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Dear Tilikum

Dear Tilikum,

First, I apologize for not writing this sooner. I’m sure you could have done with some more reading material with all your down time. I mean, how many times can you read the Harry Potter series before your eyes start to cross? What have you heard about this Harry Potter world in Orlando? Seems a bit silly if you ask me. Anyway…

May I call you Tilly? Tilikum just seems too aggressive. An unfair name for an unfair life I suppose. I don’t know what they’re telling you when they drop herring down your throat, inject you with antibiotics, and do whatever horrors they must to keep an amazing animal like you alive in such horrid conditions, but it’s not your fault.

None of it. You understand?

Anyone torn from their family, abused by strangers, and penned up in the dark night with the walls inches from their flippers would do the same. Let no one tell you different. In our desperate hours we do desperate things. You, like the rest of the wild world, is best left alone. To be revered, admired, and loved from a distance. Something we want to reach out and touch but can’t, or at least shouldn’t. He who loves a flower does not pick it to watch it whither and die in a jar. You water it, tend it, keep the weeds away. You should have been no different. Left to flourish in your aquatic garden. Left to swim next to your mother for your entire life, your birthright.

From the moment you were born you had everything you needed. But humans are an unsatisfied race. We’re not a happy race. We’re angry, we’re violent, we do unspeakable things to each other just because we have different ideologies, different skin colors. And sometimes, a lot of the time, that cup overflows, the toxic water splashing onto the innocent, precious species of this earth. Species like yours. Orca’s learned long ago to live and let live. Residents, Transients, Icelandic, Offshore. No wars, no clashes, not until we pushed you all together, in a tiny pen, and told you to get along.

I know you’re not feeling well Tilly. I don’t know how dire it really is. It’s hard to trust anything that SeaWorld releases. But it seems like you’ll be leaving us soon. I hope you’re not in pain, that you can breathe easy. I wish I could say that I hope you get well. But I don’t. The release of death is probably the most humane thing that can happen. Let that spirit go. Leave that imprisoned body. At long last, be free.

Do Orca’s have an afterlife? Here in B.C they’ve documented what may have been an Orca burial. Observers saw a mother disappear near a cleft in the rocks with her dead calf and return to her pod without it. Is it a burial ritual? Or are we anthropomorphizing you? Our arrogant human egos selling you short yet again? Wherever you’re off to next, I know it’ll be better, I hope you love it. Few Orca’s deserve it more.

When you take your last breath, when you finally fade away, please remember this. You are not alone. You are loved, and there are millions of people across the globe standing up and screaming at the injustice that has been your life. Your life, your death, will not be in vain. And the day is coming when the tanks will be empty. When the Orca will no longer be a commodity but a wonder. A sentient being instead of an asset. We’re going to keep fighting Tilly, in your memory, in your honor. I pray you know that there are humans that are good and decent to all creatures great and small.

Rest in peace Tilly. You are missed, you are loved, you are not forgotten.

Photo Courtesy of: http://kepplar.deviantart.com/journal/HELP-FREE-TILIKUM-425641192

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My Life as an Orca DJ

It starts with dolphins. They giggle like jackals, punctuated by the dull thuds of their echolocation. I shut my eyes and let the sounds of dolphins, crashing waves, and 30 knot winds rock me back to sleep. Moments later my eyes open. I sit up, Brittney’s feet swing out of the bed. The dolphins aren’t alone. The hee-haw of a donkey floats through the speaker that sits on the shelf just above our bed. G clan’s back.

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“My turn,” Brittney mutters like the mother of a new born and staggers down the stairs, out the door, and to the lab. Moments later her voice comes out of the speaker as she begins the recording, mixing with the sounds of swirling water and cackling dolphins.

“This is Brittney, this is Hanson Island 2015, digital recording number…” my head hits the pillow and I drift away.

For the next few hours I fade in and out, coming to just long enough to see Brittney isn’t back and that the whales are still calling. They’re faint, maddeningly faint, but there. Three hours after they first pulled Brittney from the bed I rise. It’s a moonless December night with the clouds building for another low front, 7 am and still pitch black.

