Hope for Endangered Orcas

The Hurtigruten Foundation has joined forces with charities, governments and Indigenous people to give a beautiful creature a helping hand.

In 2018, a mother orca named Tahlequah gave birth to a calf. Sadly, complications meant it died 30 minutes later. But it was what happened next that surprised everyone.

Tahlequah made world news when she proceeded to carry her dead calf for 17 days, as if grieving, while her pod travelled with them close to 1,600 kilometres around the Salish Sea, off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State. Conservationists, scientists and local communities shared the grief, especially as the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population, which Tahlequah belongs to, is down to just 73 individuals.

Given such low numbers, each birth and death represents an important event. This is why it was such a big deal when Tahlequah gave birth to a healthy young calf – dubbed Phoenix – only two years later.

Helping to boost their numbers

In 2019, the Hurtigruten Foundation allocated a grant to Oceans Initiative, which has been undertaking a mixture of research and field work in order to boost the numbers of Southern Resident orcas.

The programme is based in Seattle and aims to increase food sources and reduce noise in areas populated by the orcas. Oceans Initiative collected data measuring the impact of noise on the orcas’ foraging activities, tracking Southern Resident activity during the summer months from San Juan Island in the Salish Sea.

Their work has helped guide recommendations to reduce vessel speeds and increase the approach distances from the Southern Resident killer whales, resulting in new whale-watching rules and boat licensing. The programme aims to increase the population of Southern Resident killer whales by 2.3 per cent each year for the next 28 years.

“What happened is, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the orcas were being captured and sent to aquariums around the world,” says Karen Sinclair, Development Director at Oceans Initiative, who has worked closely with the programme.

“Now, there are three main challenges for them: not enough fish, too much noise – and noise makes it harder for the killer whales to find the fish – and chemical pollution in the ocean that ends up in their blubber.”

“At the moment we’ve got the governments of Canada and the United States, local state governments, county governments, other non-profits and indigenous people who are all coming together to save this population."

An orca in the surface of the water
Two orcas in the water surface

Members of the dolphin family

Thanks to their size – they grow as large as eight metres and over six tonnes in weight – orcas seem to fit the common idea of a whale, yet they actually belong to the dolphin family.

It’s this size, along with their distinctive black-and-white markings and exuberant out-of-water behaviour that’s endeared them to people around the world. And it’s this fondness that makes the collective effort to protect them unsurprising.

“Orcas just hold this fascination with people,” says Karen. “It’s great that all of these different bodies are coming together and showing this passion for them. There are indigenous people that think of the orcas as their people, as relations.

“They’re highly intelligent, charismatic, stunning creatures that can live as long as 100 years. What a lot of people don’t know is that they’ve got their own culture. Each population of orca has their own language, their own song, their own complex social arrangement.

“Norway has its polar bears and reindeer, Australia has its kangaroos and koalas, and here [in Canada] we have the orcas.”

The Hurtigruten Foundation – making a big difference

The grant given to Oceans Initiative helped support this crucial conservation program, which has run continuously ever since. It’s one of 41 different projects across eleven countries that the Foundation has supported since 2016.

In this time, grants worth around almost half a million US Dollars have been allocated to projects supporting the foundation’s key focuses: preserving endangered wildlife, battling plastic waste and marine litter and supporting local and global projects in the areas Hurtigruten Expeditions operates.

“We are in a fortunate position to take our guests to some of the most incredible locations in the world,” says Hurtigruten Foundation Managing Director Henrik Lund.

“And even though we are going to some of the most remote places on Earth, we, and our guests, can see the drastic changes that are happening in front of our very eyes. We can see the litter on the remote beaches in Svalbard, Greenland and the Northwest Passage, we see how our world is being impacted by climate change and how we treat our planet.

“The Foundation is about the explorers of tomorrow. How can our guests’ children and grandchildren have the same sort of experiences as they are having?”

Since the programme started, Southern Resident numbers have stayed steady, but three orcas are currently pregnant, which bodes well for the future.

“We are incredibly impressed with the work Oceans Initiative has done,” says Lund. “It is a key element of preserving our marine habitat. For us, it’s so important to support them in this endeavour.”

“There’s this old saying in the tourism industry – leave only footprints, take only memories. The reality is that this is no longer good enough. We actually have to leave the places in a better place than when we arrived.”

Where can I learn more? 

The Hurtigruten Foundation believes in collaborating for change and after six years of funding important projects, we are happy to see results and visible difference being made by the organisations that we are supporting. Do you wish to apply for funding? You can read more about the foundation here

About Oceans Initiative

Oceans Initiative is a team of scientists on a mission to protect marine life in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and to share their cutting edge science to guide conservation action. Read more about the organization here.