Guest blog: A 12-year-old’s inspiration to save orcas

GSA holiday card

This guest blog was written by Esmé Morris, a 12-year old from Kamloops, in the context of the June 2021 Plogging for Orcas Challenge and peer-to-peer fundraising campaign. Esmé is also the artist behind our holiday card design this year, with her drawing “Daytime/Nighttime”. We’re grateful for the passion she’s brought to her family, classroom and community. 

Support GSA by buying Esmé’s cards from the Goodszilla! 

Buy now

Please consider supporting Mark Leiren-Young, the author of the book that turned Esmé into an orca activist. Visit: https://orcaseverywhere.com/

To view the original posts from Esmé‘s campaign from June 2021, visit her Charity Village page (the campaign is now over). 

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How I started to fall in love with orcas:

I’ve recently learned a lot about orcas in a book called Orcas Everywhere, by Mark Leiren-Young.  It has made me fall in love with orcas, and I want to help them anyway I can.  I cannot believe the terrible things that humans have done to orcas out of fear, greed and lack of care.  I want others to see how amazing, smart and fascinating these animals are and I really suggest that everybody reads Orcas Everywhere .

There are only 50,000 orcas left in the world, and only 75 (update: 73 as of November 2021) Southern Resident orca whales off of the west coast of BC.

If the orcas are in trouble, we’re in trouble.  The orcas are an “indicator species” for us – if their habitat is too toxic to live in, and if they are running out of food – this means the environment (which also sustains our lives) is becoming an impossible place for all life.  They are an indicator species because if they aren’t doing well, then that means we’re not doing well, even if we can’t tell just how much yet.

I’m 12 years old.  I’ve only been in this world for a little over a decade.  I want to spend my life being with my friends and family and doing the things I love, which includes helping the world become a better place.  I want it so that future kids my age don’t have to worry about the destruction of the natural world which sustains us.  In the future, I hope humans will have rules and structures in place that will keep all beings (humans and animals alike) within a safe and sustainable life.  In fact, I’m not just hoping, I’m counting on it.  The problem of humans destroying the planet (without really knowing it) will take a long time to solve.  I hope that I can add to the solution.

Animals have feelings and they care about their families.  Orcas are playful which shows how important it is to them to be social (young calves see how high they can jump and they play tag with one another for fun).  They depend on one another, they take care of one another and they also feel loss and grief when one of them dies.

A very sad story that was heard all over the world was about an orca mother and her calf.  Tahlequah, a twenty year old, had a calf that died half an hour after birth.  She held her baby up for 17 days after its death.  Tahlequah supported her baby’s dead body on her forehead because the “baby was so newborn it didn’t have blubber. It kept sinking… [so she] would raise it to the surface,” (Taylor, et al. 2018).  Scientists said that Tahlequah didn’t lose any weight during this time, so either the other pod members fed her while she kept her baby up to the surface or they took turns holding up the baby.  Neither Tahlequah, nor her family, gave up on her baby (Leiren-Young, p.106 – 107).

We can learn from orcas that family, connection and taking care of one another is what is going to help this earth.  Orcas live to play and be with their families.  They eat, rest and communicate to ensure that everyone in their pod is well.  Humans need to do this too.  With clean air to breathe, water to drink and soil to grow our food, there is nothing else that we need to strive for.

 

What I’ve learned:

Pollution, and how much the world has changed

Some interesting things I’ve learned from the book Orcas Everywhere :

Mr. Leiren-Young writes about the history of orcas and describes how misunderstood they were.  He also shows how, over time, we’ve learned a lot about orcas that has helped us to see how very intelligent and special they are.

I loved learning about two of the Southern Resident orcas: Ocean Sun and Granny.

Granny (J2) lived to between 80 and 105 years old and she is the oldest orca on record.  Orcas mature at the same rate as humans do, and since we can live to over 100, orcas can too.  I wonder how much older she might have gotten if the ocean had not gotten so warm, if it had been less polluted and if she had had more food.  Sadly, some orcas in the Salish Sea are exposed to so much pollution that some dead ones are treated like they’re radioactive.  The people who deal with their bodies have to wear special protective suits to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals (Leiren-Young, p.27).