Brittney takes little convincing to go back to bed. She’s been at it since four and the whales seem to have barely moved. Their voices still distant in Johnstone Strait, at the limits of the Critical Point hydrophone. What compelled them to sit in one place and talk about it for so long? I wrap my sweater around me and feel the lab vibrate as another gust hits the south facing windows. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and brace myself as another tug rolls into range. The sound grows to a deafening roar, the orca’s voices extinguished. Feeling guilty I pull the headphones off and rub the headache emerging from my temple. If only they had such luxury.

The tug moves on and they’re still there. G clan somebody. I31s perhaps? Even Paul and Helena can’t say for sure. These late nights remind me of summer. When late night recording sessions were the norm rather than the exception. It’s warmer in July though. And the sun’s there to keep you company starting at about four in the morning. I am the night shift orca DJ, playing the hits of the A, G, and R clan on 92.1 the WHALE.

At long last the darkness lightens a shade, the whales almost inaudible, Vancouver Island distinguishable as a darker shade of black against a slowly lightening sky. The sun finds a gap and a splash of color transforms the world from black and grey. It’s all worth it. The water and mountains light up like ta water color and the orca’s go quiet. Maybe they too are watching the sun rise.

The sunrise doesn’t last long, extinguished by another fog bank rolling in. Waves topped with whitecaps intensify, the rain strikes like pebbles. Twenty minutes with no calls, than twenty-five, thirty, are they gone? A couple summers ago the A36s played a horrible trick on me, sitting silent in Robson Bight until I would end the recording before letting out a whispered giggle, letting me know that they were still awake and I should be too.
The I31s don’t have their sense of humor though. I end the recording and walk back to the cabin. The tree tops swirl and the waves thunder into the rocks twenty feet away on the high tide. My job, my office, my life. And to think a few years ago I was ready to work in a lab, studying herring bioenergetics. Let someone else wear the labcoat. I’ll go to the office in slippers and flannel.

Waiting For Corky

“On no they’re not.”
“It’s true,” I answer, “they’re phasing out the circus performance bit. They say they’re going to do a more education and conservation based thing… of course, it’s SeaWorld, so who knows what that means.”

Paul and I stand on the rocks feet above Robson Bight. Two steps and we’d be free falling fifty feet to the bottom. Free whales swim here. They go right past the rocks we stand on, an arms length from shore. Every time I come here I try to will them into the bight. It’s never worked. Orcas are very into themselves.

But now our minds are not on the hydrophone resting in the kelp, or the batteries on the cliff that fuel it. They’re on a whale thousands of miles away that deserves to be here. Paul furrows his brow, there’s skepticism in his expression, doubt after decades of banging against the gates of SeaWorld, asking that Corky be allowed to come home.

“Maybe it’s just a spoof article,” he says. “Where did you read it?”
I confess that I can’t remember the source. But I’m convinced it wasn’t the Onion.
We pick our way down the rocks for the boat and the lab.
Paul lets out a laugh. “Wouldn’t that be something? SeaWorld stops performances, yesterday Obama vetoes the Keystone pipeline. What is happening?”
“Maybe we’ve been transported to a parallel universe.” I offer.
“That’s it. What’s going to happen tomorrow?”
    “Donald Trump is gonna get eaten by wolves.”
“And through a loophole in his will all his money gets donated to conservation.”
“He meant to write all proceeds to the conservative party but misspelled it.”

Deep down, SeaWorld hasn’t changed. Their orcas are still commodities, big swimming black and white dollar signs. SeaWorld isn’t changing. They’re rebranding. And what choice did they have? They’ve lost a third of their visitors. Their value is worth half what is was before Blackfish. The ship is sinking and there aren’t enough lifeboats. But rather than call for help, SeaWorld has decided to bail water until they’re six feet under. This isn’t surprising. It’s still despicable. But it’s encouraging. They’re grasping at straws.

SeaWorld continues to operate under the delusion that they will be relevant and profitable a decade from now. Accepting the Blue World proposal by the California Coastal Commission would have given the San Diego park an expiration date. No new orcas. The beginning of the end.

