Thursday 11 June 2020

The World's Greatest Alarm Clock: An audio experience transporting you to the home of the Northern resident orca

by Megan Hockin-Bennett 

Introduction by Sam Lipman:
Megan observing orca at OrcaLab
Megan Hockin-Bennett, talented wildlife videographer and founder of Wild Sky Productions, has spent eight years studying the Northern resident orca with OrcaLab in Vancouver, Canada. Using a network of underwater hydrophones and cameras, alongside land-based identification, Megan assists the station in conducting its vital research, increasing insight into the lives of the unique Northern resident community (as well as working to help wild-captured Northern resident orca Corky). 

For Orca Month, Megan has crafted her knowledge, experiences and orca recordings into a special encounter that brings the orca to you...

In this magical audio experience, Megan invites you to spend a peaceful moment with her on the shores of the Johnstone Strait, listening to the haunting calls of the orca families who inhabit it. You will walk (or float) away feeling relaxed, educated and refreshed. 

So take a break, get comfortable, close your eyes - or turn on OrcaLab's live cameras to try and catch a glimpse of the orca - and let yourself be transported to the home of the Northern residents. 

We hope you enjoy! 

Male transient orca T019B / Galliano passes Megan at OrcaLab

For more of Megan's videos, visit Wild Sky Productions.

You can also head over to OrcaLab to learn more about the Northern resident orca, staying up-to-date through its Facebook and Instagram pages. 

Keep spreading the word about how to help care for, protect and conserve our world's orca during (and after) Orca Month.

And if you spot any orca on OrcaLab's live cameras, let us know - happy orca watching! 

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Orca of Punta Norte

by Suzie Hall

Orca Aware’s Suzie Hall, has spent the last year travelling the Americas. One of her highlights was seeing the orca of Punta Norte, within the Peninsula Valdés in Argentina. Here’s her account of the first time she witnessed their unique hunting behaviour!

Waiting at the viewpoint in Punta Norte, binoculars and camera at the ready, I could hardly believe I was about to see something I'd dreamed of for so long: The Punta Norte orca. Some five minutes before, the rangers received a radio notice that there was a group of five orca approaching from the north... 

I heard them first; the unmistakable ‘pfooo’ of an orca blow, which I’ve come to recognise so well. All heads turned to spot glistening droplets of water falling gently back to the water’s surface. The chatter and excitement of the hopeful crowd had ceased in anticipatory silence, and a collective breath was held as we patiently waited. The morning light and calm skies rendered the ocean a softly undulating mirror and we caught our first sight. Two, then three, four, five unmistakable black fins carved their way through the silvery pool, as if in slow-motion. Approaching high-tide, the ocean was only 20 metres from the viewpoint, almost level with the eye, and the orca were cruising adjacent to our perch.

Suzie (right) watching the orcas from shore ©
Their dorsals grew closer, with louder 'pfoooos' echoing in quick succession as, one after the other, they each took a breath. We could see large, round heads and white eye-patches preceding smooth backs and shimmering saddle patches mere metres away. 

No one uttered a word as we watched the group swim gracefully by. For a few moments, all we heard was the orca breathing, the waves lapping at the shore and the click-click of camera shutters. It was a remarkably peaceful scene.

The Punta Norte orca are arguably one of the most distinct of all orca populations, intentionally stranding themselves to catch their prey. Only in Argentina and the Crozet Islands have orca been seen to exhibit this behaviour, and only a handful of orca in each population actually hunt using this technique. This truly makes it one of the most fascinating natural spectacles to witness. 

The orca time their arrival at these beaches with the South American sea lion and elephant seal pupping seasons. They are waiting as the pups venture away from the safety of their colonies, splashing into the water for the first time and taking their first swims along the shore. 

This particular group cruised the entire 200 metre length of the viewpoint, very close to the shore. I watched an impressively large male (called “Jaluel”) swim beside two smaller fins as they made their way south towards the “attack channel”. A group of juvenile sea lions, swimming towards the viewpoint at the same time, were frolicking lazily in the pull of the waves. They were naively unaware of the unmistakable outline and silhouette of an orca approaching from only a few tens of metres away. There was no break of the water by a dorsal fin, no audible ‘pfoooo’; just a silent, deadly figure in a single wave for a heartbeat of a second… and then it was gone.

I watched, expecting the crash – the sound of orca and pup colliding in a bloody frenzy. I watched and I waited. I watched until the pups reached the spot where the orca had been, until they were directly in front of me, until they had swum right past in a northerly direction. Disappointed, I allowed myself to take a breath. It was over before it had even begun. Or so I thought.

From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the sharp, black edge of a dorsal fin slicing through the water, tailing the pups with increasing speed. They were closing in. As the pups sensed danger, they sped up, but it was already too late. The orca had accelerated, launching itself into the group, timing its attack perfectly with the breaking wave. There was a lot of splashing, frantic crying, and the entire body of an eight-tonne orca tore the water apart as it charged right out of the ocean and onto the sloping beach. I couldn’t tell whether it had a pup, I was too shocked and awed by the powerful display in front of me to take in all of the details.

A juvenile orca surfaced offshore followed by two more until they formed a tight-knit group again. They had the pup.

For what felt like an age, they splashed and clashed and chased their prey, taking it in turns to lurch out of the water, flip it with their mouths, slapping their tails; putting on an incredible show in their natural, wild environment. I can only imagine it didn’t play out too well for the sea lion pup, as the orca began to calm. Now satiated, they turned south to join their kin.

I remained on the peninsula just shy of a month, making my way to Punta Norte every day to see the orca. And almost every day they came. Although their feeding behaviour is well-studied and “predictable” during this season, no two days felt the same. My wonder at observing them never dwindled.

For part 2 of my Argentine adventure, I will be shining a further spotlight on this orca population and its individuals, as well as letting you know when to go and how to get there!

Saturday 12 August 2017

Living with Orca: My summer as an OrcaLab volunteer

by Suzie Hall

On the 16 July 2017, I finally saw my first orca after 24 years of waiting. It was a magical moment when the T090s (Bigg's orca, otherwise known as transients) silently swept into Blackney Pass from the south, and travelled past the Lab. To be researching orca in the breath-taking surroundings of British Columbia, Canada is a dream come true: Here’s my account of what life is like here at OrcaLab.

Orcas passing by OrcaLab © OrcaLab

It’s been three weeks since I arrived on the woodland shores of Hanson Island, and I still can’t quite believe that I’m here. From the moment I stepped off the boat and onto the rocky slopes outside the Lab, I could tell that this place was quickly going to feel like home. The Lab and surrounding out-buildings are constructed solely from the wood around. It sits on a rocky outcrop, with a wide view of Blackney Pass, which is nestled neatly in the bay and is great for observing passing wildlife.

A humpback whale in Blackney Pass © OrcaLab
My first week was quiet on the orca front, so we primarily focused on the humpback whales, which are an almost daily guarantee. This gave me a good chance to get acquainted with the procedures in the Lab and the runnings of the camp.

The camp is completely off-grid. We use primarily solar power (with a generator if needed on cloudy days). There is a huge amount of energy required to power all of the equipment, so we use gas for cooking, natural fires for heating, and switch off all electrical equipment that’s not in use. The camp is full of everything you’d need to comfortably live in the wilderness, although perhaps a little more rudimentary than you might be used to.

Our kitchen is outdoors with a mismatch collection of utensils fit for all culinary creations. We only get groceries when someone is in Alert Bay (the nearest town on a neighbouring island), once every week or two, so it’s important to learn the art of proper meal planning. Generally, I live off of granola, eggs and peanut butter during the day, with Paul and Helena generously providing our evening meals, (which are absolutely delicious!).

The “outhouse” (or toilet) is an open shack in the woods, which takes a while to get used to. The only unnerving moments are when it’s pitch-black and there’s a pair of large, yellow eyes staring back at you from the trees. In that circumstance: Make it quick and hope it’s just a deer!
The OrcaLab kitchen

There’s a limited amount of fresh water (drawn from a nearby creek) that we primarily save for cooking and drinking. This means that everyone gets a warm shower about once a week, and the rest of the time we use the ocean. It’s a lot colder than I was expecting (around 7 degrees Celsius) and you really have to force yourself to stay in so you reach that “comfortably numb” stage and the pain disappears! The whole experience is really quite exhilarating. Post-swim, if you’ve been organised, you can warm up in the heated seawater bathtub on the rocks, the sauna in the bath-house, or with a cup of tea snuggled in your sleeping bag.

Work here never stops. It takes a monumental effort to keep things running smoothly and Paul, Helena and the volunteers do a fantastic job. Every day there’s wood to be chopped, food to prepare, a garden to maintain, repairs to make, boat trips to the cameras and hydrophones, guests to accommodate - and much more. All assistants pitch in and you soon recognise what needs to be done and when.

Enjoying a heated seawater bath
In the rare moments when we have some free time, we still have lots we can keep ourselves busy with. Hanson Island is beautiful and has many trails and views to explore. We go on hikes, walks, runs (okay, I’ve run once and maybe I’ll try it again…) and swims to the many points of interest that
the island has to offer. The island is very occasionally visited by wolves, bears and cougars - it's safe to say we would all love to encounter these animals (from a safe distance, of course!).

