Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Q&A with Erich Hoyt

Erich Hoyt is the author of Orca: The Whale Called Killer, now in its fifth edition. His many other books include Creatures of the Deep and Weird Sea Creatures. He is the cofounder and director of The Far East Russia Orca Project, and is a research fellow for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, based in the U.K.

Q: What's new in this fifth edition of your book Orca: The Whale Called Killer?

A: I’ve expanded the book with 20,000 words of text and 90 all-new photos, illustrations, and maps. I wanted to bring the story up to date for a new generation just discovering these beautiful and intelligent top predators with their devoted family life and their extended clans with unique dialects.

At the same time, readers who loved the earlier editions of the book can now revisit the waters of British Columbia to see what happened to the wild orcas Nicola, Stubbs, Wavy, and Top Notch, and with the fight to save Robson Bight and to change public opinion about orcas, once hated and feared and often shot at.

When I went back after 30+ years away, some of my orca friends had died, while others, and their many descendants, were still alive, including Tsitika, the daughter of Nicola, whom I’d first met in 1973. Tsitika has since died, but the northern orca community, the descendants of the orcas I had spent 10 summers with, were thriving.

The new edition also talks about my work as co-founder and director of the first killer whale project in Russia. The Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), begun in 2000, is now in its 20th year, and it has empowered a generation of Russian whale researchers.

Among many other things, we’ve discovered that Russia is a hotbed for albino or all white killer whales, having identified at least five and as many as eight white individuals. We’ve learned about the all-white mature male killer whale Iceberg whose story went global in 2012. And we’ve learned a lot about killer whale evolution, acoustics, genetics, and in-depth secrets of the more than 2,000 individually identified orcas in the Russian Far East.

The book also talks about how the battle to protect Robson Bight from logging led to my current work as co-chair of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force to identify whale and other marine mammal habitat globally, as well as efforts to protect whale habitats in every ocean which inspired my earlier academic book Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (Taylor & Francis, Routledge, 2nd ed., 2011).

Q: What first intrigued you about orca whales?

A: They were big-brained, beautiful black and white social mammals, who were also fierce predators with no enemies except humans armed with a gun or a capture net. Some of them had been photographed pulling down giant blue whales and even white sharks were no match for them.

I was a musician and film score composer in the 1970s, and went on an expedition to northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to record orcas and to try to exchange sounds with them using an electronic synthesizer. Our small filmmaking team wired up the sailboat to send and receive sounds using an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone.

On one of my first encounters with a family of orcas, I played my rough imitation of one of their calls into the water and they mimicked it, two or three whales in unison.

Each pod, or family group, of orcas turned out to have their own set of sounds or dialect, although they would have some calls in common with other pods in their community. Different kinds, or ecotypes, of orcas turned out to share no sounds in common.

That first year in the field, I was lucky to get involved in the research that was just starting on orcas, the first killer whale scientific project in the world, led by a charismatic scientist Michael A. Bigg, later joined by John Ford, Graeme Ellis, and others, in partnership with Ken Balcomb and his team in the U.S.

The music and film aspects became much less important as we began discovering more and more about the individuals and families of orcas that we were seeing every day. I recorded vocalizations and took photo-identification shots of the whales — each orca was uniquely marked with nicks or scratches on the dorsal fin or the shape of the saddle patch, dorsal fin, or eye patch. I also started writing articles about the whales, including in National Geographic.

We were amazed when we came back to the area the following summers, that the same orcas were there, too, largely following the salmon runs.

This experience made me passionate about trying to protect them both from capture and captivity, as well as protecting habitat in marine protected areas.

Q: You write, "Few animals have the power to inspire the range of strong emotions provoked by a single wild killer whale spouting in the distance." What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about orcas?

A: Orcas went from being hated, feared, and shot on sight before the 1960s to being considered a comical circus performer at SeaWorld and other aquariums around the world. These were all misconceptions.

In fact, in the wild, there is no case of orcas killing a human. In captivity, three trainers and one member of the public have been killed by orcas who were mistreated and bored.

It is criminal, I believe, to keep large social mammals in an aquarium where there is little room to do more than swim in circles (when in the wild they may swim 100 miles a day), where they are separated from their pods (forced to live with “foreign” orcas or other species) and no longer hunt (forced to eat dead fish). It’s not surprising that they become bored, listless, and sometimes violent in captivity.

Q: What do you see looking ahead for orcas?

A: We almost know too much about them now and that makes me worry.

Although as a species they hunt and eat a huge range of species, within each community they’re fussy eaters—down to preferring individual species of salmon. That means they can go hungry or have to search further when that salmon isn’t around.

They stay in their pods for life, the males leaving their mother’s side only briefly to mate with other pods in their community. Their birth rate is low and nearly half of all calves born die within the first year. A female becomes mature at age 15 and usually has about five calves over 25 years, before entering menopause and becoming a grandmother with a role for teaching the young.

