This photo, supplied by Peter Hamilton, shows kayakers who appear to be precariously close to T073B during the whale’s visit to the Comox Harbour. Photo courtesy Life Force Ocean Friends

Column: What we should have learned in wake of 2018 orca visit to Comox Harbour

Too close for comfort and safety

By Peter Hamilton

It was a rare experience when a mammal-eating orca, known as Transient T073B and born in 1991, arrived in the Comox Harbour in July and stayed for 10 days. He had just left a group of other orcas.

Was he here for a seal smorgasbord although foraging was not observed with the usual flock of birds picking up the scraps? He was physically healthy but appeared agitated. So it remains his secret.

For the first six days, Lifeforce Ocean Friends was on the water monitoring the orca’s behaviours and boat traffic to protect this orca and public safety until the Department of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard (DFO) arrived.

His sailboat-turning incident prompted action as it showed an increased threat to public safety and his dangerous habituation. In a similar situation, a young orca named Luna was separated from his family and “played” with boats in Gold River. Unlike lone orca “Springer,” who was reunited with her family, due to “politics” Luna was not, and was killed when cut by a propeller.

VIDEO: Whale plays with boat’s anchor line at Comox Marina

The planned fireworks and boat races in Comox Harbour were major concerns. Would a large gathering of night-time party boaters in the harbour be worth the risk of this orca getting severely injured by a propeller and any accidental collisions with boaters? A fireworks event was postponed because of a whale in a New Zealand harbour this July. But there was another plan for Comox.

Over 10 years ago, Lifeforce had realized that our orca playback equipment would be valuable to attract orcas away from oil spills. Once the orca(s) approach, the equipment is shut down and removed from the water. They travel on in search of the “orca.” In the past, I presented my studies to scientific meetings and a U.S. government oil spill response meeting in 2007. So I urged DFO to try it. DFO carried out their playback plans and problems were resolved as T073B was last seen heading to open ocean.

The Lifeforce report “Too Close for Comfort and Safety!” reviews the good and bad behaviours of those on the water. As a result, there will be positive steps taken for improved boater education and safety.

First, Comox HMCS Quadra base for sea cadet training had never provided wildlife information in courses. The cadets were continuously getting way too close to the orca. Lifeforce proposed that sea cadets should be taught about the Marine Mammal Regulations and the penalties; be educated about how life-threatening it is to orcas, humpbacks and other marine wildlife who are hit by props, entangled in fishing and die; be aware that collisions have also seriously injured people; and be those to protect the future of these endangered orcas and oceans.

Lifeforce provided requested initial education information to Comox staff and Lifeforce will be looking at a more comprehensive course next summer across Canada.

Secondly, Lifeforce has contacted the local Comox Canadian Power Squadron to get Marine Mammal Regulations and boating safety around marine wildlife included in their courses. We will also be contacting others nationally.

Thirdly, there is further evidence that Lifeforce research used in passive playbacks should be a priority for oil response and other environmental hazards. Presently, governments list seal bombs, helicopters and banging pipes called “oikomi” by Japanese dolphin killers. At the meeting in 2007, a former aquarium orca capturer advised against using seal bombs because their use of seal bombs probably resulted in the orcas’ deafness. In addition, since dolphins are highly sensitive to sound the “oikomi” banging of pipes is highly stressful – dolphins have gone into shock and beached themselves.

Lessons to be learnt

After decades of aquarium and zoo industries’ self-proclaimed “conservation,” a diversity of wildlife was not saved. There has been a 60 per cent decline in wildlife populations from 1970 to 2014. Captive wildlife prisons gave a false sense of security. All is not well in the animal kingdom. Billions of dollars should have been put towards true education preserving natural habitats.

Recently, Canadian politicians voted against an emergency order under the Species at Risk Acts that would have brought immediate solutions. This includes moratoriums on fishing to rebuild the broken ocean food chain and increase enforcement and limits to boat traffic. Orcas have been studied to death with years of cumulative experiments that have harmed them and failed to save them. Read more at Save the Orca Families Now! (https://bit.ly/2z7Fnul)

We need a green economy or say goodbye to the orcas and ocean life!

Peter Hamilton is the founder of Lifeforce, a non-profit Vancouver based ecology organization that was formed in 1981 to raise public awareness of the interrelationship between people, animals, and the environment.

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