We monitor the hydrophones 24/7, which means that there is always someone in the Lab itself. We try to split the shifts so that everyone works an equal number of days and nights. In this way, sleeping patterns can vary. As someone notoriously known as “Snooze”, this has been quite an adjustment for me, but I’m definitely getting into the swing of it three weeks in. I enjoy the variety of early mornings and late nights, and it’s given me a real appreciation for my cosy tent and sleeping bag, which feels like a luxury after being awake all night!

Monitoring the hydrophones
And when you're not in the Lab, you can often hear the orca through speakers located throughout the camp. My favourite part of the whole experience is waking up in my tent to the sounds of orca calling through the trees: It is simply magical.

The Lab is an impressive feat; built up over the past four decades, it’s every techy's dream. There are currently six working hydrophones covering an area of approximately 50km square between Queen Charlotte Strait and Johnstone Strait. This is a particular “hotspot” for the orcas in the summer months, which means that, once the orca show up, there’s never a dull moment! We live-stream the acoustic data to and the video from the network of cameras that can be viewed at

When an orca call is heard, we try to isolate the location of the individual(s) by using a mixer, which feeds all six signals from the hydrophones to our speakers. By keeping the channel from the hydrophone that the calls are likely on in the 'centre' position of the mixer, and the others on the 'left' and 'right', we can acoustically map the position of the orca as they pass through the network.

During the daytime, there are two people on shift. One in the Lab and one on the deck as a lookout. As soon as orca are seen in the Pass, the cry of “OORRRCCCAAAA!” echoes through the camp and everyone drops what they’re doing and rushes to the deck. Goodness, do the orca keep us busy! We have people on the telescopes to map their location, count them and identify who they are. We have people on both still and video cameras recording footage, and another updating our various social media pages. Inside the Lab, there is always somebody following the orca acoustically, noting everything that can be heard. And two people operate the network of cameras so that the world can watch the orca on the live-stream.

The Northern resident A30s and I15s passing by © OrcaLab

In the past week, the orca have been appearing more frequently, with more and more groups entering the area. So far, we have sighted a few matrilines from the A and G clans of the Northern resident population: the most prevalent being the A30s. The difference between the vocal dialects of the different orca pods is fascinating, and it’s astounding to watch Paul, Helena and the more experienced volunteers identify a group from just a single call.

The volunteers © Karien Bergmans
There sure is a lot I still have to learn but one thing is for certain: I absolutely love it here. The team is wonderful and it already feel like I am part of the OrcaLab family. My fellow volunteers are from different parts of the globe and walks of life, but we all have one thing in common: A passion for nature, conservation and, obviously, orca! Paul and Helena’s generosity knows no bounds and it’s clear that they have such a heart for what they do. To be able to contribute to their efforts and the protection of this beautiful population of orca is a truly humbling experience. Bring on the next two months!

Keep an eye out for my future blog, where I will be bringing you a "who-is-who" guide to the individuals, matrilines and clans which make up the Northern resident orca population. And in the meantime, to learn more about OrcaLab and its history, read my interview with Dr. Paul Spong here.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos © Suzie Hall. 

Sunday 16 July 2017

A Summer of Research at OrcaLab

by Suzie Hall

Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to work with orcas. Admittedly, my childhood dream was to ride around on the back of my orca best friend in a very ‘Free Willy’-esque fashion, but as I’ve grown older the dream has been reworked into something more realistic. Over the years, there has been more and more evidence to show that keeping orcas in captivity causes them physical and psychological damage. Whilst the debate between experts and the industry still rages, and marine parks either move forward or continue to defend their decision to keep captive orcas, my mind is set: These creatures should be kept out of tanks and free to hunt, travel and socialise in the wild. That’s where the research should be done, and that’s what I want to do.

Over the past few years I’ve crammed in as many qualifications, courses and lectures as I can manage in an attempt to make myself useful within the world of orca research and conservation. I have still never seen an orca in the flesh, which is becoming a bit embarrassing given my not-so-subtle obsession.

Five months ago, I received an email from Dr. Paul Spong and his wife, Helena Symonds, inviting me to visit their research station, OrcaLab, off the coast of British Colombia, Canada. To say I was excited is an understatement, (I was so excited I managed to tell everyone I was going to visit without actually emailing back to accept their offer!). And now I am finally beginning my mega journey from the UK to the northern coast of Vancouver Island – a 72+ hour journey. 

