more years and by doing so contribute to the continuity and survival of their orca community. Wild female orcas, like Morgan, might be expected to raise 1 to 4 offspring during their lifetime.

We noted that experts identified Morgan as most-likely originating from a population of orcas who hunt the Norwegian Spring Spawning herring. As more research is carried out every year into orca populations in the North Atlantic, it is possible that Morgan's family may be identified in the near future. It would be tragic, for Morgan, her family and community, and for wild orca research, if Morgan was conditioned solely for captivity in an enclosed artificial facility and the door literally shut forever on any chance for her return to the wild and reunion with her family.

The Free Morgan Group strongly urges the Dolfinarium Harderwijk not to keep Morgan in their concrete tank or transfer her to another captive situation, but to give her the chance to live a more natural life in a sea pen, keeping open the possibility of her much hoped-for return to the wild.

The Free Morgan Release Plan is endorsed by the following individuals (in no particular order)

Ingrid Visser & Terry Hardie
Orca Research Trust

Howard Garrett & Susan Berta
Orca Network

Paul Spong & Helena Symonds
OrcaLab Pacific Orca Society

Kenneth Balcomb
Center for Whale Research

William Rossiter
Cetacean Society International

Michael Kundu & Bob MCLaughlin
Project SeaWolf Coastal Protection

Mark Berman
International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island

Free Willy Keiko Foundation

Christopher Porter
Free the Pod

Robin Baird
Cascadia Research Collective

Cathy Williamson
Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

Lara Pozzato
Peter Pijpelink
Jan van Twillert
Norma Koning

MAY 4, 2010
Susan Berta or Howard Garrett

*PHOTOS available upon request

MAY 15th International Day of Protest for Lolita!

Orca Network is sponsoring a special protest in Coupeville on Whidbey Island on May 15th - since this is where Lolita was captured in August, 1970, Orca Network is inviting paddlers for a kayak (or canoe or rowboat) protest on Penn Cove at the capture site.

Park at the DNR beach access just west of the Capt. Whidbey Inn on Madrona Way and launch about 5pm, when the tide is coming up.

The idea is to paddle out to the actual scene of the capture, between the Capt. Whidbey and the Penn Cove shellfish dock, with a banner or two between kayaks.

Signs, flags, bumper stickers, inflatable orcas, etc. can also be used, and if you don't have a kayak, canoes or small boats are fine. Depending on weather, time, and tides, we may also paddle to the Coupeville wharf, where an educational exhibit about the Penn Cove orca capture is displayed.

Many thanks to Shelby Proie in Miami and Niki Gianni in Chicago for organizing this International Day of Protest for Lolita, the last surviving Southern Resident orca in captivity, held in a small talk at the Miami Seaquarium for nearly 40 years.

There are dozens of cities around the country and the world holding demonstrations for Lolita's retirement on May 15th. For the updated list of protest locations, go to: http://www.savelolita.com/2010/04/14/details-on-international-protest-locations-for-may-15-2010/.

The Lolita Come Home Campaign is a major concern of Orca Network. Lolita, first called Tokitae, is the last surviving orca of 45 members of the Southern Resident community that were captured and delivered for display in marine parks between 1965 and 1973. At least 13 others were killed during captures. A young adult just over 40 years old, Lolita has been maintained at a Miami marine park since 1970. Only Corky at Sea World in San Diego, captured in 1969, has been in captivity longer.

JUNE 5, 2008
Susan Berta or Howard Garrett

*PHOTOS available upon request

June Proclaimed "Orca Awareness Month"
by Governor Gregoire

Orca Month website
A Message From Ralph and Karen Munro

For the 2nd year, Governor Christine Gregoire has signed a proclamation declaring June as "Orca Awareness Month," to focus attention on the plight of the fragile Southern Resident Community of orcas, to honor their presence in our waters, and to speed up efforts to recover the population. The Southern Resident orcas were listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act in November 2005.

Major factors in the decline of the Southern Resident orca population include captures for marine parks in the 1960s and 70s, declining salmon runs, toxic pollution, loss of habitat, and increasing vessel traffic and noise levels in Puget Sound and the ocean.

