The North-West

EIGHT Minnie and the Killer Whale

Mention of the ship’s dog has brought requests for further and better particulars. So – Minnie is a black and white Jack Russell crossed with a Lancashire Heeler. Jack Russells are small but famously brave: a few years ago a Vietnam veteran sent one of his medals to a Jack Russell that had fought off two Dobermans trying to attack a baby in a pram.

In her time, Minnie has squared up to giant dogs – but she is conflicted. Genetic code from her Heeler mother has made her wary. Lancashire Heelers are tiny, bred to drive cattle by nipping at their heels with a short-legged agility that saves them from crushing hooves. Mindless courage is not an asset in this role – nip and dodge is the order of the day for a Heeler herding an Aberdeen Angus bull.

Minnie’s wary approach to the threats in life showed itself a few weeks ago on a sea trial of our newly-acquired Heraclitus. We were north of Seattle, at the top of the Puget Sound. All was peaceful: the Race Marshal was occupied calibrating her new spread of instrumentation and I was below trying my hand at making a Nanaimo Bar – a three-decker of Graham crackers and chocolate, cream custard, with more chocolate as a topping. (The calories are justified by patriotism, the confection having originated in Nanaimo, a town in British Columbia.)

Anyway – concentration on the jobs in hand was shattered by a scream from Minnie. We rushed to her and there crossing the bows of the Heraclitus was the most enormous dorsal fin. I joined Minnie in retreat – but the Race Marshal was delighted. Successful sea trials permitting, she had it in mind to follow this killer whale (aka orca) and the others of its pod as they migrated down the Californian coast to overwinter in warmer waters.

The fin passed on to join a group of six others. These killer whales are highly social (among their species): they live and hunt in groups defined by maternal descent and have high intelligence. I like the fact that members of a pod speak to each other in their own dialect. And they do speak – co-ordinating group attacks on their prey.

We all have an idea of what a killer whale looks like – perhaps from the Free Willy movie: Willy was captured near Greenland in 1979 – and at least 47 orcas were taken from the Salish Sea in the 1970s to serve our pleasure in marine parks. Though they are the same species, all killer whales are not, in fact, all identical. There are several groups defined by their markings, head shapes and the shape of their dorsal fins. A new type – with a very small, white eye patch and a rounded head – was discovered only recently after a pod beached itself in New Zealand.

And there are three broad divisions in behaviours of orcas: some roam widely in the oceans. Some – the ‘transients’ – beat a regular path along the coasts: the ones that pass the North-West prey on grey whales and now are pushing into the Arctic to hunt narwhals, seals and beluga whales. Orcas used not to be able to get into the Arctic because their huge fins could not cut through the pack ice – but global warming is allowing much greater penetration and access to new and largely unsuspecting prey.

The third group, of which our orcas form part are ‘residents’ – owning a specific patch of sea and though they may migrate, they return each year. Our orcas have been in this corner of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound for thousands of years and have made a very particular adaptation to their environment – they eat salmon, almost exclusively. This stereotypical behaviour for this part of the world might be amusing were it not now proving an existential threat to them.

Seventy per cent of their diet is Chinook – the King Salmon that comes from the Fraser River, the (once) greatest salmon river in the world. The term ‘Fraser River’ is shorthand for a watershed in the mountains of British Columbia extending over 85,000 square miles. The main river gathers up a score of tributaries and discharges their waters and silt into a delta on the Salish Sea. Or what used to be a delta: the river tries, but it now runs into the constructs and barriers of the city of Vancouver. The freshwater/brine mix of the delta that was once a nursery for new-born salmon to grow and transition to the salt of open ocean is now sadly mutilated.

In the pristine days before the arrival of the Europeans, salmon spawned all through these rivers. Even in recent times, salmon have been recorded swimming into the furthest reaches of the river system – some 100 kilometres from the sea. But now they don’t: the salmon of Fraser River are disappearing as Vancouver grows.

For the orcas, no salmon means no food and these are animals that require nearly 300,000 calories a day – some 375 pounds of food. In the last few years, they have been hungry and their offspring are believed to have starved to death: no orca calves have survived in the Salish since 2015.

Their problems are compounded by toxic pollutants, by constant interference from whale watchers who get too close, and from noise which affects their ability to hunt. These are busy waters – ferries and the omnipresent thrumming of giant ships. And then there are the sonar tests conducted by the US Navy which, the Seattle Aquarium has noted, inflict on the orcas “temporary hearing loss”. So bad has it become for them that they are now on the endangered species list and huge efforts are being made to remedy the conditions prejudicial to their survival – not least, a drive to restore salmon to the Fraser River.

Standing on the deck of the Heraclitus, surrounded by beautiful mountains reflecting in the sea, it is easy to think back to the time before the Europeans arrived. The rivers then were pristine and the lives of the orcas and the Indigenous people together wove a natural tapestry around the flow of salmon.

Not surprisingly, then, Indigenous people, who, like the orcas, have been here since the glaciers of the Ice Age retreated, are in the forefront of the conservation movement. In September 2019, desperate to stop a huge new liquefied petroleum gas project, the Indigenous ‘Protectors of the Salish Sea’ marched on the State capitol:

“We are walking to keep our sacred promises with the salmon, the orcas and every living being, and to bring an end to a destructive era that is robbing the children of a liveable future.”

This summer, with Chinook numbers at an all-time low, just a few orcas returned to their stamping grounds, appearing later than usual and staying only for a little while. The good news is that the returnees looked, according to newspaper reports, well-fed. The bad news – the ‘new normal’ as some locals say – is that the orcas may, after millennia, have found new summer feeding grounds away from the depleted Salish Sea.


NOAA film on types of killer whale –

Killer Whales in the Arctic –

The categories of Orca –

A vet on a research trip in the Salish Sea –

NOAA film about threats and conservation: “Recovering the Southern Resident Killer Whale with Research and Conservation” (at 2.29 there is a wonderful shot of an orca with Seattle in the background) –

NOAA Summary of conservation efforts –

This is a fascinating zoom lecture – “Salmon Habitat Restoration in the Fraser River Estuary” by Dave Scott –


Scabbard Fish (c) Meirion Harries

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