But SeaWorld has no intention of letting Corky, the captive northern Resident of A5 pod come home. It’s a step closer to retirement for her though as human commanded tricks will not be part of the new Orca show. But Corky doesn’t have time. She’s been in that tank for four decades. Her time, and a chance at a happy ending is running out. These new, low adrenaline performances won’t start until 2017. By the time SeaWorld determines that this new marketing scheme isn’t going to save the company, it may be too late.

But as SeaWorld circles the drain, perhaps they’ll be willing to accept anything that will salvage whatever positive PR reputation they have left. What better way to change hearts and minds than retire a whale?

I don’t know if Corky can survive in the true wild. She’s been swimming tight circles for so long, I don’t think she can physically stand up to the rigors of being a wild whale. But a net pen in her native land? Where she can taste the ocean. Hunt wild fish and hear the sounds of her family. Who wouldn’t get behind that?

“They can do Corky shows live from Dong Chong Bay (the bay just west of Orca Lab on Hanson Island) and broadcast it over the internet.” Paul offers as we pull into the cove next to the lab.
He’s says it like a joke but it’s not. What it would mean for her to come back. After all these years, and have her living next door. A few hours later all is quiet. The water calm, the sun setting. Paul is back in Alert Bay and it’s just me and Brittney.

Suddenly we both sit up, our heads cocked. When you live at OrcaLab you develop this passive listening. You aren’t aware that you’re tuned into the hydrophones but you always are. And when an orca makes a noise, it makes you jump.

And there they are. What are the odds? We tear over to the lab and pull on headphones, our trembling hands adjust the dials on the soundboard. They’re in the Bight, right where Paul and I stood talking about Corky just five hours ago. Now her family, A5 pod is there. Swimming feet off the rocks I’d been standing on.

Goosebumps spread up my arms. They shouldn’t be here in early November. But here the A5s were. Back in the strait on today of all days. Keeping Corky’s bed warm for her. As their calls echo off the underwater cliffs I fight back a lump in my throat, trying not to feel guilty. After all, it’s Corky that should be here, not me.

Sea World, Blue World, Where in the World do we Go From Here?

After much posturing, debating, and protesting, the end of Sea World is in sight… kind of. Last week, the California Coastal Commission approved Sea World’s new “Blue World” expansion which would nearly double the size of the orca’s pools at the San Diego location. Approval comes with an enormous catch, Sea World would be forbidden from breeding orcas of wild lineage or housing more than 15 orcas in the new pools. We’ll bypass Sea World’s bleats about depriving the whales of their right to breed as “inhumane and unnatural” (nothing more natural than artificial insemination) to avoid the risk of choking on irony, and discuss where Sea World, and its opponents go from here.

“It’ll all be over in a few decades,” I thought. But rereading the Commissions vague restrictions I had more questions than answers. Sea World can build the tanks, but it cannot be populated with whales containing genetic material from wild whales or whales captured in the wild. Every Sea World orca, at least that I can find, has at least a grandparent of captive origin. The DNA of free whales runs through the veins of every whale in those pools. Technically, no one qualifies for the Blue World pool.

What the commission is implying I believe, is no offspring whose parents were born in the wild can reside in the new enclosure. No sons or daughters of Tillikum or Corky. Second generation, captive born whales would qualify for the new enclosure is my understanding. Which raises even more questions. For example, what does Sea World do with Corky, the northern Resident female from A5 pod who was captured in 1969? If wild caught orcas don’t qualify, Sea World would be looking at transporting her across country to Orlando or San Antonio. As would her tank mates Orkid, Ulises, Kasatka, Nakai, Ikaika, Keet, and Shouka. A massive whale shuffle would be on Sea World’s hands to move captive born animals to San Diego.

But the ruling also prohibits the trade or transfer of whales to and from the park. Does this include transfer of whales between San Diego and the other two locations? No article that I could find specifies. But if you cannot move any whales in or out of the San Diego location, why the stipulation on the genetics? The ruling needs more specificity before Sea World or animal rights activists can truly claim victory.

