Erich Hoyt, who has been enjoying adventures with killer whales
and other sea creatures since the early 1970s, will share his
understanding of the underwater world during a series of
presentations from British Columbia to Northern California.
The tour begins today on Saturna Island in British Columbia. For
the full schedule, visit The
Whale Trail website.
Erich has a rare talent. He is both an engaging writer as well
as an experienced scientific researcher. His first book, “Orca: A
Whale Called Killer,” is essential reading for orca supporters. His
understanding of the oceans has led him into the field of
conservation, seeking greater protections for marine habitats
throughout the world.
As Erich prepared for his upcoming tour, sponsored by The Whale Trail, I had the
privilege to visit with him for more than an hour via Skype from
his home in Bridport, England.
We discussed how people’s attitudes in the U.S. and Canada have
changed since 1973. That was when Erich’s curiosity was sparked by
encounters with Northern Resident orca pods in British Columbia,
where he had moved from the U.S. with his family.
Those were the days when little was known about killer whales.
Orcas were still being captured in the Northwest and sent to
aquariums throughout the world. Since then, we have learned how
those first captures had a serious effect on the close-knit orca
communities. Continuing threats today include pollution and a lack
of chinook salmon, the primary prey of orcas.
In 1999, Erich helped start a research program in Russian to
bring the same kind of scientific scrutiny and conservation
concerns to killer whales on the opposite side of the ocean. That
program, involving Russian scientists, revealed the presence of two
types of orcas, those that eat marine mammals and those that eat
fish — similar to what we call “transients” and “residents” in the
Orca communities identified so far in Russia range in size from
50 to 600 animals. As we’ve seen in the Northwest, cultures — such
as vocal dialects and feeding habits — are handed down from mother
An awareness of orcas, as seen in the U.S. and Canada, has not
reached Russia or many places in the world, Hoyt says. Russia still
allows killer whales to be captured, and last year seven orcas were
taken from the Sea of Okhotsk. Earlier captures in Russia were
especially disheartening to the researchers who had come to know
the individual animals taken from their families.
During his presentation, Erich will show a brief video of some
of the Russian capture efforts.
In countries such as Russia, China and Japan, new marine
aquariums are being built all the time, with orcas and beluga
whales as the star attractions. That’s in stark contrast to the
situation in the U.S., where a growing awareness of wild orcas
along with the film “Blackfish” has helped change people’s
attitudes about keeping large marine mammals in captivity.
Erich told me that he would like to see more people around the
world come to know individual orcas by name, as we do here in the
“Look at how far things have come, from when we didn’t know
anything about them to when we start to see them as our friends,”
About a week ago, I reported that NOAA Fisheries had undertaken
a yearlong review to determine if the “critical habitat” for
Southern Resident killer whales should be extended down the
Washington and Oregon coasts. See
Kitsap Sun, April 24 (subscription). A special consideration
for protecting the whales from undue noise was part of the petition
from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Hoyt agreed that sound should be given special consideration by
the federal government.
“Rob Williams (a Canadian researcher) talks about acoustic
refuges,” Erich noted. “It is a challenging issue, because whales
and dolphins can hear so well… We will need much larger marine
protected areas if we really want to protect them…”
A general increase in noise levels in the ocean can lead to
habituation by marine mammals, he noted. As they grow accustomed to
louder sounds, the animals may adjust — but how will that affect
their ability to communicate and find prey? What are the prospects
for their long-term survival under more noisy conditions?
And then there is the special issue of mid-frequency sonar,
which can cause temporary or even permanent hearing loss for some
species. Navies that use sonar must be extra careful to avoid
impacts, he said.
Erich and I also talked about L-112, the young female orca that
washed up dead near Long Beach about the time the Royal Canadian
Navy was conducting exercises far to the north. Investigators were
unable to determine what caused the “blunt-force” injury to the
animal. But they ruled out explosives being used by the Navy,
because the currents were in the wrong direction and the distance
was too great.
“This brings to mind the crash of the Malaysian jetliner,” Erich
said. “You know something unusual happened, but it defies almost
any explanation you bring up. Scientists tend to come up with
explanations that are the simplest … but they should be careful not
to rule anything out.”
Killer whale researcher Ken Balcomb has suggested that L-112’s
mother may have carried her dead daughter to the area where she was
found. Hoyt said he has personally observed a female white-sided
dolphin carrying her dead offspring for more than two hours in
“It was really touching. We didn’t know at first if the baby was
dead. We were not very close. But eventually the mother just let go
of the baby.”
Erich expects mixed audiences at his upcoming appearances — from
people who know more about certain issues than he does to people
who are dragged to the event by a friend.
One message will be that people can watch whales from shore
without causing them any disturbance. That’s the mission of The
Whale Trail, the organization sponsoring Erich’s trip to locations
where killer whales may be seen from shore.
I told Erich about my first adventures with killer whales during
the fall of 1997, when 19 orcas visited Dyes Inlet. See “The Dyes
Inlet Whales 10 Years Later.” One of my messages at that time
was to encourage people to watch from vantage points in Tracyton,
Chico and Silverdale.
“Land-based whale watching is really close to my heart,” Erich
told me. “It’s the kind of thing that’s important for the community
… and a fantastic way to get to know wildlife.”
Hoyt’s appearances in Washington state include this Wednesday in
Port Townsend, Thursday in Port Angeles and May 18 in Seattle.
Whale Trail website for the full schedule.
Also, check out Erich Hoyt’s webpage
for information about his ongoing activities.
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