So what does one need to pack for a summer of orca research?

Due to a stellar effort by myself, my family and the Internet, I’m now confident that I have everything I need…
-              Binoculars? Check.
-              Camera? Check.
-              Sleeping bag? Check.
-              Clothes for sunshine and torrential downpours? Check.
-              Mini cafetière to keep the morning monster at bay? Ch- Ah. Forgot that one.

In addition to my giant backpack, (which has its own mini backpack), I’m also transporting all 20kgs of my SCUBA diving kit to the island to assist with maintenance of the underwater cameras and microphones. In hindsight, attempting to carry 40kgs of luggage on a three-day journey, complete with a long-haul flight, an overnight stay in a hostel, a ten-hour bus journey and two ferry crossings may have been slightly optimistic… But it’s too late now. Let’s hope someone on the team is a trained masseuse. 

OrcaLab is situated on Hanson Island, a largely uninhabited island off the north-eastern coast of Vancouver Island. Over the summer months, Paul, Helena and their team monitor the Northern resident orcas that inhabit the area, along with the humpback whales that also frequent the Straits. The transient (or ‘Biggs’) orcas are also studied as they often make an appearance in the area to predate on smaller mammals. The lab includes a network of hydrophones (underwater microphones) covering about 50km of the orcas' habitat, which collect acoustic data and photographic images 24 hours a day.

And OrcaLab is completely off-grid: powered by solar panels and generators. This means that any luxuries are few-and-far between; we’ll be travelling to the nearest town (Alert Bay, on a neighbouring island) every 1-2 weeks for food and laundry.

Photo © Max Woodman
OrcaLab is a unique research station and the work it conducts is essential for the preservation of orcas and other marine wildlife. For me, this is the experience of a lifetime and, I hope, the first of many orca-related projects. I cannot think of a better place to see my first orcas than among the verdant islands of British Colombia, and I hope that I will prove myself useful to the research at OrcaLab. I would also love to see orca ‘Springer’ who is part of the Northern resident community, as she is the first orca I adopted at the tender age of nine. Springer has also just been spotted with her second calf following her release back into the wild fifteen years ago, after she was rescued.

Over the next few months I will be sharing my experience of OrcaLab, the orcas and the beautiful coast of British Colombia - so stay tuned!

For a short history of OrcaLab and its research, please read our interview with Dr. Paul Spong.

Monday 8 May 2017

Learning from Lulu: The death of an orca – a sign to clean up our act?

by Suzie Hall and Sam Lipman

“One of the most contaminated individuals that we’ve ever looked at,” Dr. Andrew Brownlow told the BBC, “Possibly one of the most contaminated individuals in the world.”

Brownlow is a veterinary pathologist with Scotland’s Rural College and head of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS). He was referring to “Lulu” who, until her death, was a member of the UK’s only resident orca population, known as the West Coast Community. This Community is dying; there are just eight individuals left.

Lulu was found entangled on the shores of Tiree, Scotland in January of last year. A necropsy was performed on her body and the results confirm the terrifying truth: We are living beside a contaminated ocean. 

North Atlantic ecotype (Photo © Orca Aware)

A shocking 957mg/kg of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contaminants were found in Lulu’s body. To put this into perspective: As little as 20-40mg/kg of PCBs are believed to cause significant physiological damage, and Lulu’s blubber contained 100 times more PCB contaminants than is the accepted toxicity threshold in marine mammals. Her blubber was packed with 957mg/kg of pure poison.

Although the production of such deadly substances is now heavily regulated, they are still leaching into the natural environment. Once there, the contaminants bio-accumulate up the food chain until the animals at the top, like orca, are carrying heavy chemical burdens. These high levels of toxicity can leave orca in poor health, infertile and in some cases, dead.

SMASS, the organisation which carried out Lulu's necropsy, reports that Lulu never produced a calf in her short lifetime; this is despite the fact she was at least 20 years old when she died. Regrettably, Lulu's pod haven’t been sighted with a calf for over two decades. It is possible that it is the impact on health and reproductive fitness from these chemicals that has sealed the fate of the culturally unique West Coast Community, setting them on a path to extinction.

Fatally entangled seal in the UK (Photo © Richard Ilderton / BDMLR)

With Lulu's death, human involvement was a double-edged sword. Experts claim orca are an intelligent, agile, communicative species, very rarely becoming entrapped. However, despite this, Lulu's ultimate cause of death was entanglement in discarded fishing line. It is speculated that the toxins within her body may have debilitated her, impacting Lulu's ability to free herself from the lines.