We have tragically reached a point where most of these whales cannot go home. For many, Sea World is the closest thing they’ll have. A cocktail of Icelandic, Resident, and even Transient have been stirred into the genetic cauldron leaving many of the park’s inhabitants with no identity. Refugees of the natural world. While the argument can rage about how Corky or Tillikum would fare if they were returned, there is no such case for the majority of Sea World’s prisoners. Where does an Icelandic/Resident mix go? And what pod would even consider accepting this man made whale Frankenstein?

The Commissions ruling is a ray of hope. It may not lead to the quick death of orca exploitation, but it’s a step in the right direction. I would love to see a more concise ruling on what Sea World can and cannot do with the additional 4 million gallons of tank they wish to build. If it means that those eleven whales in San Diego are the last ones that have to endure captivity on the west coast, fantastic. Maybe Sea World would even try to save face and agree to a net pen retirement for Corky. But if all it means is that Sea World has to shuffle whales a little more across the country, than little has been done but increase the number of mom and calf separations.

Sea World is slowly fading, but they’ve made it clear that they will not go quietly. An appeal will probably emerge, we’ll hear more about how wonderfully they treat their animals, and ticket sales will continue to drop. Let us continue to diplomatically educate those that buy tickets and boycott those that sponsor them (No Budweiser till Corky’s out!). The animal rights movement has moved at an exponential pace the past few years and I can’t wait to see where it leads next.

Envisioning a Happy Ending for Lolita

For the past few days my facebook feed has been inundated with posts concerning the protest on the behalf of Lolita, the imprisoned southern Resident orca at the Miami Seaquarium. The activism and awareness spurred from the documentary Blackfish continues to gain momentum and the pressure continues to mount on those that guard the tanks.

The scene of Lolita breaching in cold north pacific waters surrounded by her family, the San Juan islands in the background is certainly a powerful, and romantic one. An image and ending almost too good to be true. Yet we are many steps away from that reality, and on borrowed time.

The conversation unfortunately begins and ends with those that, for legal purposes, “own” Lolita. The proposals seem to be gravitating toward the idea of the aquarium deciding that the time has come to retire Lolita from the show business as a way of thanking her for her decades as a forced laborer. Some have suggested the positive media coverage would offset the loss of those that attend the aquarium solely to see the orca. It would be an incredible gesture, and sadly, a dramatic change in philosophy. She remains a massive source of income for them and it seems unlikely they would willingly part with her.

Just last year a U.S district judge threw out a case proposed by the orca network, PETA, and others protesting the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) renewal of the aquarium’s license. Claiming that the marine parks tank was too small and in violation of the USDAs standards. The case was dismissed as the judge determined the animal welfare act (AMA) did not specify requirements for those already holding USDA permits. It is a frustrating and despicable minefield of red tape and bureaucracy that now seems firmly on the aquarium’s side. There appears to be no hope in the near future of government intervention forcing the release of Lolita.

Meanwhile National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is proposing Lolita be included in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since she remains a member of the Southern Resident Population. Public comment closes on the 24th of this month, if she does indeed qualify as a protected member of the population, the hope is that she would no longer be allowed to be used as a revenue stream. Should the motion pass, I’m confident the aquarium would fight tooth and nail to ensure that she remains where she is. A long legal battle would probably ensue, where, as we know, the system moves very slowly. The courts have already sided with the aquarium once for much flimsier reasons and I’m hesitant to believe that they would redeem themselves this time. I pray I’m wrong.

Which leads us back to the aquarium doing it on their own. Yes, Sea World stock is plummeting, marine park public opinion is at an all time low, and yet, Sea World’s response seems to be to throw more money at the problem and I imagine Miami’s response would be the same. It continues to confound me what my fellow man will do for profit but it is most likely the only voice that they will answer to. We must continue to ensure that revenue continues to fall, in hopes that they realize they must cut their losses and salvage what public opinion they can. They must reach a point however, where the cost of keeping Lolita is higher than what she brings in. It feels so taboo, dishonorable to make Lolilta’s case come down to money, but I fear it’s the only outcome with a happy ending.

So we will protest, we will hold signs and picket. Give copies of Blackfish to our friends that continue to attend the parks. Support animal advocacy groups, volunteer, and write our congressmen. Real change is happening and I pray that it comes before it is too late for Lolita, Corky, and the others.