Ocean Sun (L25) was born in 1928, which would mean that she’s 93 years old.  To think about how different things are now from that time, Leiren-Young says we should imagine what Ocean Sun’s world was like when she was born:

“Humans didn’t have computers or TVs.  Telephones were still so new that we’d just made the first call to someone across an ocean.  Movies came in the same colors as orcas (black and white).  Electricity was a luxury.  So we didn’t know much about technology or whales.  

When Ocean Sun was born, humans weren’t dumping as many poisons into the  water or polluting the air by driving cars (since most people couldn’t afford this expensive new invention).  And pretty much nothing was made of  plastic.  

Not only were there almost no airplanes, but not many people used boats or  trains either.  

And there weren’t that many of us yet.  In 1928 there were only two billion  humans on the globe.  So orcas didn’t encounter much pollution or many people.  Today there are almost eight billion of us.  People and pollution are everywhere.” (Leiren-Young, p.24)

There are soooo many interesting things in Mr. Leiren-Young’s book that I cannot include, so please, buy his book, or get it from your library, if you’d like to learn more about orcas.

Get your copy of Orcas Everywhere, by Mark Leiren-Young

The Southern Resident orcas are starving

Orcas’ favourite food is Chinook Salmon and these fish are endangered.  Only one out of the 16 different populations in Canada are “stable” (Cecco 2018).  This has been caused by overfishing, overuse of water resources, habitat loss and dams.

Dams have been built for many different reasons, but are known most for their ability to produce hydroelectric power. Though they are helpful, they are destroying salmon migration.  We think that we’ve made a smart (and clean) resource for energy, designed with a safe passage for salmon to swim through, but most don’t survive their migration because of a number of factors (“Fish Passage at Dams” 2021).

My sister (Georgia Morris) is a part of my campaign team and has made a study about the loss of salmon in the Columbia River.  After watching the film, “Dammed to Extinction,” she became very inspired to learn more about how dams on the Columbia are affecting the orcas.  She wrote a little bit about this in her personal message (so please read that too), but here is some further information from her study:

A lot of people have said that the dams are “fish-friendly” because they are built with “fish stairs” or “fish ladders” so the salmon can make the leaps they usually would if they were travelling naturally upstream to spawn.  However, the upstream travel isn’t the problem for the salmon, but rather, the downstream journey is. Instead of the salmon fry getting from the spawning creeks of the Snake River (a major tributary to the Columbia) to the ocean in just one week, it takes them a month to 6 weeks to get there, which is a problem for a whole bunch of reasons. 

The salmon will travel in rapid water for a time but then will arrive in “dammed” waters which are like a big lake. They have to swim for long distances at this point, which is really hard on the fish (they’re not big and strong yet). Also, the water that moves quickly is the right temperature for them (nice and cold) but the water in the “lakes” that are formed by the dams is warm – too warm for them. 

The energy they have to use to swim long distances at such a young age, in water that is the wrong temperature for them, means many die. The ones that arrive at the dams first have to try to figure out how to cross through (which takes time and leaves them more vulnerable to predators). When they’re small, they flow through quite easily, but as they grow bigger (dam after dam), many of them get big enough that they become battered and bruised in the turbines, causing them to die. Another issue is the number of predators (as already mentioned) that take advantage of the tired fish when they are in the lakes formed by the dams. The last problem is that by the time the remaining salmon do get to the ocean, they’ve reached maturity too soon and have missed their optimal time to be in the estuary (the place where freshwater and ocean water start to mix) where they learn how to survive in the ocean (Peterson 2019).

With as many obstacles to Chinook salmon surviving all of the dams, it’s no wonder that the populations have become “threatened,” “endangered” and nearly extinct.  It’s also not surprising that the orcas who love the Chinook are going hungry.