Sadly, many other marine animals are killed in this way. Last year in England, Scotland and Wales, 33 whales, seals and seabirds were found entangled in discarded man-made materials, with a further 21 entangled marine mammals reported during the first four months of 2017. Just this Friday, Orca Aware’s sponsor charity British Divers Marine Life Rescue attended a recently deceased young grey seal entangled in plastic; another indication of the sorry state of our oceans.  

As if PCB contamination and hazardous discarded gear aren’t bad enough news for the marine world, we are amidst a global plastic pollution crisis too. Not only does plastic also leach toxic chemicals when it breaks down, but it is estimated that by the year 2050, at current production rates, the plastic in the oceans will outweigh the fish. Along with entangling marine life, plastics have been found inside the stomachs of whales, dolphins and other animals, from whole plastic bags to tiny plastic fibres. And we’re ingesting plastic as well; up to 11,000 pieces each year, in the seafood and salt that we eat.

Recently collected in a beach clean (Photo © Suzie Hall)

While much more can and needs to be done, the outlook isn’t as murky as our polluted seas. More and more large organisations are being rallied to tackle their environmental footprint. The United Nations has pledged to take action against plastic waste, usage of PCBs and their disposal. Disposal is becoming more heavily regulated and innovations are cropping up worldwide to reduce production, consumption and circulation of these indestructible materials.

You can also take action, joining us in these five simple steps:

1. Think twice about what you buy and where possible, avoid purchasing items wrapped in packaging.

2. Cut out "disposable" plastic items such as straws, coffee lids, bottles and bags. Learn more about reducing your plastic waste here.

3. Familiarise yourself with your local recycling collection and always try to recycle your waste.

You can also dispose of electrical items at designated sites rather than landfills; these are ones that leak chemicals such as PCBs to the surrounding environment.

4. Don’t litter. You wouldn’t use your sitting room floor as a bin, so why use our planet’s floor? After all, it is all our living space.

5. Take action! Organise beach cleans and sponsored awareness events, support environmental charities and simply just spread the word. You can also encourage friends, family, colleagues and your local council to adopt more sustainable practices.

Lulu's death symbolises our urgent need for mindful action, to counteract the harm we have already caused through ignorance and inaction. We didn't know how PCBs and other materials would impact the oceans, but we do now. The fact can no longer be brushed under our carpet of plastic and toxic compounds.

Scientists estimate we are on the cusp of irreversible environmental damage, with our oceans (and our world) at stake  and time itself may be running out. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, what we now "have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." And what we might learn from Lulu is that we need to act today. 

Find out more about how chemical pollution impacts orca by reading our article: Polluted Orca – How Chemicals Are Killing the World’s Killer Whales

Friday 19 August 2016

Polluted Orca – How Chemicals Are Killing the World’s Killer Whales and What Can Be Done

by Suzie Hall and Sam Lipman

Male orca in Icelandic waters (Photo © Orca Aware)

Orca are apex predators. With their advanced cognisance and culturally diverse populations, they predate on a variety of fish, bird and other mammal species. Their prey ranges from comparatively small mackerel and herring, to whales almost twice their size. If orca even take on great white sharks for breakfast, what then is one of the most concerning killers of killer whales?

The anthropogenic threat – Humans.  

Orca have had frightful, sometimes fatal encounters with humans. They have been targeted by the captive display industry, struck by boat propellers, entangled in discarded fishing gear, and found with significant quantities of plastic in their stomachs. Some populations are even struggling to find food as a result of human interference with the natural environment.

But it’s the effect that persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have on orca that is perhaps the most harrowing concern: POPs, particularly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), are threatening orca populations worldwide.

What are POPs and PCBs?

POPs are chemical compounds that are resistant to degradation. The persistence of these chemicals was deemed a threat to human health, as well as the environment, and their production has now been curtailed. PCBs are a type of POP. They are lipophilic, meaning that they collect in the body’s fat reserves. As a result, PCBs pose a health threat to mammals with large fat stores – like the blubber-coated orca.

There were very few regulations surrounding the production and disposal of these pollutants when they were first introduced. During production, chemicals are released into the atmosphere and can be transported over long distances. A significant proportion of waste material has ended up in landfills, which has resulted in chemicals leaking slowly into rivers and oceans. 

Research has shown that there are high accumulations of pollutants in areas far from where they were produced, especially in Arctic regions. The implication of this long-range transport does not bode well for orca; studies have found populations around countries with a relatively low output of POP production, such as Norway, are contaminated, rendering this a much wider global issue.

How do chemical contaminants affect orca?