The best case scenario may be a net pen, the waters of Juan de Fuca on her skin. After forty years of swimming in slow circles, it would be a miracle to see her travel hundreds of miles with her natal pod. She could hear the calls of her family, her relatives, and maybe remember what it means to be a wild whale after all these years. It’s hard to admit that she may have changed irrevocably, who wouldn’t after all those years alone. I may never buy a ticket to an aquarium, but would happily hand over my money to stand on the shore and see her in a cove, on the open water. No corny music, no tricks, no bleachers, no applause. Just a whale trying to be a whale again, chasing fish, and vocalizing without fear of the calls echoing off concrete walls. And know that the age of captivity, is coming to an end.

One Day in the Bay

As many of you know, today marks the 45th anniversary of Corky’s (A23) capture and subsequent imprisonment. She currently resides in Sea World San Diego, hundreds of miles from her home that centers around Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. Her family was a consistent fixture in the straight this summer, and every sighting of them is a stark reminder that she deserves to be here so much more than I do. Much today has been written and shared about this amazing whale who continues to buck the odds and survive in her tiny bathtub after four and a half decades. Coming less than a week after the death and autopsy of Rhapsody of the southern Residents, one cannot be blamed for feeling discouraged and depressed about the state of these creatures.

There is however, hope and beauty that persists up and down this coast. There are miraculous encounters and moments shared between people and healthy wild whales. On this day, as we remember Corky, and all the others that have been captured, I’d like to share my most memorable whale experience of my life.

Summer 2012:

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve lies just 30 minutes west of Juneau by plane. A magnificent playground for the outdoorsman with untold miles of not just the bay, but mountains, glaciers, and beaches. It is a place to grow and rejuvenate, just like the land that is still rebounding after years of dormancy beneath the oppressive weight of the massive glaciers that carved the bay.

I had a built in excuse to visit as often as I could as my soon to be wife Brittney lived and worked out of the bay in the summer where she worked as a kayak guide. Leaving the more commercial world of cruise ship tourism where I worked on a whale watch boat, I’d hop in a Cessna 206 and enjoy the breathtaking half hour flight over the Chilkat mountains to spend a few days with Brittney and the bay.

For whatever reason, I remember really needing a few days their his time. Perhaps I’d just had a bad run of ornery people on rainy days, or seen 20 boats around four humpbacks one time too many, but I was ready to get out and needed the silence and therapy that the bay could provide. I suppose it’s a sign that you truly do what you love when it’s all you want to do on your day off as well. There was no discussion of what we’d do as long as the weather cooperated, we were going paddling. It combined our two passions; the kayak and whales.

The next day dawned (at 4:30 am) with baby blue skies and a scattering of puffy white cumulus, the water was projected to be still, a rarity that summer that would wind up being one of the wettest on record. Giving the weather no time to change its mind, we leaped into an old rusty van owned by the kayak company, and drove the nine miles into the park to Glacier Bay’s gateway; Bartlett Cove. We grabbed a pair of fiberglass beauties from the companies rack and slipped them into the water. Unlike most sea kayaks decked out in bright and loud colors like aqua, yellow, and red, these boats were a dark forest green and seemed to blend into the landscape of evergreens and contrast beautifully with the deep blue water.

The north end of Bartlett Cove is lined by two islands, Young and Lester, and just beyond is a tiny archipelago known as the Beardslees. The islands were a veritable fantasy land for a kayaker with quiet coves, calm waters, and plenty of wildlife. The only danger was the similarity in the appearance of every island. They all followed the same recipe with rocky beaches, slight elevations, and plenty of trees. I’d traced a large circle around the archipelago two summers ago, but kept my eye on the map strapped to the boat all day.

We moved through the tiny gap between Lester Island and the mainland at the back of the cove known as “the cut,” timing our departure so that we flowed with the tide and the first half mile of our trip we barely had to paddle at all. We paddled for a couple hours through the islands, weaving through the tiny cuts and inlets, joined occasionally by gulls, murrelets, surf scoters, and the occasional harbor seal, their wide unblinking eyes staring at us with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. Finally we passed a wide channel, the tidal influence spewing out water and the islands on our right vanished, giving way to the wide expanse of Glacier Bay. The bay is shaped like a Y, with the upper arms holding the majority of the glaciers, most of them in retreat. The Beardslee’s and Bartlett Cove sit near the base of the Y, where the bay merges with Icy Strait.