 

Works Cited 

  • Leiren-Young, Mark. Orcas Everywhere. Orca Book Publishers, China, 2019.
  • Peterson, Michael. and Steven Hawley, “Dammed to Extinction.” July 2, 2019

 

What I’m doing to help:

Thompson River Girls love orcas – and we’re plogging for them 

I live in the unceded territory of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc people in the interior of British Columbia which is not anywhere near the ocean.  At first I didn’t think I’d be able to get involved with “Plogging for Orcas” because I would not be able to pick up garbage along the coast line.  But then I realized, all waterways lead to the ocean, so I knew I could plog anywhere.

My team and I are going to investigate for plastic/garbage along a waterway that runs through a part of our neighbourhoods, called Guerin Creek, and we’ll be collecting everything we find.  This small waterway leads to the Thompson River which flows to the Fraser River and after that, the ocean.

By participating in the “Plogging for Orcas” effort, our goal is to prevent 75 x 6 (the number of people on my team – including me) pieces of plastic from having the chance to continue to break down and head to the ocean. That’s 450 pieces of plastic that, if they were broken down even more, could be thousands of microplastics which will be prevented from the continued harm of the Southern Resident orcas.

Other efforts my family and I are doing at home

At home, my sister has been collecting small pieces of plastic (like wrappers, Cadbury Egg hard plastic holders, etc.) in a box instead of throwing them in the garbage.  We wash these wrappers and put them with her “small plastics” collection.  We want to keep them, rather than throwing them away because we figure that some way or other, these plastics will get in the ocean.  She is especially concerned with how small plastic pieces end up in the bellies of albatrosses and other sea birds and sea creatures.

The items she is collecting are only a small fraction of the plastic that would be going into the ocean, but holding back some is better than holding back none.  Sometimes she says, she would “rather hoard plastic here in our house than know that it is going out there to pollute animal’s homes.”  I think she is absolutely right!

We also wash everything from cereal bags to bread bags and everything else we can and we separate them into hard plastics and soft plastics.  Then we take them to the plastic recycling center, hoping that they’ll really be recycled, and not somehow end up in the ocean.  We use reusable grocery bags when possible, but when we have to use plastic grocery bags, we keep them and use them again for groceries – or for other purposes, again and again.

We save containers, like yoghurt and sour cream pots and give them to “Pitstop,” an organization that makes meals for homeless people.  They use the washed containers to hold the food (an excellent way for these plastics to be reused).  We collect bread tags, elastics, and twist ties, that could be used again, or for art projects.   We do all of these things to reduce the amount of plastic being burned, buried underground, and/or thrown into waterways that lead to the ocean or directly into the ocean itself.

How you can help:

If you’re like a lot of people – you are probably already doing things to help (without even thinking about it!).  Because of the many recycling programs running in the province of BC, most of us are already recycling as much plastic as we can, rather than throwing it in the garbage.  Thank you so much for doing your part, in whatever way you do!  Every little effort helps, so here are some more things that you can do:

  • Donate! 
    • By donating, you are helping the Georgia Strait Alliance keep track of the health of these whales and to educate more people about their importance to the coast of BC.
    • Even 1 dollar helps us get one step closer to saving the orcas.
  • Take the pledge yourself – pick up garbage anywhere, because eventually, all plastic ends up in the ocean.
  • Try to re-wear your clothing as much as possible.
    • Did you know that many items of clothing are made with some plastic, and that every time we wash our clothes, microplastics get washed down the drain (which end up… in the ocean).  Washing clothes less will help us use less water, make our clothing last longer and slow down how much plastic is being washed away.
  • Take another few moments to make another important pledge which will help all wild salmon (including the Chinook which are the food source that will keep orcas alive).  Salmon pens (open ocean water fish farms) can cause many viruses and parasites to affect wild salmon.  If we can stop the pens, we can help salmon stock be healthy.  This will add to the number of salmon that will be available for orcas to eat.  Take the pledge.
  • Use as many gentle cleaners as you can.
  • Do as much of the three R’s as possible: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

And for an even better list than mine…

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Get your copy of Orcas Everywhere

Buy Esmé‘s cards

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