Upon entering the marine environment, POPs, including PCBs, are absorbed by plankton and other creatures existing at the bottom of the food chain. Species that eat these creatures will become contaminated and so on it goes, up through the food chain, until eventually, larger marine predators at the top end of the food chain have accrued the largest concentrations of toxic chemicals. This process is known as bioaccumulation, which is a build-up of substances in a living organism. Bioaccumulation occurs when the organism, in this case an orca, absorbs the substance at a higher rate than it can eject it from its body.  

Once PCB contaminants have entered an orca’s body, they are stored in fatty tissues (lipids). The pollutants primarily target the immune and endocrine systems, which are responsible for bodily functions like fighting disease and healing, metabolism, as well as growth and reproduction. Strong links have been found between chemical contamination, survival rates in orca populations and declining reproduction, making this one of the largest threats to the species’ endurance.

The contaminants become especially dangerous should the orca experience a shortage of food. The body will start to metabolise the lipid-rich blubber, releasing the harmful chemicals stored there into the bloodstream. A recent study on orca of the North East Pacific Ocean has highlighted the adverse physiological effects that pollutants can have. The study found that the pollutants can cause severe mutations in several critical life processes that shape an orca’s growth, reproductive capabilities and development. Although current research does not yet include all known orca ecotypes or populations, it is likely that the effects from pollutants will affect all of them in a similar manner.

Transient or Bigg's mammal-eating orca at the very top of the ocean food chain (Photo © Josh McInnes)

But even when orca are otherwise healthy, PCB contaminants continue to have adverse effects.

PCBs are also stored in the fatty milk of nursing mothers. This means that pollutants are passed to already vulnerable new-born calves. Studies on cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) species have revealed that a female may offload up to 90% of her body’s burden of PCBs to her first calf, significantly reducing her overall PCB concentration with each successive pregnancy.

When very high concentrations of PCBs have been documented in reproductive-age females, this might suggest that there has been no chemical offload to calves. This could be indicative of reproductive failure – either in the female, or in her population’s males. Male orca cannot offload contaminants to calves like females can as they have no fatty milk to pass on. Holding onto these high levels of chemicals throughout their lifetime may be the cause of reduced fecundity and lifespan in males.

According to Dr. Paul Jepson, a European Veterinary Specialist in Wildlife Health Population at the Zoological Society of London, and member of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) team, “Killer whales are the most heavily PCB-contaminated mammalian species on Earth.” They have such high levels of contaminants in their bodies that they are sometimes treated as hazardous waste when they strand and die, or are washed dead ashore.

In Europe, some orca have recently been found to have 857 parts per million (ppm) of PCBs stored in their fatty tissue. To put this into perspective, the US Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than two ppm of PCB contamination for human consumption. Although a direct comparison cannot be drawn between humans and orca, these astonishingly high levels are known to be having devastating consequences for these large marine mammals.

Research has indicated that marine mammals with PCB levels greater than nine ppm are likely to suffer noticeable disruption to their bodies basic biological processes; this can be seriously damaging.

Where did PCB contaminants come from?

The commercial production of PCB contaminants started around the 1920s. They were used extensively for a wide range of industrial applications as they are resistant to acids and bases, as well as to heat. Although their toxicity was recognised early on, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the negative impacts to the marine environment were realised. Generally, PCBs are not very soluble in water, despite being readily soluble in fat, (which explains why they can build up in animal fat, and to significant levels in animals higher up the food chain).   

The production of PCBs was first banned in the US and Canada in 1979, and was outlawed throughout Europe by the late ‘80s. Over a decade later, in 2004, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was implemented, with 180 member states pledging to eliminate the production of certain POPs.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that oceans are now in the clear. As PCBs do not naturally degrade, they can continue to exist in the environment for decades. And “PCBs can persist in blubber for a lot longer than 10-15 years,” Jepson explained, adding that it is “probably more like 100-200 years if the animals were able to live that long.”

If the burden of contaminants does not start to decline, we could suffer a catastrophic loss of entire orca communities.

Which populations of orca are known to be at high risk?

Orca populations across the globe are exposed to different levels of contaminants, depending on their location and food preferences. Although available research is limited, it is known that the orca found in the North Atlantic, Pacific Northwest, Alaska and New Zealand are suffering adverse effects of contamination.

Orca in the North Atlantic

Orca in the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo © Orca Aware)

A 2007 study on Norwegian orca indicated an average of 25ppm of PCBs in the animals’ fatty tissues. This significantly exceeds the concentrations found in the Norwegian population’s prey, suggesting that orca have a high capacity to metabolise these contaminants – this is certainly detrimental to their health.