For the past two years, Orca Network has worked to encourage organizations, businesses and individuals to join in on creating this month-long focused effort of activities and events to raise awareness of the endangered and beloved Southern Resident Community of orcas, or J, K and L pods.

Former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro noted Washington's long history of appreciation and respect for orcas: "The State of Washington has led the nation and the world since the 1970's when it comes to defending the orcas. Seven governors, scores of legislative leaders and thousands of citizens have stepped forward to assist in the protection of this beautiful species. We are indeed fortunate to have them in our waters."

"K and L pods typically return to join with J pod in Washington's inland waters in June, so we thought June would be a good time to focus attention on the problems these orcas face, such as declining salmon runs and toxic pollution. Orcas are highly efficient hunters, but Chinook salmon runs are in steep decline throughout the Southern Resident orcas' range, and they may not be finding enough food. Last winter they were seen off Central California about the time the west coast salmon fishery for California and Oregon was closed due to disastrously low runs. Orca Month is also an opportunity to let people know about some of the fascinating recent insights about the Southern Residents' family cohesion and unique cultures." said Howard Garrett, President of Orca Network.

When the pods return to the San Juan Islands in early summer, the Center for Whale Research gets their first good look at who is present, including any new calves, as well as who may not have made it through the winter. Ken Balcomb, founder and director of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, said "These orcas are icons and indicators of the quality of Puget Sound and coastal waters. How they fare in coming years will tell us a lot about our own fate." K and L pods returned to San Juan Island June 3, 2008, and though a complete census has not yet been completed, a new calf was observed with K pod, which is very welcome news.

"We are very lucky to have these orcas as our neighbors, and to have so many miles of shoreline to watch them from." said Susan Berta of Orca Network. "It is rare to have whales living in urban areas. It's great for people, because we get to watch and enjoy them as they swim by our islands, towns and cities; but it's not so great for the orcas, who have to swim in water impacted by pollutants, noise, and habitat destruction as the result of an ever increasing population".

Orca Awareness Month involves a wider audience to protect our orca population and make sure they have a healthy habitat and plentiful salmon to eat. Orca Network invites organizations and businesses around the state to sponsor special events, presentations, promotions or educational programs during June, to increase awareness about the Southern Resident orcas. Orca Network especially encourages participation by businesses who can reach out to the general public to raise awareness about our special but endangered whale neighbors. Most people love the whales, but don't realize the serious problems faced by our local orca population. "If we can get businesses involved in helping to educate their customers, and to set an example by supporting orca research, conservation and education, we will be able to reach out beyond the choir of organizations currently doing orca related education and advocacy." said Berta. Several businesses have already begun working on special promotions and events to raise awareness about the orcas, and to raise funds for orca research and conservation groups. Participating businesses and organizations include: Orca Network, Washington Wine and Beverage Company, with Hoodsport Orca Series Wines, Center for Whale Research, Save Our Wild Salmon, Whale Watch Operators Northwest, The Whale Museum, and Highland Inn Cottage.

Individuals can help by taking a look at what their daily actions do to impact the waters of Puget Sound and make changes to improve or lessen their footprint on the planet. We also encourage citizens and businesses to contribute to or volunteer for nonprofit education, advocacy and research organizations that work to improve salmon and orcas, restore habitat, or help decrease toxic pollution.


MAY 31, 2007
Susan Berta or Howard Garrett

Ralph and Karen Munro featured at Orca Month kick-off event Anacortes, Flounder Bay Cafe, Skyline Marina

Orca Network is honored to welcome former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and his wife Karen as keynote speakers for our kick-off event to celebrate Orca Awareness Month. Ralph and Karen have long been friends and advocates for the orcas, and were instrumental in stopping orca captures in Washington State in the 1970s. But their love and efforts on behalf of the beautiful whales that grace our waters didn't end there.

Ralph and Karen continue to fight for the freedom of the only surviving Southern Resident orca in captivity, Lolita, who has been at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970. Ralph worked to involve several Washington State Governors and other political leaders in attempts to gain Lolita's freedom, and Karen led us in a Mother's Day protest at the Seaquarium when the more diplomatic tactics failed. Though this is a struggle we are still trying to win, other issues arose in the late 1990s with Lolita's family back home that also demanded attention. Her extended family, J, K and L pods, began to fail, and the population declined by 20% over a six year period. Lack of salmon, polluted waters, and effects of human population growth on shoreline and marine habitats all began to take their toll.

