Writing about the orcas? Dive deeper

We can and must center the story of the Southern Residents on them

Last week, as the deadline for The Beachcomber loomed, I wrote an article about critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, covering J Pod’s more than 24-hour stay in the waters of Vashon, including a 19-hour foray into Quartermaster Harbor on Nov. 5 and 6.

Orca Annie Stateler, Indigenous marine naturalist, researcher and founder of the Vashon Hydrophone Project, was my primary and most important source as I reported the story.

“All encounters are memorable, but this one challenged the boundaries of our knowledge about our critically endangered Southern Residents,” Stateler told me.

Throughout our conversations about the orcas on Nov. 5 and 6, Stateler — a person with deep reserves of knowledge and wisdom about the Southern Residents, and close relationships with other highly respected researchers and experts who study them — never reached for easy answers.

“In the research community, we are perplexed and wonder what this odd behavior indicates – the ‘pacing’ back and forth in a small area and staying overnight in Quartermaster, no documented foraging for more than 24 hours, and departing Puget Sound at a potentially record rate of speed,” she told me, noting the tremendous energy that had been expended by the cetaceans.

It seemed a huge story to me, something unprecedented, important, and newsworthy that I was writing about.

For me — the child of a father who was a Dust Bowl orphan and a mother who grew up on her family’s farm in hardscrabble East Texas — the story was troubling. Optimism is not baked into my DNA.

I could hardly sleep on the night of Nov. 5, I was so worried about what the orcas were doing. I knew from talking to experts that whatever it was, it hadn’t included eating. I wanted them to leave, with their pod intact, something I feared wouldn’t happen. I wanted the news story I was writing not to be tragic.

But my concern was rarely reflected on social media, which had become flooded with photos of J-Pod in Quartermaster Harbor and countless posts joyfully proclaiming the visit to be “awesome” in various ways — a bit as if the orcas were some kind of theatrical act that had beneficently decided to put on their greatest show ever on Vashon.

And even as I wrote my article the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 7, as our newspaper was going to press, it struck me that The Beachcomber might be the only media outlet to actually cover, in detail, what J Pod had done on Vashon over the weekend.

Sadly, it turned out, this was the case.

It’s true that there was coverage of the event both on KIRO 7, KING 5, and in the Tacoma News Tribune, but these stories didn’t really count, because they weren’t about the orcas.

The KIRO 7 story, headlined “Couldn’t believe our luck: Stunning photos capture orcas near Vashon Island,” was completely centered on the story of one person who had driven two hours from her home to see the orcas, and taken some great photographs of them breaching and spy-hopping out of the water.

The News Tribune story centered on the same off-island photographer KIRO 7 had covered and was more of the same: “See heart-stopping moment sea creatures surprise crowd in Washington. ‘Perfect timing.’”

KING 5 reporters went a step further, interviewing the photographer as she talked about her great trip to Vashon.

“The stars aligned, the planets aligned, everything in the universe just worked out perfectly that day,” she said, speaking about herself, not the orcas.

How was it possible, I asked myself, that three major news outlets in our region had made this story all about one person’s photo safari, and not about the unprecedented behavior of the critically endangered orcas?

Four days after J-Pod’s visit to Vashon, the Seattle Times ran a better, front-page story about orcas, but it was largely about the resurgence of visits to the Salish Sea by Transient killer whales, a different species of whales who eat marine animals.

While the article did contrast the relative health and numbers of the Transients’ numbers with endangered Southern Residents, it did not mention J Pod’s strange visit to Vashon, which had taken place only days before.

As a humble reporter for a local newspaper in a small town, I call on journalists — as well as all people who purport to revere orcas — to do better. We can and must center the story of the Southern Residents on them, and not on the humans who flock to see them — some driving great distances to do so.

There is much we do not know about these magnificent, highly intelligent whales who work in tight harmony within their ancient, matrilineal culture.

But if I had to speculate about what the orcas were doing in Vashon waters last week, my first guess would be that they did not come here to entertain us.