The latest research, carried out by Jepson and the team from CSIP, has collected data from cetacean strandings that occurred between 1994 and 2012. This included samples from 24 orca in the UK, Canary Islands and the Strait of Gibraltar. And the results don’t look good.

Orca in European waters were found to have alarmingly high levels of PCB contamination. The average concentration across males and females ranged from 107–243ppm. The data suggests that male orca of the Canary Islands and the Strait of Gibraltar have higher PCB burdens than females, which is consistent with reports of new-born calves in these populations, (suggesting that females have been able to offload some of their PCB burden in their milk).

The same cannot be said for the West Coast Community (WCC) orca found in waters off the UK coast. Much like the AT1 transient orca population found in Alaska (see below), the WCC is a small population that has not been sighted with any new calves for over two decades. There are thought to be as few as eight orca left within this group.

In the CSIP study, the WCC females were recorded with the highest levels of PCBs (243ppm) out of all the orca tested, including their male counterparts. Additional information has since been collected from another WCC female who died and was found ashore in January of this year. This recent analysis should provide more clues about the levels of chemical contamination not only in this population, but also throughout the North Atlantic Ocean.

For the WCC population, however, it is too late. The UK’s only “resident” orca are already on the path to extinction.

Pacific Northwest Orca

Southern resident L pod orca in the Pacific Northwest (Photo © Orca Aware)

There are three distinct orca ecotypes in the Pacific Northwest: The resident fish eaters (made up of two communities), the transient marine mammal eaters and the offshore population, which feeds on fish, probably including sharks. Data collected from the resident and transient ecotypes in 2011 revealed huge differences in their PCB burden. On average, the resident population revealed contamination of 3.2ppm, while the transient pollutant levels were a huge 81.1ppm. This is in line with the bioaccumulation of toxins through the food chain; mammal-eating species are at significantly greater risk from contaminants. 

Although the transients appear to be more contaminated than the resident orca, threats to the salmon populations that form the most substantial part of the resident diet is of growing concern. If these orca can’t eat enough salmon, they will start to metabolise their fat stores in lieu of metabolising food for energy, and this will release the harmful PCBs into their bloodstream.

The third ecotype in this region, the offshores, is less well studied. Although no research into offshore contaminant levels has been carried out to date, it is possible that this population is at lower risk of chemical contamination due to their prey preference and their offshore range, meaning they predate on organisms lower down the food chain and typically inhabit waters further from land.

Orca in Alaskan Waters

Northern resident orca venture yearly into Alaskan waters (Photo © Josh McInnes)

Resident, transient and offshore ecotypes are also found in Alaskan waters, with some areas having some of the highest orca densities that can be found anywhere in the world. Two populations in particular, however, are seemingly in unrecoverable shape.

The AB resident orca are comprised of around only 22 individuals and the AT1 transients (also known as the Chugach transients) consist of a mere seven. These populations seem to be in a similar position to the UK’s WCC – but what has brought these tiny Alaskan groups to the brink of extinction?

Chemical contamination. The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in the Prince William Sound in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez supertanker smashed into a reef. This catastrophic event resulted in the deaths of both resident and transient Alaskan orca.

The AB resident population lost 14 out of 36 individuals and still hasn’t recovered. And of the 22 AT1 individuals, nine were initially lost, followed by a further six. The AT1 transients have not reproduced since the spill, which means it’s not a matter of if this pod will die out, but when.

New Zealand Orca

New Zealand orca (Photo © Sam Lipman / Orca Research Trust)

In New Zealand, pollutants settle in industrial harbours and are ingested by molluscs, which are in turn eaten by bottom-feeding stingrays. Rays are thought to make up as much as 80% of the New Zealand orca population’s diet, which may explain the high levels of PCB contaminants found in blubber samples taken from two deceased individuals.

PCB residue in the New Zealand marine environment isn’t the only chemical threat for these orca. Modern flame retardant chemicals, typically polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are also an increasing concern for the New Zealand orca. PDSEs are similar in chemical structure to PCBs and exhibit the same resistance to degradation. However, they are not regulated or restricted.

How does the future look for orca when there are contaminants in the water?

The outlook for some orca populations is fairly bleak, with 97% of historical PCB use having occurred in the Northern Hemisphere and marine ecosystems being the ultimate sink for chemical deposition.

Trends would suggest that in the US, PCB concentrations are continuing to decline (albeit only slightly), creating a small sliver of hope for the orca of the Pacific Northwest. Possible causes for this include the outlaw of PCB production ten years earlier than in Europe and the comparatively larger US landmass, the latter of which might have resulted in fewer contaminants reaching rivers and ultimately, the ocean.