Ralph and Karen have continued to work tirelessly with orca researchers, organizations, and advocates over the decades. Whale Watch Park at Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island was named in Ralph's honor, and the new Interpretive Center at the Park was dedicated in Karen's name last year. They continue to do all they can to promote orca awareness and help this population of orcas they have come to know and love, and the orcas seem to know it.

When J6, the orca named "Ralph" in honor of Ralph Munro, was among those who died during the steep population decline. Ralph held a press conference and ceremony at Lime Kiln State Park to honor his friend, J6, and to bring attention to the fact that our beloved whales were dying. Exactly when the event began, J pod showed up at Lime Kiln, and as Ralph began to speak about how he met J6, one of the orcas began breaching. The orca leapt out of the water, over and over, and Ralph couldn't talk because everyone was screaming and watching this beautiful orca breaching right behind him. Then the researchers identified the breaching orca as none other than J6's sister - it's impossible to see this as merely a coincidence, and we were all stunned to realize even the whales know how much Ralph and Karen care about them.

So what better way to begin a month-long celebration of Orca Awareness Month, than to join us for dinner and stories with Ralph and Karen, a presentation about the Southern Resident orcas by Howard Garrett of Orca Network, and an evening of sharing our love for and commitment to our amazing orca neighbors.

Please join us Saturday, June 9th at the Flounder Bay Cafe at Skyline Marina in Anacortes for a 5:30 pm wine-tasting featuring Hoodsport Orca Wine from the Washington Wine and Beverage Company, a seafood dinner buffet, and an evening learning about these amazing whales and what we can do to protect them. Cost of the event is $50, with proceeds supporting Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network and education programs.

For reservations, please contact Orca Network by June 7th, at 1-866-ORCANET or info@orcanetwork.org. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

June Proclaimed "Orca Awareness Month" by Governor Gregoire

Orca Awareness Month Main Page.

Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network tracks the travels of Gray whales, orcas and other cetaceans in Washington and British Columbia waters. If you see a whale, please report it to Orca Network at 1-866-ORCANET or info@orcanetwork.org.

If you would like to be on Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network to receive emails about the whereabouts of the whales of our regions, contact Susan Berta at info@orcanetwork.org or sign up on our website at www.orcanetwork.org. A map and descriptions of recent whale sightings can also be found HERE .

Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Center for Whale Research, and the Whale Museum.


July 23, 2006

CONTACTS: Orca Network
Susan Berta/Howard Garrett
360-661-3739 (cell)

ESA Endangered listing sets up seismic shift in our perception of the orca

The best kept secret in all civilizations is that we are animals! We are medium-sized mammals, who just happen to have evolved the ability and the need to construct vast symbolic systems to define ourselves, and now we can't see our way out of our own systems, so we fight each other to the death to defend them. Hoisted on our own petards! Our daily lives are dominated by humans acting badly toward one another while ignoring and trampling the natural wonders that are the real foundations of our own lives.

But there is at least one other species that has also evolved the capacity to construct symbolic systems of self-definition and live according to those rules within distinct cultures for thousands of generations: Orcinus orca. We can learn much from the orca. If you are skeptical, you should be. That's the scientific method, along with reliance on the accumulated evidence and the published work of other scientists.

Below: the astounding natural history of Orcinus orca.

First, a bit of history.

When NOAA Fisheries listed the Southern Resident orca community, native to Washington State and British Columbia waters, as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) earlier this year, a new definition of the orca emerged from the process that officially revised our basic understanding of the species.

Before NOAA could list J, K and L pods as endangered, they first had to establish that this community of orcas is a “distinct population segment” (DPS), as defined by the ESA. In 1978, in response to the need to protect particular runs (not just species) of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the ESA was amended so they could list a subspecies, and if necessary, a loosely defined “distinct population segment.” Congress instructed the Secretary to exercise this authority “...sparingly and only when the biological evidence indicates that such action is warranted.”

