A little way into Cindy’s presentation to this group of college biology majors from the local university I suddenly notice the beeping of one of the students’ watches, and realise it has been beeping for quite a while. I look over and the student, a tall young girl with blonde hair and a red dyed fringe is trying to hide the watch in the folds of her t-shirt, with that half-embarrassed and half-pleased smile that says she knows, innocently, she’s the centre of attention, and not what Cindy is presenting.
A few moments later one of the two professors catches her eye and mouths her to take the watch off. The student does so and hands it along the line, where the professor presses a button and the beeping stops. The professor gives the student a smile, and the student smiles back, and then all attention is back on Cindy, who is now telling us all that Eschrichtius robustus, the Gray Whale, has come back from the edge of extinction twice.
The first time was a recovery from whaling, where, as coastal dwellers feeding in shallow waters, the Gray was easy prey to the great whaling traditions of both First Nations and then European settlers. The second great trauma for the whales was the 1999-2000 season, where around a third of the population died, the scientists agreeing due to mass starvation. During the event the Gray Whales photographed looked emaciated—you can tell a whale is starved if you can see its shoulder blade, which should be covered in blubber. (Whales have the same bones in their flippers that we have in our shoulders and arms, right down to the thumb bone, because many millions of years ago, they too lived on land and used their forearms to move about, as we did, when we were apes.) But since then the population has bounced back to around 20-25,000 individuals in the population along the US and Canadian west coast (and another smaller population in Asia). The Atlantic Gray Whale never recovered from whaling, and remains extinct.
It’s probably because they are opportunistic feeders, Cindy explains, that the Gray Whales have done so well, whereas other populations, such as the resident orcas in these waters, which feed exclusively on salmon, and preferably on Chinook salmon, are not doing so well. When the salmon population drops, the orca suffer. Since 1990 the salmon along this stretch of the Salish Sea, the collective name for the waters from Alaska to Puget Sound, have been dying in massive numbers. A new documentary film, Salmon Confidential, by the director Twyla Roscovich, featuring the BC marine biologist Alexandra Morton, lays the blame for this directly at the door of the aquaculture industry—the farmed salmon business—and its protectors in the DFO (Department for Fisheries and Oceans), and its paymasters, politicians in the Canadian Government. The evidence seems almost incontrovertible that farmed salmon fishing has introduced devastating pathogens into the indigenous wild salmon populations. And yet to protect its trade deals with the US and China, the Canadian government is engaged, the film claims, in a massive cover up.
Cindy introduces us to two individual Gray Whales. The first is ‘Little Patch’, with a white patch, obviously, on its side. Patch has been back to the same feeding grounds in Puget Sound for twenty-three years running. The second individual is Stinky Pete, not such a lucky whale, (and not the Frasier-voiced character from Toy Story 2, either) whose one-year-old skeleton fills the room in which we are sitting as Cindy gives her presentation, not nicely lined up but set down in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, waiting for the college students to put the skeleton together and, doing so, figure out what it was that killed Stinky Pete.
While the students are putting together the skeleton, I chat with the two professors. The main purpose of their daytrip to The Whale Museum, on Friday Harbour, where I am working for a few days to learn about their best practice in education, and about the success and strategies of the museum itself, is for biology class; while the students don’t know that much about whales, they do know about the different bones, the cervical and thoracic, the lumbar and caudal, about the atlas bone at the top of the spinal cord and the axis at its end, the processes of the lumbar and thoracic leading to the ribs, all beautiful words to me, words I recognise from my own limited knowledge of the human body, words that connect this great Gray creature and my own existence, we have the same bones, we both crawled, we both breathed. (Later, however, Cindy will chide the students for beginning the rib cage too high, at the cervical bones. “The ribs come out of your neck, do they?” she laughs.)
However the second reason the students are here, or the benefit of the trip, and one that delights me beyond what it should, is that their biology class is being combined with physical education. Their heart rates are being monitored: hence the student not knowing how to switch off what I thought was her watch. I look around. Yes, they’re all wearing them, some have two watches on, of course, a detail I did not at first notice. Later, they will stop for lunch, and its nutritional value will be calculated. This doubling up of educational experience, the first professor, a tall man with a calm face and a poker hat, explains, will, he hopes, make links between the sustainability of the whales and the sustaining of the students’ own bodies. It is a wonderful experiment, I think, artistic in its composition, if art is or can be about the revealing of what is hidden about our connected living.
The students don’t have much trouble piecing together the skeleton, and from there its quite clear to discover, from the broken bones along one section of the thoracic spine and ribs, that Stinky Pete died from boat strike, a disease of trammeling modernity, glimpses of which I will see the following day when out on the Soundwatch boat patrolling the western side of San Juan Island, when a private yacht practically runs right over the passaging orca (and will be given a $1000 dollar ticket for it by WDFW, Washington’s water police) to get its holiday pictures. The boat was probably a big one, a tanker of some sort, with a huge propeller, and one which Stinky Pete did not hear, perhaps because of the huge amount of noise pollution in the water, or simply because he was a juvenile and had not yet learned how to discern threat and danger.
