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WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading global charity dedicated to the protection of whales and dolphins. Our mission is to amaze people with the wonder of whales and dolphins and inspire global action to protect them. Please visit our website at us.whales.org
Each June, orca fans new and seasoned come together to celebrate the beloved and world-famous community known as the Southern Resident orcas. For 15 years, June has been declared by governor proclamation to be Orca Month in Washington State, the traditional home of the Southern Residents. In 2016, Oregon and British Columbia officially joined the festivities, reflecting the growth and evolution of Orca Month and the organizations and people involved.
What began as Orca Awareness Month, an effort by long-time orca advocacy group Orca Network to increase knowledge about the Southern Residents after they were listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the celebration has grown into Orca Action Month to rally orca advocates in support of the changes needed to save this endangered population. There is still a lot of awareness-raising, especially in the parts of the Southern Residents’ range where people may not be as familiar with this unique community. It is a fundamental connection – as soon as people learn about the Southern Residents, they want to know what they can do to help.
This group of orcas has lived in the waters off the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada for millennia, evolving alongside our region’s once-abundant runs of salmon. They became specialists on the largest and fattiest salmon: Chinook. But as European colonizers began to develop the lands and waters of this region, urbanization changed the unique ecosystem dramatically. Dams on rivers and industrialization in watersheds slowed rivers, blocked salmon migration, and added chemicals that washed out to the ocean. Salmon runs crashed. Water became toxic. Shipping, underwater construction, and recreational boaters made the ocean noisier and more crowded. The area that the Southern Residents know as home became a drastically different place.
Some orcas in the population are old enough to remember the time “before,” when food was plentiful, the waters were quiet, and their families were not falling ill. Younger orcas were taught the traditional ways of their community, and even as salmon runs have disappeared, they continue to visit the places they once found abundant food: the Salish Sea in the summer, the mouth of the Columbia River in the early spring, California’s Central Valley in the winter. As traditionalists, the Southern Residents live in tightly bonded family groups and learn their way of life from the matriarchs of the population. Change does not come easily (or quickly) to the Southern Residents.
We have made staggering alterations to the Northwest ecosystem in a relatively short amount of time. These iconic species of our region, salmon and orcas, have suffered from those changes. Without enough food, the Southern Residents are struggling to have healthy calves; they are growing to smaller sizes, their overall body condition is poor, and their long-held traditions are breaking down. Pollutants in the water, legacy contaminants like DDT and PCBs that persist for a hundred years or more, affect the orcas’ immune and reproductive systems. Noise & disturbance impacts their ability to find food and communicate with each other.
The issues facing the Southern Residents and their home – one they share with us – can be overwhelming. But that’s where the magic of Orca Month comes in. Orca Month is a celebration, in spite of the daunting challenges. We come together to share knowledge about the orcas and to marvel at their presence. How lucky are we to share space with these special orcas, to know their history and have glimpses into their culture. Orca Month is about inspiring action by helping people connect to the Southern Residents, sharing their story, and giving people hope that we can make a difference. Throughout the month, calls to action are highlighted to give people tangible, effective opportunities to make personal changes or influence policy and management decisions. In 2020, Orca Month focused on “30 Days of Action for Orcas,” with guidance on multiple things people can do to make individual changes to support the health of their local ecosystem, the ocean, and Southern Resident orcas. This year, Orca Month shared weekly opportunities covering the many issues the Southern Residents face: clean water, river restoration, and international cooperation.
With events shifting to online platforms in the last two years, WDC and our Orca Month partners have been able to bring even more people into the world of the Southern Residents, reaching a global audience with their story. Some in-person events, like beach cleans and habitat restoration projects, evolved into individual activities as we encouraged people to continue the actions in their neighborhoods. Talks and film screenings moved online, and we developed new interactive events including livestreams and trivia. No matter where people are in the U.S. or in the world, they can do something to help the Southern Resident orcas – and ultimately that’s what Orca Month is all about!
Orca Month 2021 recently wrapped up, but the work always continues. We celebrate orcas and work to protect them every day, and we invite everyone interested in the future of the Southern Resident orcas to join us. You can revisit the highlights of Orca Month 2021 on the official YouTube channel or on WDC’s Facebook page, and sign up to be an Orca Hero to be the first we call on for our next event or opportunity to take action for the Southern Residents!