To be considered a distinct population segment, a population must be reproductively isolated from other conspecific (same species) populations, and it must be important for the evolutionary legacy of the species. Until the Southern resident orcas were listed, only geographic separation, at least during breeding, could cause a population to be reproductively isolated from other populations of the same species. For example, Sacramento River Spring run Chinook salmon are geographically, and therefore reproductively, separated from Upper Columbia River Spring run Chinook, and so are listed separately. (Southern Resident orcas have historically depended on both Chinook runs to survive, and both are engandered.)

Trouble is, Southern Resident orcas cross paths every day with Transient orcas, and in fact are in no way separated from Northern resident orcas, or Offshore orcas for that matter. The various populations could easily interbreed, but they don’t. The field of biology doesn’t account for this kind of willful reproductive separation. It tells us something is at work here determining behavior that has never before been found in any animal other than humans. That factor is culture.

NOAA has never before had to deal with an animal that demonstrated culture, so in June, 2002, NOAA partially dodged the issue by designating the Residents as “depleted” under the less stringent Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), thus avoiding the troublesome ESA language. NOAA stated that although the Southern Residents “compose a distinct population,” and “face a relatively high risk of extinction,” they were not significant to the species worldwide. If they went extinct, NOAA said, another orca community could simply move in and occupy their habitat. The MMPA listing triggered a lawsuit in which the judge was presented with a wealth of evidence that Southern residents are a unique and irreplaceable cultural community, which prompted the judge to instruct NOAA to review it all and reconsider their decision not to list the orcas under the ESA. NOAA did reconsider, and concluded that the Southern residents are indeed a cultural community, and needed protection under the ESA. Here’s the evidence, and what it all adds up to.

The strongest evidence for culture lies in the vocal dialects of resident pods; each pod has a distinctive set of 7-17 ‘discrete’ calls (Ford 1991a; Strager 1995). These dialects are maintained despite extensive associations between pods. Some pods share up to 10 calls and pods which share calls can be grouped together in acoustic ‘clans,’ suggesting another level of population structure. Ford found four distinct clans within two resident communities (Northern and Southern), and suggested that these call variations are a result of dialects being passed down through vocal learning, and being modified over time. Thus, given the lack of dispersal, acoustic clans may reflect common matrilineal ancestry, and the number of calls any two pods share may reflect their relatedness. In addition to these pod-specific calls, orcas make a wide variety of “variable” calls, especially during intense socializing, that defy description. No similarities have been found in the calls made by different communities.

Other evidence for culture includes:
  • Unlike any other mammal known, both male and female offspring remain with their mother and her family their entire lives. There is no dispersal.
  • Diet is strictly limited. Though they are the top marine predator, Southern Residents eat only fish.
  • Reproduction is strictly limited. Mating occurs only within the community, and between, but not within, pods.
  • Orcas live in family groups believed to be led by elder matriarchs. Two or more matrilines may form a pod.
  • Female orcas may live more than four decades after birthing their last calf at about age 40-45. Only orcas and humans exhibit such long post-reproductive lifespans.
  • A similar pattern of distinct and separate cultural orca communities has been found worldwide, demonstrating unique vocalizations, diets, social systems and habitat usage.
A landmark paper published in 2001 summed it all up thusly: “The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties” (Rendell and Whitehead).

All of the above leaves little doubt that for Southern Resident orcas, cultural traditions transcend instinct, genetics, environment, or individual learning, and to some extent actually determines evolutionary development. In years to come scientists may be describing not just physical attributes and interesting behaviors in our friendly neighborhood orcas, but their cultural identities as well.

March 31, 2006

CONTACTS: Orca Network
Susan Berta/Howard Garrett
360-661-3739 (cell)

Washington building and farming industries question orcas' cultural uniqueness

Last week news echoed across the state and the nation that the Washington state Farm Bureau and the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) filed suit in federal court to overturn the recent listing of Washington's Southern Resident orca community under the Endangered Species Act.

The groups are concerned that the listing, announced by NOAA Fisheries last November, "will result in needless water and land-use restrictions on Washington farms, especially those located near rivers inhabited by salmon," the orcas' primary food source. The builders’ association also worries that the listing will result in restrictions on development around Puget Sound.

