Ron Bates, known as the Whale Guru by his loved ones, has spent most of his life with killer whales in the wild. Ron currently resides in Victoria, British Columbia and, although he calls this city his home, he has been a world traveler since he was a young child. Ron sailed to Hong Kong from the United States in his youth and has spent numerous other years of his life on the water across the world.
Throughout his 79 years, he has amassed a wealth of knowledge about the Salish Sea and its inhabitants—he has witnessed the ecology of the productive waters of the Salish Sea change over his lifetime and has seen how that affects the large marine mammals that live in it. He was part of the Marine Mammal Research Group (MMRG) in Victoria, coordinated cetacean sightings for the Pacific Whale Watching Association (PWWA), and collected cetacean data for various organizations, such as The Whale Museum. At one point, Ron was one of the only individuals conducting necropsies on marine mammals on the island.
Georgia Strait Alliance had the opportunity to ask Ron a few questions about his experience in the Salish Sea and his knowledge of the killer whales.
GSA: How did you first start working with killer whales?
Ron: I first got involved with killer whales when I met Robin Baird about 30 years ago. Robin was a graduate student and was working on his master’s thesis at that time. He had put up a sign on Dallas Road that read: ‘If you’ve seen whales, please call this number …’. One day when I was walking down on Dallas Road, I looked out at the water, saw big black dorsal fins and I knew they were killer whales. I phoned the number on Robin’s sign to tell him about the whales. That evening, someone arrived at my door with a pile of information, and I thought that was going to be it. He wanted more information from me and I said if I had anything more, I would let him know.
A couple of days later, I saw more whales off the waterfront in Victoria and I phoned him up again. He asked me to keep track of them. I did just that and told him where they had gone. A week later I was walking up Dallas Road again—when lo and behold—I saw more killer whales. I recorded about 50 sightings of whales off Dallas Road that summer. That was before I had anybody else; I just had whales.
These sightings led to more meetings with Robin. A few weeks later, when I phoned Robin about more whales right off Victoria, he said he would be with me in 10 minutes. He hopped in his car, picked me up off Dallas Road and we looked for whales. He asked me if I was busy that day and as soon as I said I wasn’t, he offered for to me to join him on his boat for a trip on the water. I thought that sounded like a really good idea. We went to Race Rocks Ecological Reserve and we encountered killer whales. They were transients as I found out later; I didn’t know the difference between various eco-types at the time. They were enjoying themselves and trying to hunt a couple of sea lions though they were not successful.
A few weeks later, Robin phoned me and told me that he had a report of whales and he wanted me to go with him. We ended up making trips out on the water that summer anytime either of us spotted whales. We went as far as Trial Islands out east and Race Rocks out west in his 15’ Zodiac®. Robin and I became very good friends, and we started spending more and more time working with the whales.
GSA: You have performed several necropsies in your life. When did you start doing them?
Ron: One day Robin phoned me up and asked me if I had any old clothes I wouldn’t mind getting dirty. “Have you ever done a necropsy or anything?”, Robin asked me. Next thing I know I was in his backyard with a dead porpoise. Over time, I became rather good at performing necropsies. My highlight was when I had an assembly line of about 15 different animals lined up on different tables. I was going from one table to the next doing necropsies on the animals in Robin’s backyard. It was quite a day. They were young female porpoises and a common dolphin. I became very prominent in the MMRG. When Robin Baird got his doctorate, he went back to California and told me that I was in-charge. I started doing more and more necropsies and filled out many sheets of data collected from them.
GSA: How did you first get involved with the ecotourism industry?
Ron: I started teaching the naturalist course through the MMRG at the University of Victoria. I taught the course for a long time and the biggest class I ever had was 150 students. I was running the course regularly and I had a guest speaker every week. I would teach classes about different species of whales and other wildlife in the area, and that is how I first got involved with the ecotourism industry.
GSA: Who did you encounter most often in the beginning?
Ron: Most of the encounters during my early days were with the Southern Resident Killer whales (SRKW), a couple with the offshore killer whales, and transients, of course. I worked with Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research) and others at that time.
GSA: Not many people have heard about the third eco-type of killer whales found around British Columbia. Tell me about your offshore killer whale encounters.
Ron: I have had about three run-ins with the offshore killer whales in the Salish Sea. My first encounter was in 1992. There was a group of about 75 whales off Victoria waterfront and we didn’t know who they were. People were trying to identify them using photo-identification techniques. When no one could identify any individuals at all, we figured out that we had about 75 offshores right off Victoria.
GSA: How did you figure out who they were?
Ron: We didn’t have a clue about who they were; they didn’t abide by any rulebooks. They didn’t look the same, they didn’t behave the same, and they surely didn’t sound the same. They went as far as Discovery Island that time, turned around and went back out. The next time they came in, they came in right off Victoria and they were quite vocal. Their calls were not anything like our residents. In fact, they sounded like a huge flock of cats! The next batch came in while I was on a Five Star Whale Watching boat. We figured they were going to go to Saanich Inlet because of the way they were behaving. I hopped onto another vessel called Wildcat from Five Star’s boat. We went to Saanich Inlet and the whales were just off the Malahat. I spent over an hour trying to find what was in the inlet to justify their presence there, and the only thing in abundance that day were jellyfish. They were swimming with lots of jellyfish though they did not eat them. Offshore killer whales feed on sharks.
GSA: You said you mostly encountered the Southern Resident Killer whales in the beginning. What can you tell me about them?
Ron: There are a lot less of them now than there were before. We had about 110 whales at one point. The number is now down to 75 and, unfortunately, it is continuing to go down instead of going up. Whether it will go up or not, I don’t know—but I don’t think so. About 20 years ago I read a document from the University of Arizona that stated that in 20 years the Southern Residents will start to die—and that time is right now.
GSA: What are some of your favourite memories with the SRKWs?
Ron: I didn’t ever have a favourite whale but there was one who had a wheeze when she breathed. Her name was Spieden (J-8). She was a different whale, she had a distinct sounding breath that stood out from the rest. There were lots of other whales I was fond of, such as Granny (J-2). I had known Granny for three-quarters of my life.
GSA: What are some of the threats that the SRKWs have been facing?
Ron: I have known about the lack of salmon for a long time and it is very upsetting. The frustration is that neither the American nor the Canadian sides would do anything about it. We have had sick whales for a long time, but unfortunately no one seemed to understand the fact that they weren’t doing well.
GSA: If you were to give a message to the public for Orca Awareness Month, what would it be?
Ron: You see, what we have is an animal and the only way it will survive is by eating the only thing that will keep it alive. They are too picky to change. They don’t eat anything but Chinook salmon. Decades ago we had exceptionally hot temperatures off our coast; we had even been spotting white sharks in our warmer waters. I was reading about the mackerel that were coming up here and thought our whales are going to find something good to eat other than the salmon. Unfortunately, when the mackerel got here the whales knew they weren’t salmon and they didn’t eat them at all.
We would like to thank Ron for providing us a glimpse into his life and experiences with the majestic ‘wolves of the sea’. Ron has been a role model for generations of marine naturalists who educate the public about the wonders of the Salish Sea.
~Interview by GSA volunteer Jasspreet Sahib