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Sustainability is about ecology, economy and equity.- Ralph Bicknese

Orca Whales

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seattleOrcas_ON06_1.ashx_They are a distinctive animal, unlike any other form of marine mammal. In the past few decades, Orcas have become cultural icons for Seattle. We even named our bus passes and an entire island after them. Our identification with these whales likely stems from  how fascinating these creatures are, and how lucky our city is to see them regularly.

Seattle actually has two nearby Orca populations: a transient group that migrates between California and Alaska, and a resident population that remains year-round. The Southern Resident Community, the whales we see most often in the Puget Sound,  is made up of three pods: J, K, and L. And although marine biologists worry about their future survival, it’s no secret that Seattle is rightfully proud of our local pods’ beauty and power.

Orcinus orcas have had a strong presence in Pacific Northwest culture for hundreds of years. American Indian tribes still tell stories of how Orcas rule the seas like lions rule the jungle. Since Orcas are an apex predator — at the top of the food chain — this view seems logical as well as romantic. Some also say that Orcas are human benefactors, embodying the souls of former chiefs to guard the waters for our protection.

American Indian tales also explain the whales’ peaceful relationship with humans. According to Quest, a Tlingit legend says that the first killer whale was transformed from a wooden carving to extract revenge for its carver. But the whale’s owner felt so guilty about killing humans that it made the animal vow to never harm another person. This myth contains a lot of truth about the Orca’s reaction to people. No wild Orca has ever harmed a human. Only the whales kept in captivity have injured or killed people, usually by accident.

The misnomer “Killer Whale” refers to their occasional attacks on other whales and dolphins. Orcas hunt in packs like wolves, and have a social structure as complex as higher primates. They live in highly stable matriarchal societies. The J pod is lead by an old female known as “Granny,” who is estimated to be 100 years old. According to Behavioral and Brain SciencesOrcas seem to have their own culture, similar to humans. This has been partially attribute to their high level of intelligence.

Unfortunately, the rapid decline of wild salmon is hurting the Pacific Northwest’s Orca population. Due to Seattle’s increasing urbanization, Seattle Pi fears for their survival:  “Studies have rated the likelihood of the southern orcas going extinct as high as 19 percent in the next 100 years, and as high as 94 percent over the next 300 years.” Sadly, our local population was put on the endangered species list in 2005.

To keep our waters clean for the survival or salmon and Orcas, new regulations have been places for watching these whales. But I think we could do even more to ensure the continuation of this unique, graceful animal.

What are your thoughts about Orca whales?

Click here to learn about the movement of our local whales.

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Author: Sara Kenning

Sustainability Assistant at Seattle Pacific University's Office of Facility and Project Management