The groups base their complaint on a technical point: NOAA declared the Southern Residents a “distinct population” of a subspecies that includes other fish-eating orcas off British Columbia, Alaska and Russia. Under the ESA, the lawyers argue, only a distinct population of a species - not a subspecies - can be listed. The fisheries service could list all Northern Pacific resident orcas as endangered, but it can't list only the Southern Residents. The lawsuit argues the orcas do not deserve protection under the ESA because they are not genetically distinct enough from other orcas in the North Pacific. “You can almost say any individual school of fish can be listed,” said an attorney with the group.

As the case winds its way through the courts and the media, residents of Washington and beyond will hear about some rather astounding new discoveries that have led scientists to conclude that complex and stable orca cultures, found worldwide, appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties.

By 1980 researchers were amazed to discover that unlike any other mammal known, both male and female Southern Resident orca offspring stay with their mother and her pod their entire lives. It soon became clear that the foundation of the social structure is the matriline, a matriarchal family unit comprised of up to dozens of members of an extended family that may span four or more generations. Matrilines in turn gather into larger groups known as pods. In the Southern Resident community three pods are recognized: J pod, K pod and L pod (the largest). Mating occurs between, but not within, pods.

The three pods occasionally get together for a ritualized greeting ceremony after they have been apart. This amazing but rarely observed phenomenon begins with each pod lining up abreast on the surface. Slowly, individuals approach one another until the lines dissolve. The whales then begin to greet, rub together and play in a seemingly festive celebration that can continue for several days. Researchers recently discovered that when resident orcas dive hundreds of feet to snatch large Chinook salmon, their preferred prey, they often bring them to the surface to rip apart and share with family members.

Overall, the evidence from over thirty years of field research establishes the Southern Resident orca community as a unique and ancient traditional culture. Cultural learning is indicated by their long life span (roughly equivalent to humans’), long childhood learning periods (lifelong, in fact), advanced central nervous system (with brains 4 to 5 times the size of our own), prescribed diet (Residents eat only fish, unlike mammal-eating “transient” orcas), decades-long female post-reproductive life spans, and complex communication system. Each pod uses its own distinct dialect: a unique variety of harmonious whistles, squeaks and honks. Even untrained individuals can distinguish between dialects. The three Southern Resident pods share some calls, but none of the pods share any dialect features with any other orcas.

The lawsuit states that Southern Residents are not genetically distinct enough from other North Pacific residents to warrant protection as a distinct population, but major differences in mitochondrial DNA and their distinct acoustic dialects show that the populations have been reproductively isolated for hundreds of generations. These orca communities are not geographically separated - some cross each others’ paths almost daily - and yet they do not interbreed and are in the process of becoming separate species, a feat previously unheard of in the biological sciences. We don’t find two populations of the same bear species inhabiting the same mountain that never mate with each other, for example.

NOAA originally decided in 2002 that the orcas did not merit ESA protection, but in 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Robert H. Lasnik reviewed the evidence and instructed the Fisheries Service to include it in their deliberations about listing the Southern Residents under the ESA, leading NOAA to conclude that the Southern Residents are indeed a distinct population.

It is understandable that anyone might question the validity of declaring the Southern Residents a distinct, cultural community. The scientific evidence has been coherently assembled only in the past decade and orca taxonomy is currently being revised to accommodate it. Moreover, the implications of cultural orca communities are seismic for the biological sciences. No land mammal except humans has ever demonstrated cultural abilities that approach this level of complexity.

The Farm Bureau and BIAW make clear that of course they like orcas, it’s just the regulatory scheme of the ESA they don’t like. But the Southern Residents are in fact severely endangered, mainly by salmon depletion and toxic pollution, and if we like orcas and want them to remain here for future generations, we’ll need to work out ways to avoid harming them. That’s a very complex task, and the ESA is designed to provide flexible and effective measures to avoid causing the orcas’ extinction.

This lawsuit is likely to help bolster the case for cultural orcas and the need to protect them, especially for farmers and builders who will now be watching closely and learning about the orcas in our midst.





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