3 fascinating orca facts we didn't know before | KUOW News and Information

3 fascinating orca facts we didn't know before

Jun 21, 2018

In honor of Orca Awareness Month in Washington state, here are three facts about orcas we didn't know before, courtesy of a talk by Prof. Jason Colby of the University of Victoria. 

Captivity helped orcas

OK, stay with us for a minute. 

In 1965, a Seattleite named Ted Griffin bought an orca accidentally captured off of Namu, British Columbia (where he would derive his name) and brought it to the Seattle waterfront.

It caused a big stir and Griffin made good on his boast to swim with Namu.

“This became a shocking scene to people: Griffin and his whale swimming, and Griffin emerging from the water repeatedly without being eaten,” Colby said.

Read more: The tragic reason Seattle Center never got a SeaWorld

This launched orca captivity. By 1970, Colby said some 30 million people came in contact with a captive whale.

“Captive orcas drew crowds to these oceanariums, giving most visitors their first close view of cetaceans, and for many visitors, their first sense of whales as individuals with personalities,” Colby said.

“Those people weren’t just spectators, many of them were scientists. And I can’t overstate this enough: Scientists with the first access to study live killer whales. Prior to this it was shoot and dissect.”

The effect was profound.

“[Captivity] transformed popular and scientific views of the species from the fearsome killer to the lovable orca,” Colby said.

This isn't to say that capture and captivity wasn't terribly detrimental, but rather that there was a silver lining that lead to finally having environmental regulations and protections for the whales put in place.

Puget Sound orcas bounced back - but not for long

After orca capture became illegal in 1989, the Southern resident population grew to number about 100 in the late 1990s. But that trend has not continued.

“In the past two decades, as the human population of the Salish Sea has spiked, the Southern residents’ has dwindled. We now have over 100,000 people in the Salish Sea for every one resident orca,” Colby said.

As we learned this week, that number is now thought to be 75 orcas.

Read more: After whale goes missing, endangered orca population drops to 30-year low

Puget Sound orcas only have one food source left

The Southern residents survive on eating Chinook salmon. But because of human damage to the Sound and local rivers, like the Columbia, the orcas rely predominantly on the Fraser River in British Columbia, Colby said.

But those Chinoook are vanishing, too.

“The Canadian government’s decision to take over and guarantee the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline recently can only threaten their access to this last reliable food source, and with it, this last population of orcas, that — I can’t emphasize it enough — taught us to love their species and helped us to rethink our own priorities,” Colby said.

Read more: Washington tribes vow to fight Canadian pipeline with 'brothers and sisters in the north'

Jason Colby is an associate professor of environmental and international history at the University of Victoria. His new book is “Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator.”  It chronicles the history of human fascination with orcas and the prospects for their survival. 

Jason Colby spoke at University Lutheran Church on June 5. Town Hall Seattle presented his talk, recorded by KUOW’s Sonya Harris.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

Listen to the full version below: