Saturday 26 July 2014

A Superpod at Superpod!

by Kyra Laughlin (guest blogger)

Kyra is a 19 year-old animal activist from Seattle who first entered the activist realm after watching the documentary Blackfish. She has worked on several animal rights projects at her college and within her community. In this blog, Kyra writes about her experience seeing a Southern resident orca superpod at the Superpod 3 event. 

To spectators it looked like an immense family reunion; everyone smiling or laughing and exchanging hugs. However, it wasn't blood that linked together the large group of Superpod attendees, but rather an admiration of the animal that inspired the event's name: orcas.

The week of July 14-20 marked the third Superpod gathering on San Juan Island, a compilation of daily activities aimed at bringing together researchers, activists, and orca lovers.

Members of the Southern resident orca population (Photo © Kyra Laughlin)

Superpod 3 kicked off on what is now designated as World Orca Day (July 14th) with a massive meet and greet at Friday's Crabhouse. For many, this was the first time meeting one another in person after months, if not years, of communicating through email and Facebook, but it didn't take long for these virtual friendships to translate in real life.

All four former SeaWorld trainers and founders of Voice of the Orcas, Carol Ray, Jeff Ventre, Samantha Berg, and John Jett, were present, as well as the Director of the Center for Whale Research, Ken Balcomb, and Orca Network co-founder, Howard Garrett. 

These six remarkable individuals were cast members in the highly-acclaimed documentary Blackfish which explores the various issues of keeping orcas, who are profoundly intelligent and social beings, in captivity. Blackfish was filmed at both Superpod 1 and 2, after Jeff Ventre suggested the "Truth Squad" gather to see orcas in the wild. These meetings also served as a great spot for author David Kirby to gather material for his book Death at SeaWorld. The book provides a more in depth look at the history of orca captivity, following those who advocate on the animals' behalf, with a particular focus on the life work of renowned marine mammal scientist, Naomi Rose.

While everyone continued to mingle at the restaurant, a group of us departed early for a whale watch trip that would soon go down in the history books.

Southern resident orca L86, 'Surprise' (Photo © Kyra Laughlin)

I had only seen my first Southern resident killer whale two days prior from shore at San Juan County Park and although the previous day's whale watch excursion had been impressive, nothing could compare to this memorable encounter we were about to embark on.

Within 20 minutes of leaving Snug Harbor, we found our boat in the middle of a never-ending orca parade that included all three Southern resident pods: J,K, and L. They were gathered together in what is known as a 'superpod' (hence the name of the event). Just as one group disappeared beneath the horizon another would soon arrive. We saw them breach, spy hop, tail slap, and one, known as ‘Surprise’ and identified as L86, even porpoised four times, which provided a clear scale of how humongous these creatures truly are. The sheer size of this orca as she leapt into the air was striking, not to mention the loud splash that resonated each time she retreated back into the ocean, as a huge wall of water rose from the surface to encompass her black and white body.

There were moments when it looked as though one of the pods was headed straight toward us. We held our breath waiting for them to appear next to the vessel, but they always managed to surface several yards out from either side of the boat.

When the action began to die down, we slowly made our way deeper into Haro Strait. Boats began to show up from every direction as news spread that a superpod was gathering - the "podparazzi" had arrived.

In 2005, the Southern resident killer whale population were listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. Noise pollutants and boat crowding are two conservation risks for the Southern resident killer whales. Exclusion zones (areas into which entry is forbidden by watercraft) have been put in place to protect the orcas and minimize disturbance to their natural behaviors. These guidelines for careful boat handling around Southern resident orcas can be found clearly detailed by the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

A video screenshot of the Southern resident orca (Photo © Kyra Laughlin)

The captain shut off the engine knowing the orcas were close. For a brief moment we were able to take in the view. The sun hung low in the sky but continued to cast a shimmering gleam on the calm sea below. It was peaceful; gently rocking back and forth with the ocean, but within minutes we were back in orca mode.

We again found ourselves in the same area as a group of 5-7 orcas. I scrambled to set up my camera as it soon became evident that this time they were going to swim right by us. I began shooting a video. It didn't take long for a dorsal to emerge, followed by a misty trail of breath.

Here I was, seeing Southern residents for only my third time and I had beads of whale breath on my face. The emotions that rush over you in a moment like that cannot be put into words and I'm not even sure if that experience will ever fully sink in; it left me in pure disbelief.

We stayed on the water for a while longer and continued to watch in awe as the pods gathered together, just as their human observers had done a few short hours ago.

On the ride back to Snug Harbor, I was still trying to process all that we had seen. The number of whales we saw on that trip, (well over 30), had been what I had expected to see over the course of the week - not in a single three hour excursion.

It was a superpod at Superpod!

Left to Right: Jeff Ventre, Heather Murphy, Jordan Waltz, Kyra Laughlin
& Ken Balcomb at Superpod 3 (Photo © Heather Murphy)

1 comment:

  1. read blogs on Mondays. So it should encourage blogger to write new write ups over the weekend primarily
    Although this chat is relatively old, it was interesting to read ...