But in fact Stinky Pete did not die from boat strike. He died from starvation. Some of the broken bones, one student notices, have healed. Which meant Stinky Pete probably lived for another six months from being hit. He starved, because his way of feeding—rolling in the shallows, digging and wriggling right into the mud to reach his prey, crab, crayfish, human rubbish—would have been too painful for him. Stinky Pete died because it was too painful to eat. Stinky Pete felt and responded to pain. And yet people still ride their boats over whales so they can show off their photos to friends and family when they’re finished with the charter.
“So what are the things we can do to help protect the whales?” asks Cindy, near the end of the session. Reduce noise, says one. Protect their migration routes, says another. This has worked for the critically endangered Atlantic Right Whale, whose numbers have started to rebound after boat paths were rerouted to get out of the whales’ passage. To reduce pollution and clean up the oceans: when a necropsy was performed on another dead Gray Whale, half a ton of litter was found in its stomach. Clear up old nettings so that they don’t get entangled: a new disentanglement unit has been put in place in Baja, California, where the Grays mate and give birth. Although not much can be done about predation from other whales: the transient orcas are responsible for about a third of all Gray whale calf mortality. Although perhaps something can still be done about the 140 Gray Whales permitted to be slaughtered each year by Russia as part of its traditional peoples’ rights. Half a percent of a population of families each year.
Cindy then takes the group on a tour of the museum. I went earlier on a private tour and learned much about the resident orca populations, so duck out to get some lunch, let the knowledge settle in, think, and write. A story is filtering through me about the forty-five resident orcas that were captured and taken from the waters, and the dozen or so more who were killed, by the sealife centres such as SeaWorld, which has been struck by so much negative publicity recently since the release of the film Blackfish. Of the forty-five who found their way into the captive system, only one remains alive, Lolita. Considering orca can live up to 103-years old, so far, and counting, in the wild, their premature deaths in captivity is only one indicator of its banal wrongness. The fact that Lolita still uses the same calls as her L-pod family is another. The fact that she swims around in an illegally-sized bathtub is another. There are at least forty more. I go online to try and discover the names of all the other wild orca who were captured. Nowadays, when a new calf is born to the pods in the wild, The Whale Museum runs an adoption programme to raise money and there is a competition to name the new arrival. It seems an intelligent and generative idea to connect the local populations with their water neighbours.
The Whale Museum itself is a successful institution. Established in 1976, it runs education programmes and conducts research into the resident orca, and is one of many marine organisations in the region who have successfully contributed to the identification of the orca as an endangered species, therefore demanding special protection. Such protection was given in 2005, after a long thirty years of data collection and a battle to have them protected. The local volunteers, the NGOs, the organisations, even the government, all work together to protect the orca. No wild captures have taken place for decades. Although sadly some aquariums still take wild caught cetaceans, these orca in the wild are protected from that horrific separation at least.
On the earlier tour we listened to the acoustics of the orca. There are three pods in the Southern Resident Population, J, K and L, and each of them have distinct calls or dialects. “We call the K’s the kittens,” says Cindy, and you can hear why; high pitched mewling, one of the other women on the tour can’t help but “Ah” at the sounds of it. We listen to J and L too, and to the transient orca who pass through but do not live in these waters, whose calls are much deeper. We also listen to what a super-pod sounds like, when J, K and L all come together. Cindy asks us to listen out for what sounds like laughing. We hear it, a kind of cackle, deeper than the usual calls.
“That’s the one universal call,” she says, “it’s done by most orca we know of, here, in the Arctic, in Russia, populations that have never met.” It’s the innate call of the orca species, something they must have genetically, the same way some bird calls are made up of genetic and learned parts. It means, of course, that language is part of the orca genome.
We also learn about what Cindy proudly calls the “culture” of the orca, one of the aspects of their lives that earned them the status as a distinct species, which was necessary for NOAA to give them protected status. This is something only the southern resident orca do. When two pods meet after a while separated, say J and K, what they do is this: they talk and talk and talk under water for a long time, until they come and line up, face to face to each other, and then go completely silent. They face each other in the water in these lines for a few minutes, before they swim together and intermingle, and their calling begins again. They do this each time. What is this if it is not a ritual, memorised and repeated, something essential to their “cultural” life, something that benefits their social experience. Something they value?
As the students disappear I am left with Stinky Pete, who usually resides in his pieces in bins behind educational banners, but who will be left out because there’s another school group coming in, this time third graders, who will be put through the same exercise in a few days. I think about Pete since his death. How he washed up on shore, how his body was saved for educational purposes, how his skeleton was put in a cage in the water to let other ocean creatures pick his flesh bare, how the more fragile bones were transported to the Burke Museum in Seattle to let the beetles in their cases do the final cleansing work, how in this way his dead flesh benefits other creatures in the ecosystem. How his bones are then coated in a solution of Elmer’s glue and water every five years to stop them from falling apart. How his mother may have lamented. How the heart rate of perhaps one young student may have increased on hearing his story. How the beeping of that heart cannot be stopped.