We knew we’d passed Lester Island and the northern end of Young Island sat in front of us, a long point of land extended toward the upper reaches of the bay and we followed just off the rocks toward the point where we could make a U turn and begin to head south toward the mouth of Bartlett Cove and home. Brittney paddled some fifty yards ahead of me as I dawdled, trying to locate a Harbor Porpoise I’d been sure was following me when I noticed that she’d stopped paddling. Right at the point she was bobbing just a few feet from shore, paddle held gently across her lap. Coming up behind her I see why. A massive group of her favorite birds, Black Oystercatchers are congregated on the rocks, their sharp orange bills and matching eyes flashing back and forth against their dark silhouettes. I’d never seen so many in one place and they seemed completely unconcerned with the gawking humans in the water.

We watched them jaunt up and down the rocks, dipping their bills into the water until something larger, much larger, brought us back to reality. The point of land was to high to see over, but it was clear from the sound that something large had surfaced just on the other side. Leaving the oystercatchers we paddled cautiously around the point, taking care to stay on the beach side of the kelp bed that circled the island like an asteroid belt around a planet.

When a humpback surfaces in the calm water you can see the water displacement long before you see the whale, than a shadow, than a bulbous bulb of water, until finally the whale breaks the surface. The massive exhalation less than fifty yards away felt like a bass drum in my chest. The explosiveness of her surfacing made it clear she was feeding and I was thankful for the kelp bed between us. I didn’t want the whale to have to worry about us and her daily allotment of half a ton of herring. As the whale disappeared another explosion echoed off the rocks behind us. You can’t spin around in a kayak, but you can twist your head so fast that you sprain your neck. A second humpback had just materialized behind us, lunge feeding just as close as the first.

There was an exhilaration with a teaspoon of fear at seeing these whales so close and at their level with nothing between us and them but a few inches of fiberglass and some flimsy strands of bull kelp. But we weren’t moving, not for the world, as humpbacks broke the surface like fireworks up and down the shoreline, lunging out of the water, mouths agape, herring running down their throats. After thirty minutes of this incredible display, we finally conceded that we needed to start trying to get home. That meant paddling through the bay littered with whales exploding from the water like land mines. We took the long way, skirting the shoreline.

As we continued down Young Island, it seemed around every corner was another humpback. It was as if they were forming some massive 40 ton relay team to get us back to Bartlett Cove. There had to of been 25 in all, encouraging us to hug the shoreline, Brittney at times having to drag me along for I could have stopped and watched every single one. Finally we neared the mouth of Bartlett Cove, and as exhilarated as we were, the soreness and fatigue of 8 hours of paddling was setting in. We started to fantasize about sweet potato fries and Alaskan Summer beer at the lodge in the cove, and prepared for the last couple miles of hard paddling home.

But something stopped us. The tour boat that left daily from the cove and traveled up the west arm of the bay to the Margerie Glacier, had stopped in the channel when it should have been heading into the cove to meet its deadline. Daring to hope we watched and to my shock and absolute glee, a tall black fin broke the water a half mile from shore punctuated by three smaller fins as the tiny group of Transients headed into the bay. They were probably destined for John Hopkins Inlet where the pupping Harbor Seals were sprawled on the ice bergs.

Tears of gratitude formed in my eyes, it was almost too much. The bay had overwhelmed me. First the weather, than the oystercatchers, the never ending parade of humpbacks, and finally, this grand finale. Brittney and I rafted our boats together, her hand in mine as we floated together watching the orcas move further into the bay, completely unaware of the magnitude and power that their presence had just created in our lives. Finally they began to vanish from sight and we begin to paddle into the cove, our spirits full and our eyes glistening with tears of gratitude. I could paddle for the rest of my life and never see another whale and it would be ok. Because every time I pretzel myself into a kayak, I think of that day, the magic it brought, and what a gift it is to share the world with an animal as spectacular as them.