Orca communities range in size from only 25-30 up to about 600 individuals. This is not a big breeding pool! If productive females are taken for captivity or otherwise die, it is not long before that community dies out. We’ve seen it happen after oil spills and due to captures for captivity.

Now, on off northern Vancouver Island, the orcas I spent so much time with, the northern orca community, are doing well with about 260 individuals and 3 percent growth rate per year.

But the southern orca community in the Salish Sea near Washington State and southern Vancouver Island is endangered, clearly in trouble. The three pods in this community are down to only 72 individuals, as I speak, three more having died this summer. Their numbers were cut down by all the captures, and since then their main salmon food source has declined. They are carrying pollutants at high concentrations and experience high levels of boat traffic and noise from living in a geographically enclosed area.

Conservation groups like thewhaletrail.org are working hard to bring public attention to the problems and to help the southern community survive. Really, the region needs a rethink in terms of making healthier seas and spawning rivers for salmon and solving boat traffic, noise, and other issues.

The contrast between the fates of the northern and southern community orcas in the U.S. and Canadian Northwest underscores many of the difficulties in making a place for these large predator social mammals in the sea. In many ways, the populations of wild animals that live close to large human populations, as do the southern community, will be the hardest to save, with few exceptions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a deep sea book for kids with state of the art photographs, which is under contract, and a couple other books still in the early stages, focussed on exploring the human relationship with wild animals, the secrets we can learn, and how we use that knowledge to find a place in the world that makes us better people.

Most of my day-to-day work is as a Research Fellow for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, based in the U.K., with offices in the U.S., Latin America, Germany, and Australia. I head up the Healthy Seas program.

At the same time this fits together with my work co-chairing the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force. Our core group of six people has taken on a global project to provide a scientific basis for identifying the important habitats for whales and dolphins around the world, including killer whales.

We’ve been conducting expert workshops, moving across the Pacific and Indian oceans since 2016. The project is three years into a 10-year effort to map all the oceans for whale and dolphin habitat (this project is described in the book, and there is more information at marinemammalhabitat.org).

The habitat approach to saving whales started with orcas. In Orca: The Whale Called Killer, I tell the story of the battle to save Robson Bight. This battle was considered to have been won years ago when a small area where whales fed, played, socialized, and rubbed on rocks was protected and loggers were not allowed to put their log booms in the whales’ habitat.

However, it was piecemeal protection and, since then, there has been a revolution in our understanding of the kind of habitat protection for whales and dolphins that is needed, fuelled in part by Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, reviewed as the bible for whale habitat protection.

As the new edition of Orca: The Whale Called Killer points out, killer whales are now part of more than 40 long-term scientific projects worldwide. But if we don’t consider their habitat needs and help make a place for them in the sea, we may be one of the last generations to be able to see them. That would be devastating to me and for many people who have come to know and appreciate them.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Developing a relationship toward a book that you go back to and that keeps on giving for many years — this is what I think about when I sit down to write. I want to create books that endure. I’ve been lucky so far.

Orca: The Whale Called Killer was my first book, yet I had more than 20 rejections from New York publishers before one (Dutton) said yes. Since then it has gone through five editions, hardcovers, paperbacks, including separate British edition and Japanese translation. It’s still alive 38 years later.

Many of my other 22 books (on the deep sea, ants and insects) written for adults and some for kids are still in print and almost all are easily available at libraries. The greatest gift for me is hearing about how one of the books touched someone in some way. I know quite a few people made life changing decisions after reading Orca: The Whale Called Killer. Decades later, I’m still in touch with many of those people and I’m still hearing fresh stories.

Orca: The Whale Called Killer also gives insights into the Russian orca research and the captures of killer whales being shipped to theme parks mainly in China. Since 2012, more than 20 have been captured and sent to Chinese facilities alone, where they are learning SeaWorld style tricks in a return to American-style circus performances of the 1960s.

This comes at a time when SeaWorld has lost popularity and is now reassessing its breeding program and long-term prospects in the U.S. Yet Russia and China seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the West in terms of disrupting orca families in the wild, removing young breeding females and taking mainly young females, engaging in careless capture practices leading to mortalities of individuals, and giving the public a warped idea of who orcas are and their relationship to humans.

Over the past year, from October 2018, 10 orcas have been held along with 87 belugas in tiny pens near Vladivostok, Russia. Environmental lawyers have argued that these are illegal captures, which has been accepted in Russian courts. Finally, in summer 2019, all the orcas and some of the belugas were released, and it is known that at least some of them have survived the initial stages of reintroduction.

This drama has attracted outside conservation groups and some of the principals who were involved in trying to return Keiko (“Free Willy”) to the wild some years ago. The ultimate fate of the orcas and the belugas will only be known in the coming weeks and months.

Meanwhile, the Russian government has taken steps to ban further captures. It is clear that Russia is in a transition period in terms of legislating and acting upon concerns from its scientists and the public about whales. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Erich Hoyt.

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