As well as Europe’s smaller landmass and more recent ban, there are also considerably more industrial sites located in coastal regions across the continent, with shorter distances between landfills and bodies of water. Following an initial decline in contamination since the ban in the late 1980s, PCB levels in Europe now appear to have stopped declining, which is no good thing as the figures at which the contaminants have stabilised are worryingly high.

As is already recognised in New Zealand, PBDEs may also present another major concern facing all orca and marine mammals. Not all PBDEs are outlawed by the Stockholm Convention and as is the case with PCBs, their production and disposal is not properly regulated. Scientists are already putting pressure on governments to introduce a ban.

What hope is there to shift the tide on ocean contamination?

Not all is lost. Research into the effects of contaminants is still considered to be in its nascent stage, and for effective conservation strategies, further studies are needed on the effects of pollutants.

Although production of PCBs has been banned for over 30 years, there are still around 1.1 million tons of contaminated materials to dispose of in Europe alone. It is also thought that contaminants are still leaking out of old, poorly sealed landfill sites into rivers and oceans.

Stephen Marsh, Operations Manager for British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), explained that there are also other ways PCBs are being redistributed as a result of human action, “The current fashion for pile driving to build offshore windfarms, dredging of sand and gravel banks and the ‘reclamation’ of coastal areas, may stir up the sediments that have acted as inert stores of these compounds, releasing them back into marine habitats”. These freshly churned contaminants are then consumed, and the cycle of bio-accumulation begins again.

“This report [by Jepson and team] shows how the use of chemicals that were thought to be of benefit to us can have long-lasting and cumulatively disastrous effects on our wildlife,” Marsh said. “Not only do we need to find a way of damping down these existing pollutants,” he expressed, “But industry also needs to think before it jumps when producing anything that could leach into the natural environment.”

Comprehensive regulations are an integral step in ensuring that these issues progress no further, and to this end, there are plans to feed the latest PCB data to policymakers in the European Union, such as OSPAR and the European Commission.

There is also the need to push for countries outside of Europe to fully implement the Stockholm Convention. This is not only to better protect national waters, but to also limit the circulation effects too. The ‘global distillation’ of POPs to Arctic regions is cause for concern, with research showing1 that PCB concentrations in juvenile Arctic orca are stabilised or increasing; a threat that cannot go ignored and must be deterred.

The continued good work of CSIP and other organisations contributing to the data collection effort, such as BDMLR, will help to provide an improved understanding of this grave situation, with the aim of finding policy-based and other effective solutions.

Icelandic orca sighted off the Scottish coast during the summer months with calf  (Photo © Karen Munro)

What can you do to help?

We have recently seen with captive orca welfare how public pressure can create waves for orca and other marine mammals suffering in captivity, and still being captured for the captive industry. You can raise your voice about this issue too!

Share information about how chemical pollutants are impacting orca and our oceans with others. Social media is one great tool and you can also write polite letters to your local politicians, expressing your concern and asking them to take action.

And there are also small lifestyle changes that you can make to benefit our delicate marine ecosystems, as well as to help conserve the habitats and food sources for our world’s orca populations. Here are some examples:

Reduce the amount of disposable plastics (food wrapping, straws, plastic bottles, etc.) that you use on a daily basis; buy scrubs and toothpastes free from harmful ‘microbeads’ that are ingested by marine life; and take your own bag to the supermarket. There are even many handy hints and ‘recipes’ for home-made shampoos, conditioners, soaps and more, which help to dramatically reduce an individual’s plastic and other contaminant consumption.

Proper recycling and responsible disposal of electrical waste also plays a huge part in conserving marine environments. If in doubt about how to recycle properly, contact your local government or visit its website for guidelines. The more people that start to make a conscious effort, the bigger the impact will be.

“The resurgence of an ‘old enemy’, the PCBs, is certainly sad, and something of a defeat for grey bearded campaigners like me who thought we had ‘won this one’,” Mark Simmonds, Senior Marine Scientist with Humane Society International, reflected in his latest article. But his resolute words linger: “…We must buckle down, refocus and demand that those who can act do so expeditiously.”

As with most issues in conservation, the protection of the orca species is not simply down to one factor. Eliminating PCBs and other contaminants alone would not guarantee the survival of every population. There are other conservation threats at play – and for some populations, it really is too late.

But for those that still have a chance, if we act today, we will see them tomorrow. 

(Reference 1 - Paul Jepson, Robin Law, Richard Moxon, 2016. Seminar: "What's killing the killer whales?" Zoological Society of London.)