By Barbara Julian

Easter weekend: I'm enjoying a walk with an out-of-town guest on the Ogden Point breakwater. The guest is an expert in whale ecology and human-whale interactions from the University of Miami, and as we walk we scan the surface of the strait for signs of orcas. We see none this day, but we know they often pass by. They are James Bay's ocean-going neighbours, so close yet so mysterious in their hidden underwater world.

In recognition of this species that looms so large in our consciousness, the Province has designated June "Orca Celebration Month" through a proclamation signed by Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon. Community organizers have planned a series of events meant both to celebrate Orcinus orca (a.k.a. Southern Resident Killer Whales) and to focus attention on hazards that threaten the 84 individuals living in the three pods that share Pacific Northwest waters with migrating non-resident orcas.

These SRKW pods are multi-generational groups that live, hunt and play in tightly-knit families, communicating over hundreds of miles by sending out pulses from specialized organs in their heads, whose returning "echoes" map the world for them. They travel huge distances through dark underwater valleys, surfacing to breathe with the dramatic leaps we love to watch.

They live in two worlds: light and dark, surface and hidden, water and air, and their highly evolved, communicative, social lifestyles go beyond what our human brains fully imagine. That there were once thousands living here, which humans have reduced to a few dozen, is a tragedy that Orca Month might help to reverse. 

One of the worst threats to orcas is underwater sonar from military and commercial shipping, as well as engine and propeller noise. Naval ships use Low and Mid Frequency Active Sonar to transmit sound waves and listen for echoes, broadcasting 180 to 215 decibels across the oceans, which cause whales, so exquisitely sensitive to vibration, to suffer disorientation, hearing loss and rupture of membranes.

Dr. Christopher Clark of Cornell University studies how whale vocalization “illuminates the oceans” from one basin to another. Whale hunting, migration, socializing and mating depend on this soundscape, but sonar and mechanical shipping noise doubles every decade, meaning the whales’ world shrinks to half in that time. Humanity, a terrestrial species, is stealing their world.

The other main threat to orcas is reduction of Chinook salmon stocks, due to commercial, sport and aboriginal fishing and to degradation of coastal salmon habitat. Add to that the chemical pollution of their home waters in the Salish Sea, plus the danger of collision with shipping, and the outlook for the eight baby orcas born in our waters this past year doesn't look rosy.

What might "Orca Month" do for them? The hope is that both policy-makers and citizens will examine their own habits. Politicians must enact laws to protect salmon stocks, reduce pollution, underwater noise and marine traffic, and make it illegal to imprison cetaceans in aquariums. Citizens must ask themselves who is buying the salmon, viewing the whale shows and pouring household chemicals into the ocean.

BC's Orca Month coincides with that celebrated in Washington State. Organizers on both sides of the border are determined to see captive whales like Lolita, whose relatives in L pod swim off Victoria, freed from concrete aquarium tanks and rehabilitated in sanctuary bays that have been identified for them.

To focus attention on these amazing creatures and their plight, several events have been planned among conservation and arts groups: an orca picnic with kids' activities at Cattle Point ("Tidepools & Orcas," 9:30-1:00, June 5th); marine plastics display and information at Oak Bay Green Committee's Recycling Day (June 25th, Carnarvon Park); public library book displays, marine photography and art at Moka Coffee (1769 Fort Street, all month); open-mic readings by local writers at Bowker Creek behind Oak Bay Secondary School (2 pm, June 19th), and a gathering of marine ecology experts (speakers, with music and displays) at a venue yet to be announced.

Orca Month is for everyone. Volunteers and participants are welcome, and groups are encouraged to host their own events. To tell others about yours or to get more information, go to:

Look for an Orca Month Victoria page on Facebook, and follow us at .